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November 05, 2013

Champions of National Security, Champions of Change


Photo credit: @tomkimbis

Today the White House reminded us that those who serve our country in the military are sometimes also on the front lines of our clean energy economy. This morning, in a standing room only auditorium in Washington, D.C.'s Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recognized these heroes with the accolade "Champions of Change." Twelve veterans came from across the country to DC -- one even called in from Afghanistan -- to join the event, "Veterans Advancing Clean Energy & Climate Security," where White House and other administration officials thanked them for their service -- in the military and in the advancement of clean energy and climate solutions.

CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley opened the ceremony by thanking the champions. She and Denis McDonough, White House Chief of Staff, who delivered the opening remarks, both called to mind the president's commitments to act on climate -- through his Georgetown University speech from this summer and last week's executive order to create a climate task force.

Delivering the ceremony's keynote address, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz spoke of an important link between climate disruption and national security, and what the Obama administration is doing to connect those dots. In his first term as president, Barack Obama introduced fuel-efficiency standards that have helped reduce the United States' dependence on oil and, in particular, foreign oil. This, along with the advancement of biofuels and the electrification of vehicles, has helped lessen our dependence on oil and thus strengthened our national security, he said. Renewable energies like wind and solar are also putting us in a much better place, he noted, and it's happening now -- not five or ten years down the road.

"Look up, the revolution is coming now," he said.

The Energy Department is also committed to getting veterans involved in this revolution. One quarter of the department's hires in 2013 have been veterans, according to Moniz, and through two new programs, the department is hoping to have more women and minorities involved in the clean energy sector.

Mr. Moniz then turned the mic over to the champions themselves, who, in two panels, shared their stories of working on the front lines overseas and of their transition to working in various aspects of the clean energy sector.

Panel 1
Photo credit: Dan Byrnes/Sierra Club

The first of these panels was moderated by Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs. Her expertise in defense led her to the observation that energy is often taken for granted -- we don't always think about the risk involved in obtaining that energy. The panelists, veterans who now work in projects like solar technology, energy storage, wind development, and energy efficiency for buildings, have all faced first-hand the risks involved with fossil fuels overseas. One veteran, Andrea Marr, served in the Navy working on oil platform security. That dangerous job led her to look into energy efficiency -- where money and energy can be saved by schools and other buildings and then invested in other things, like teachers. She said that countries in conflict are less vulnerable if they are using less energy. Adam Cote, a veteran calling in from Afghanistan, was a combat engineer in the Army National Guard. His engineering knowledge led him to discover electric thermal storage, a type of technology that helps decrease the reliance on fossil fuels. Each champion learned from his or her experiences on the front lines and brought them back to the States with a clean energy vision in mind.

Panel 2
Photo credit: @tomkimbis

Leading a second panel, with a slightly different tone, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, & Environment Dennis McGinn asked the next six champions of change to share their "Aha!" moments. These are the moments when the veterans made the connection between their service overseas and the need for clean energy and climate security. Liz Perez-Halperin, a Native American veteran, served 8.5 years in the Navy. Working to bring renewable energy and energy efficiency to bases, she came to realize that "sustainability equals national security, and sustainability equals peace and prosperity." For Robin Eckstein, a truck driver during the Iraq War in 2003, her moment led her to this conclusion: "It's not a right issue. It's not a left issue. It's an American issue." To Robin, someone "with boots on the ground, sucking fumes in the desert," this is an important issue -- and it helps to have more everyday veterans on both sides of the aisle sharing their stories.

Finally, Sherri Goodman, general counsel of CNA and executive director of CNA's Military Advisory Board, began closing out the ceremony. She pointed out that military leadership could be translated to environmental stewardship in many forms. She then introduced Senator John Warner, former secretary of the Navy and five-time senator from Virginia. Senator Warner, a champion of change himself and a hero for many of the veterans and government officials in the room, received a standing ovation as he took the stage. You could hear a pin drop as he addressed the audience, telling stories of his days as a techie in the military. He said the top-notch training he received in the Marine Corps taught him how technology worked and how electricity flowed, and that this set up his desire to advance energy efficiency and clean energy. This training has helped countless others, and we need to see more veterans coming back from service and going into the energy field, he said. The clean energy economy that is here now depends on the inter-workings of all -- Congress, government agencies, the private sector, and nonprofits, according to Senator Warner.

As we look to Veterans Day next week, we must thank our veterans for their service and draw connections between our vets and our leaders in the clean energy revolution. These people have already served our country and gained invaluable skills. Now they are using those skills to once again serve the interests of the rest of us and future generations.

--Dan Byrnes, Sierra Club Media Team



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