The Island of Doubt

Should the U.S. Navy be above the law when it comes to saving the whales? So asks Marc Kaufman of the Washington Post. Good question. One with much broader implications as we head into a future that will almost certainly include mandatory limits on all sorts of now-common but environmentally deleterious practices.

The proximate issue is whether the Navy can exempt itself from the provisions of the Endangered Species Act and, more specifically, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, in order to carry out its national security duties. The Navy wants to use active sonar (echolocation to a toothed whale) instead of just listening for enemy submarines, which it says are now employed by 41 countries.

Sounds fair enough, if you care about that sort of thing. The problem is active sonar can pose a life-threatening hazard to animals that live in a world of sound:

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, however, that marine researchers began to connect sonar with mass strandings of whales, particularly the deep-diving beaked whale. A 2000 stranding in the Bahamas during a U.S. Navy sonar exercise provided the first conclusive evidence that the sounds were driving some whales ashore and to their deaths.

Sonar-related strandings have been confirmed off the Canary Islands and Spain since then, and other incidents have been reported but not entirely confirmed off Hawaii and Washington state

Lawsuits brought by environmentalists have been working their way through the courts for some time to block naval active sonar exercises off the coasts of North Carolina and California, and this week U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper is expected to release a powerful, but not necessarily final, ruling that tries to balance national security and whale welfare.

But as Kaufman writes, the ruling “could also clarify how closely the military must follow environmental laws.”

I suspect the case could have far-reaching implications beyond the fate of members of the odontocete family of marine mammals. Militaries are forever asking for exceptions to environmental laws. For example, their bases are frequently considered so polluted that they would qualify for Superfund status, and be subject to all sorts of EPA cleanup orders. And when was the last time a U.S. Army truck was subject to mileage or tailpipe standards?

Making matters worse are ill-informed opinions from our military leaders, who just can’t bring themselves to believe that what they want to do might be a bad thing. Consider this quote from Kaufman’s story:

Rear Adm. Lawrence Rice, the Navy’s director for environmental readiness, said that given the number of whales and other marine mammals killed by ship strikes, fishing nets and loud sounds from sources including oil and gas exploration, he doesn’t understand “why the sonar has become such a big deal.”

Even though Read Adm. Rice is charged with ensuring “environmental readiness” he apparently has never come across the concept now dominating wildlife management studies, a little thing called “cumulative impact.”

Of course, no one really expects the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines to express genuine concern for the whales. But only die-hard deep ecologists would argue that environmental concerns, whether the topic is marine mammals or climate change, should always be given priority over national security. It would be nice if conflicts could be kept to a minimum, but in the real world the lives of Homo sapiens (and their economic institutions) get top billing. And that’s not going to change.

Still, in a time when national security can trump just about every other political priority (how many Constitutional amendments haven’t been declared null and void thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act?), we should be extremely skeptical of each request for an exemption from environmental protection. It’s just too tempting for military planners to take advantage of the current climate, and too easy for intellectually lazy judges to grant soldiers and sailors their wishes.

Remember also that the twin threats of climate change and peak oil mean that society’s various stakeholders will soon be fighting over access and burning privileges to fossil fuels. Does anyone seriously believe that armies and navies won’t be the last to surrender those privileges?

What the courts say today on the U.S. Navy’s right to ignore laws that apply to everyone else could have profound implications in a rapidly changing climate.

Comments

  1. #1 Dunc
    January 3, 2008

    Of course, you could just side-step the dilemma and point out that ocean-spanning active sonar systems probably aren’t really necessary for “national security”. There may be 41 countries with submarines, but how many of those are actually likely to use them to launch a first-strike against the US? I’d guess none. But for some reason, the US military seems to feel it has both the need and the right to oversee absolutely everything that happens anywhere on Earth, or in the skies above it…

    It’s amazing how many “national security” issues disappear if you can just step back a bit from the Jack D Ripper style raving paranoia.

  2. #2 Dave Briggs
    January 3, 2008

    But only die-hard deep ecologists would argue that environmental concerns, whether the topic is marine mammals or climate change, should always be given priority over national security. It would be nice if conflicts could be kept to a minimum,
    Good post, on a complicated topic! I think all we can do is wait and see how things work out on a case by case basis. I think National Security is always going to be able to trump other concerns.
    Dave Briggs :~)

  3. #3 Moopheus
    January 3, 2008

    The Dept. of Defense gets a fairly free ride on a lot of environmental issues; they’re the nation’s top polluter, with very little in the way of control or oversight. “national security” is a legitimate concern but shouldn’t be a blanket to cover all sins. Unfortunately, it is also frequently difficult to pierce the veil of secrecy to challenge security claims, and there’s little political will in Washington to do much about it.

  4. #4 Mark P
    January 3, 2008

    The other problem is that the military mind is hard-pressed to imagine doing something differently. They keep doing the same things, only more so, whether those things work or not. Or whether there are better alternatives.

  5. #5 bigTom
    January 3, 2008

    Like all things regulatory the scale of the numbers should be a major determinate in policy making. If the amount of harm can really be quantified to be small, i.e. cumulative impact is barely changed, then logic would dictate one response. If the numbers are significantly large then another response is appropriate. I am reminded of objections to wind turbines, in cases where the additional bird fatalities would be minimal.

    With our innumerate society it is often hard to get reasonable legislation which is well informed by the actual level of risk.

  6. #6 Logicalthought
    January 13, 2008

    True enough about the military’s record on the enviroment. There is no arguing that there have been, and is a problem.
    But unfortunatly the argument gets lost all to often in the willingness of those who just dismiss any argument having to do with national security. Yes it is too often used to excuse a lazy attitude, but it is at times is justified. The comment suggesting that our military does not need to know what’s going on in the sky,and in the oceans is showing an ignorance of the job they do. Any veteran will tell you that good intellegence is key to winning any conflict, and that means knowing what the enemy is doing ,and where.
    As for first strike with a submerine, yes there are ICBM’s built to be launched just that way. And there are such subs in service today.
    Avoid the extremes,and you will usually find the answer.

  7. #7 Dunc
    January 14, 2008

    As for first strike with a submerine, yes there are ICBM’s built to be launched just that way. And there are such subs in service today.

    Well, duh. But a Soviet first-strike is hardly a likely scenario in this day and age, is it? The only people with the capacity to carry out such an attack have very powerful economic and strategic reasons not to.

    Look: all your transferable assets are for sale on the open market, you’re hocked to the eyeballs to the Chinese, and you’ll blow anyone, anytime for another hit of that sweet, sweet crude. Nobody wants to break into your apartment to steal your shitty furniture. But you spend all your days armed to the teeth, swivel-eyed, worrying about what your neighbours might be plotting behind closed doors. Here’s a hint: that is the reason people don’t like you.

    The only reason anyone might want to attack you is that they’re sick of you peeking in their windows, stealing their stuff, and scaring their kids. You don’t actually have anything anybody wants that isn’t for sale already. Christ, I’ve known crack addicts with better asset-to-debt ratios. Nobody even thinks you’d make good slaves. Nobody wants to invade you. I’m sorry if that makes you feel less important.

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