Best Defense

Natural Security: Time to think seriously about climate change and the Pacific

In March 2013, then-Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Sam Locklear, told a group of reporters that the greatest long-term threat in the Asia-Pacific region was climate change.

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By Sharon Burke
Best Defense office of climate, energy and other stuff you should pay attention to

In March 2013, then-Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Sam Locklear, told a group of reporters that the greatest long-term threat in the Asia-Pacific region was climate change.

This certainly raised eyebrows at the time, with some observers hailing Admiral Locklear a hero and others questioning his military judgment.

There’s been “rumint” that the new PACOM Commander, Admiral Harry Harris, is not so worried about climate change. Indeed, since taking office in May, Admiral Harris has made pointed comments that North Korea is the biggest threat in the region and U.S. frenemy China the biggest challenge.

In remarks Admiral Harris made to the Hawaii State Bar Association on October 23, however, he did cite the effects of climate change on the region. He talked about the need to confront risks, given that regional risks have the potential to affect global prosperity and security. Then he said:

“Consider the full range of natural disasters that we know all too well…earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, typhoons…if Mother Nature can dish it out, it’s on the menu here in the Pacific. These natural disasters, reinforced by warming oceans and exacerbated by rising sea levels create enduring challenges for the region.”

He went on to discuss the importance of territorial rights and respect for rule of law.

Harris’s comments are compatible with seeing climate change as an “instability accelerator,” in the words of DoD’s hallmark strategy document, and he is consistent with Admiral Locklear’s views, if less voluble about them. His focus on near-term military threats is understandable given the recent U.S. freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea and the prospect of more to come, which could be incendiary, to say the least, and the unsettling unpredictability of Kim Jong-un.

Moreover, climate change is a security threat, but not necessarily a military one, nor is there a military solution. Armed forces are trained and equipped to fight wars, not to cut greenhouse gas emissions or build the resilience of civil society to increasingly volatile weather and its impacts.

On the other hand, climate change will affect military missions and bases, and the armed forces do need to understand those effects. There is no question this is relevant for the Asia Pacific region, where U.S. forces already have a high “optempo” when it comes to humanitarian and disaster relief missions. Moreover, the sea level rise and warming oceans Admiral Harris mentioned will affect U.S. bases in the region. And more broadly, military organizations need to understand how droughts, floods, sea level rise, and volatile weather will affect food, water, energy, and migrations, and how that, in turn, will affect stability and prosperity. In the case of the Asia Pacific region, that also means understanding how these changes will affect allies, trade partners, freedom of access to the global commons, and the regional balance of power. Ultimately, how will climate change in the region potentially shape or result in future U.S. military missions?

A recent Pentagon report gave a mixed picture of how well the Pentagon is doing on considering that question.

While it is significant that the Department of Defense acknowledged at an institutional level a legitimate security angle on climate change, the actual combatant command activities detailed in the report were pretty thin gruel. PACOM’s submission, more robust than the others, focused largely on humanitarian and disaster relief missions and training.

It would be nice to see PACOM also explicitly looking at how changing conditions might affect stability in key areas, such as the Himalayan region, but it was a start. Contrary to the rumint, there’s no reason to believe that Admiral Harris won’t make good on that start.

Sharon E. Burke, a senior advisor at New America, served as the assistant secretary of defense for operational energy from 2010 to 2014. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of Defense or U.S. Government.

Image Credit: Jeff Schmaltz/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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