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Is the Climate the Biggest Threat?

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The commander of American forces in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, told a Boston Globe reporter last week that the most serious long-term security threat to the Asia-Pacific region is climate change.

Locklear said in the interview that instability stemming from a warming planet “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen . . . that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.” Apparently having faced some raised eyebrows in previous conversations on the matter, the admiral admitted that “People are surprised sometimes” to hear him say climate change is the biggest threat to peace in the Pacific.

He’s right on this account: Many would be surprised—or even shocked—to hear our senior warfighter in the Pacific say that. It’s likely that his listeners would expect him to talk about nuclear North Korea or China’s military build-up, cyber or space warfare or even the ongoing sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas, which involves some of our allies and friends.

In fairness to the admiral, there are a lot of possible reasons for his views. First, Locklear could be convinced of what he says or was being cautious with his words so as to not exacerbate existing tensions with the likes of North Korea, whose rhetoric of late has been anything but friendly.

But the Admiral could also simply be reading from the national-security gospel according to Team Obama, which has highlighted climate change as an emerging security threat. Obama national-security team members—past and present—seem to have the climate-change threat encoded in their DNA, no doubt to the delight of fawning environmentalists.

It arguably started with the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), where the Pentagon noted that: “While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.” Then former secretary of defense Leon Panetta noted in 2012 before the Environmental Defense Fund:

In the 21st century, the reality is that there are environmental threats which are threats to our national security. For example, the area of climate change has a dramatic impact on national security: rising sea levels, to severe droughts, to the melting of the polar caps, to more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Current secretary of defense Chuck Hagel has an interest in this issue going back to his days in the Senate. Just last fall, he wrote in a report on “The Impact of Climate Change”:

America and the world face unprecedented, complex interconnected 21st Century challenges. Environmental issues will continue to have unpredictable and destabilizing effects on developing and developed countries alike.

Reiterating his administration’s commitment to the idea in his second inaugural address, President Obama promised that “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

In his confirmation hearing, secretary of state nominee John Kerry echoed the administration’s take on climate change by saying in his opening statement that among other issues our foreign policy is “defined by leadership on life-threatening issues like climate change . . . ”

Unfortunately, just saying climate change is a security threat doesn’t make it so. Indeed, as informed observers are aware, climate-change predictions have come and gone over the years. Moreover, while there has been climate change before, there is no evidence of a war based upon it.

Proponents of the dangers of climate change have not been helped by hyperbolic claims about its effects, either. Wasn’t it the United Nations that predicted in 2005 that there would be 50 million climate refugees by 2010?

Moreover, trying to compare changes in climate with, for instance, the rise of China—likely one of the most significant events in the Pacific since the American ascendance early in the 20th century— seems a bit shortsighted, even to the most casual of observers.

Of course, the weather is important, including to the military; there is nothing wrong with looking at emerging, or evolving, issues for the purposes of long-range planning. It’s a good practice.

But the question, indeed the concern, is: Is it possible that our leadership is taking its eyes off of the real threats in favor of feel-good, politicized or du jour perceptions of evolving national-security challenges? Worse, with ongoing defense cuts, perhaps the Pentagon’s Pacific “pivot” will be more focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief due to the anticipated effects of climate change rather than on the ability to deter and fight wars, which are the topics the Pentagon should be thinking about.

Unfortunately, either of these might be the case, providing the climate for a perfect national-security storm—one for which we may be woefully unprepared.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. Twitter: @Brookes_Peter.

First appeared in The National Interest.

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