Four-Star Admiral Admits What Scares Him Most: Climate Change

The Chief of the U.S. military in the Pacific Region cautions that, even more than rattling nukes, rising sea levels should be our concern.

Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III , commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, salutes as he inspects honor guards during a welcoming ceremony at the headquarters of the Defense Ministry in Seoul, on April 16, 2012. (Photo: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Mar 11, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

Given the more than usual saber-rattling currently going on among Pacific Ocean nations—North and South Koreans threatening each other with nukes, the Chinese maneuvering to claim Japanese islands, and Chinese computer hacking on the rise—it is decidedly big news when a four-star admiral says what’s really causing him to lose sleep: climate change.

During a visit to Boston last week from his base in Hawaii, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, told the Boston Globe that unchecked global warming will “cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.”

Given the Obama Administration’s well-documented shift from a Euro-central focus to all things Asian, among Locklear’s job priorities are risk management and preparedness. While militaries are often called in to help clean up after devastating storms—Bangladesh, the Aceh Tsunami, Japan’s 2011 tsunami—it’s clear that Locklear was not talking about random natural disasters.

“While resilience in the security environment is traditionally understood as the ability to recover from a crisis, using the term in the context of national security expands its meaning to include crisis prevention,” he said. “You have the real potential here in the not-too-distant future of nations displaced by rising sea levels.”

The stress put on governments, and militaries, from the impacts of climate change, including but not limited to typhoons, hurricanes and earthquakes, is what Locklear is trying to help avoid.

This is not the first time Admiral Locklear has mentioned climate change as a security challenge. That he is out there quite publicly voicing his concerns suggests he’s getting encouragement from higher-ups to keep talking.

In previous comments the Admiral has addressed the impacts of climate change on the polar regions. “The ice is melting and sea is getting higher,” he said, noting that 80 percent of the world’s population lives within 200 miles of the coast.

He told the Globe, “I’m into the consequence management side of it. I’m not a scientist, but the island of Tarawa in Kiribati, they’re contemplating moving their entire population to another country because [it] is not going to exist anymore.”

Previously the commander of the naval portion of Operation Odyssey Dawn, the attack on Qaddafi’s Libya during the Arab Spring, Locklear has also mentioned the stress of a changing climate on Europe and the Arab world. Agreeing with The New York Times opinion writer Tom Friedman, it is clear in the Mideast today that fights over land, water and food are leading to unrest, in addition to squabbles over religion or politics.

Friedman links the current unrest in Syria directly to one of the worst droughts in the country’s history, which lasted from 2006 to 2011, “leading to 75 percent crop failure, 85 percent of herders losing their livestock, directly impacting 1.3 million people.”

He cites a U.N. report that claimed 800,000 Syrians had their livelihoods wiped out by the droughts and were forced to move to already crowded urban areas to look for jobs, and quotes Earth Policy Institute President Lester Brown as saying the real threats to global security today are “climate change, population growth, water shortages, rising food prices and the number of failing states in the world.”

So far Locklear’s comments have not been picked up by climate change deniers, though his military services would seem to give him their kind of credibility.