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Secretary Kerry Follows the Military’s Lead on Climate Change

Secretary Kerry Follows the Military’s Lead on Climate Change

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By Lieutenant General John Castellaw, United States Marine Corps (Retired), and Rear Admiral David W. Titley, United States Navy (Retired)


Secretary of State John Kerry recently gave a speech in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he compared climate change to other transnational security threats such as “terrorism, epidemics, poverty, [and] the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”  But the U.S. military was already there.

Secretary Kerry was following the lead of four-star Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear II, head of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), who in a speech in Jakarta a year earlier also identified climate change as the biggest security threat facing the region, with the capacity to even “threaten the loss of entire nations.”

And just last November, Secretary Kerry’s counterpart in the Department of Defense, Chuck Hagel, asserted that climate change “can significantly add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict.”

Indeed, while the U.S. Congress is still locked in a partisan debate over climate change, the U.S. military is already taking a proactive approach to this national security threat. In Asia, U.S. Pacific Command is working with China, India and other regional allies to align military capabilities for “when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations.”

In the wake of Typhoon Yolanda – one of the deadliest typhoons on record and the kind of disaster we may see more of in a climate-changing world – the U.S. military was on the ground in the Philippines within days and ready to assist. At its peak, the relief efforts involved more than 13,400 U.S. military personnel, 66 aircraft and 12 naval vessels. American troops ran airfields, purified water, distributed aid and evacuated more than 21,000 people – and other U.S. government agencies, like USAID, remain to assist with the recovery effort.

But more such disasters in the future, and the resultant instability that could occur, may tax even the U.S. military’s capacity to respond effectively, which means that climate preparedness on all levels from the international to the local will be critical. As Admiral Locklear also mentioned in Jakarta, in reference to the climate threat to growing coastal populations: “If it goes bad, you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.’’

But you don’t have to go half way around the world to see how climate change can lead to crumbling security. Take the United States – a resilient nation, but not invulnerable – as evidenced by Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, and the ongoing droughts and wildfires in the American West.

The future is likely to bring us more floods, more droughts, and more severe and rarely-experienced weather events – events that will threaten to inundate our coastal towns, cities and naval bases with seawater. For example, the Norfolk Naval Base, and the entire Hampton Roads region, is already facing the challenges of sea level rise. Without further preparedness, there remain a lot of people and vital infrastructure in harms way.

Despite what you may hear from the Congress, there is a growing consensus in the U.S. military that climate change is a significant threat to national and international security, and that something significant needs to be done to combat it, just as our military plans for numerous other theats to our nation. Secretary Kerry recognizes this, and it is time our policy-makers in Congress did too.