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Must Watch: PACOM Commander on the Climate Change Threat to the Asia-Pacific

Secretary_of_Defense_Chuck_Hagel_walks_with_Navy_Admiral_Samuel_LocklearAbout a year ago, the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, identified climate change as the biggest long-term security threat in the Pacific region. He defended that assertion during Senate testimony soon after those comments were made. And just yesterday, Admiral Locklear stood by his assessment during a conversation with the Atlantic Council’s Barry Pavel. We’ve included a transcript of those sections of the discussion including climate change below (we’ve underlined some phrases for emphasis), but encourage people to watch the whole video for a fascinating look at how the USPACOM Commander sees his role in the wake of the recently-released QDR, the so-called Asia-Pacific rebalance, budget pressures, and the reemergence of security threats in Europe.

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Barry Pavel: “Let me talk about another threat that you cited a year ago that caused a little bit of a stir in Washington when you were back here, I think, testifying. You talked about climate change as the number one long-term threat that you see in the Pacific area. And I just wanted to get your sense of how you see that today versus a year ago. And how do you think about that as the Commander of the Pacific Command? I mean, how do you think about it and what do you do to try to deal with those potential issues?”

Admiral Locklear: “Well, the last thing I would want to do is to be politicized by any particular issue. I’m a military officer, so I look at…not my venue to debate the politics of any particular issue. All I do is report what I see, and what I think I see, and the implications. So if you look at in my AOR this year how many people lost their lives or got hurt by any event, it wasn’t through any kind of military activity, it was through natural disaster. And the natural disasters…whether there is climate change…the reality is that it’s a pretty aggressive part of the world for natural disasters. About 80% of all the natural disasters that happen in the world happen in my AOR. I think 60% of the most difficult ones…the hardest ones…whether it’s floods or tsunamis or earthquakes. And I’ve got 52%, 53% roughly, of the world – 52.4% is in my AOR. 17% of that is land mass. The other 83% is water. In that area, 6 out of every 10 people alive today live on that 17% of the land mass. And a lot of it’s at sea level. A lot of it’s nearly below sea level. So the implications for any climate change, or any changes in weather patterns or sea level changes are much more dramatic for this massive amount of population. And guess what? They’re all moving closer to the littorals so they can access the jobs and they access to the global economy. So if you want to…we worry all the time about conflict over territorial disputes. Things like that. But if you have another large tsunami. Or you have another large hurricane. I mean, we just had one in the Philippines, and I’m not sure I’ve got the exact numbers, but several thousand people lost their lives, and there’s many, many people still struggling today as the Filipino government tries to recover from that. So I haven’t changed my position. I mean, if there’s one thing I tell everybody that comes to work for me – every commander – I said ‘While you’re here, you may not have a conflict with another military, but you will have a natural disaster that you have to either assist in, or be prepared to manage the consequences on the other side. And that has been true every year.

Barry Pavel: “Let me ask a related question next, which is the Arctic. We saw some really, I’d say some unprecedented sort of incidents over the last six months of the need for some Search and Rescue of some commercial traffic in the Arctic. And obviously from climate change and the patterns that most experts are predicting, we’re going to see a lot more traffic in the Arctic. The U.S. government has released some Arctic strategies. How do you think about the Arctic? I know China – the country in your AOR that you deal perhaps the most with – is increasingly active. But what’s your sort of overall approach to the Arctic, and how do you see it playing out?”

Admiral Locklear: “Well, I do think about the Arctic. The good news is, though, that as we look at our unified command plan – the way we assign regions of the world to commanders to think about them – for many, many years that plan had the Arctic divided among a number of COCOMs. EUCOM, PACOM. And what we’ve done is we’ve solidified that strategic think under NORTHCOM. So if you look at my Area of Responsibility, it basically stops as you enter the Arctic Circle in the north. Now, that said, I think strategically when you look at a North Pole region that is iceless, or at least partially iceless part of the year…First of all, it’s all about dollars and sense. I mean, it’s a lot shorter to go from Northeast Asia or Southeast Asia to the other side of the world if you go over the top than it is to go around the other way. And so I think the global economy will drive the activity in the Arctic. Then there is the question of how do you map out the Arctic – and there’s a vast slope that’s supposed to be high, rich in petroleum – and so how is that going to enter into the next territorial dispute debate we have? Is it going to expand into the Arctic? I hope that we are diplomatically ahead of that, but I would say that the jury’s still out on it. We’ll see. Then of course, you know, the protein supplies. The Coast Guard tells me that the fish supplies are collapsing in many places in the world. So there’s really only a very few places left that have the kind of…that you need access to maintain the huge demand on the fisheries of the world. Of course that’s a big one that’s up there. So, I think we have to posture ourselves for peace. But you’re going to get that peace, I think, through making sure that you sense what’s in the area, you know what’s going on, and you have the ability to protect your own national interest.”

Linda Yarr: “I greatly appreciate your spotlighting the issue of climate change, as did the QDR in fact. My question is whether you see climate change as a kind of framework that could be used for increasing cooperation on a military-military basis within the region.”

Admiral Locklear:“I think the consequences of climate changes already drive that. One thing we can find common among all of us is the need to be able to respond to human disasters. And we’re doing it. So we build confidence. We have throughout the region multiple opportunities where militaries come together and work side by side, learn how to talk to each other, learn how to communicate. And it’s all around the aspect of how do you respond to a natural disaster. It paid big dividends in this event that happened in the Philippines. I kind of took it for granted that everybody responded so fast. But it really was a multinational effort. The U.S. kind of got there first, but they came in – allies and partners in the region. If they hadn’t practices this, or had common sets of procedures and understanding, it never would have happened in years past. But you had many nations coming in and making a big difference, that enabled the Filipino government and military. And about ten days after it began, they took over the event and have done really a fine job. Which I think is a testament to the amount of effort we are putting in this as a part  of the security environment.”

Barry Pavel: [Adding to the previous question] Working with the Chinese military to better respond to the effects of climate change, which is largely humanitarian relief and disaster assistance?

Admiral Locklear: Well, we do that already. We have probably several forums this year where we operated with the Chinese, alongside the Chinese in multinational forums, where we did those types of activities together. So this is not something new for the US and the PLA Navy, in particular.

Unnamed audience member: How has it affected you now that climate change is part of the strategic economic dialogue, which is at the very highest level of the United States and China? How does that directly impact your [inaudible]?

Admiral Locklear: Well, the strategic economic dialogue – each year I get invited to participate. We have a security dialogue with the Chinese at the same time, generally. So we’ll have a day of discussions about security challenges, and then we go into the economic dialogue. Which we’ll then talk through these broader issues of things like contributions to climate change and those kinds of things. So they’re all kind of interconnected in the dialogue. So that’s happening.


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