Retired Admiral James Stavridis is escorted by Donald Trump's secretary, Madeleine Westerhout, as he arrives at Trump Tower in New York on December 8, 2016. Photo: AFP / Dominick Reuter
Retired Admiral James Stavridis is escorted by Donald Trump's secretary, Madeleine Westerhout, as he arrives at Trump Tower in New York on December 8, 2016. Photo: AFP / Dominick Reuter

In 2013, the then-Commander of US Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear identified his biggest worry in the Asia-Pacific region as “climate change” – not the People’s Republic of China or North Korea.

The other day another naval man, the retired four-star Admiral James Stavridis, took the Trump Administration to task for not giving climate change equal billing with those nations in the recently-released National Security Strategy.

Of course the climate is changing. It used to snow a lot in Virginia when I was little, and it doesn’t these days. The causes of climate change need to be studied and reasonable measures taken. Extremists at both ends of the spectrum – those who want dismantle the modern technological state or those would do nothing at all – are worth ignoring, as is usually the case with “the ends of the spectrum.”

Now, the Admirals may or may not be right. But what’s the Pentagon supposed to do? This is not what militaries are for. The First Marine Division might as well sacrifice a goat or toss a virgin into a volcano to appease the weather gods.

Not even the extortionately-priced bio-fuels former Navy Secretary Ray  Mabus forced on the US military did much of anything climate-wise. And the money could have been better used keeping American pilots trained and American aircraft airworthy.

One notes that the problems predicted from climate change are in the distant – and sometimes far-distant – future.  There are more immediate issues for the Pentagon to tackle – such as a communist China hell-bent on dominating East Asia (and as far beyond that as it can get), or Mr. Kim’s nuclear weapons and missiles. And outside of Asia, the Iranians aren’t building nuclear weapons because it’s hot outside. Putin’s land grabs and troublemaking? Hard to blame that on climate change.

A Chinese dredger is seen in the South China Sea. Photo: Xinhua

These are all things the US military is equipped for and supposed to deal with – and that it should concentrate on. Where Admiral Locklear and Admiral Stavridis are inside the ballpark – though they may not realize it – is with regard to present-day environmental depredations leading to conflict.

For starters, Admiral Stavridis might better direct his ire at the PRC for ‘weaponizing’ environmental destruction in Asia and beyond. Take Beijing’s island-building in the South China Sea (SCS). It has destroyed fragile reefs and fisheries to build military installations that allow it to dominate (and pollute) strategic waterways. This involves preventing other nations from fishing in the SCS or accessing their own maritime resources. This will undermine US alliances and lead to war faster than a ¼ inch rise in sea levels over a century.

Few people mention this. Greenpeace and the NGOs are silent. And it’s not just the South China Sea.

Chinese dam-building on the Mekong River threatens everybody downstream – and can and will be wielded as a weapon to coerce downstream nations. Chinese dams on the headwaters of the Brahmaputra River are also going to cause countries downstream fits – especially in India – as one suspects China intends. Not to mention that dam-building is not exactly environmentally friendly.

Meanwhile, China’s fishing fleets vacuum the seas worldwide – antagonizing governments, putting local fishermen out of work and reducing food supplies. If the US Navy wants to do something useful, it should conduct patrols against illegal fishing and sink a few fishing boats. These are hurting our friends and flouting international rules – and causing lasting environmental damage. (Ask the Indonesians for advice on disposing of illegal fishing boats.)

Retired Admiral James Stavridis is escorted by Donald Trump’s secretary, Madeleine Westerhout, as he arrives at Trump Tower in New York on December 8, 2016. Photo: AFP / Dominick Reuter

Endangered species? Say goodbye to pangolins, rhinos, and other species on land and in the ocean. And nobody really thinks Chinese demand for ivory will stop following the PRC’s recently announced ban. Indonesian and other Southeast Asian forests are being illegally logged to meet Chinese demand – destroying environments, corrupting local societies and giving rise to health problems from the attendant haze.

Given this record, Admiral Stavridis might better go after the PRC than the Trump Administration. Why not? One recalls a Singaporean official’s straight-faced response a few years back when asked why Singapore criticizes the US but not the PRC for the same behavior. “The Chinese won’t listen to us.”

They might not listen, but they’ll hear you. And if you take action, they’ll certainly pay attention – not least since it happens so seldom.

At the end of the day, few people change their minds on climate change. But claiming the US military should be a key player is a stretch. A UCLA PhD scientist aptly commented:

“Climate change is an enemy, but it is not a military enemy. If such, if we defeated climate change we would have no more military worries. That is far from the case. The military should be interested in near-term climate change, since it could have an impact on operations (e.g. weather patterns, water availability, sea level). But climate change issues that lead to military issues will first manifest themselves as political issues. That is the Administration’s concern.”

One wishes the US produced more Admirals and Generals who win wars rather than dabble in climatology.

Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years' experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Corps officer.

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