The Asia-Pacific Rebalance, National Security, and Climate Change (Report Launch) | Wilson Center
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The Asia-Pacific Rebalance, National Security, and Climate Change (Report Launch)

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In the hierarchy of global and national security challenges, climate change comes out near the top, said a panel of distinguished defense, diplomacy, and intelligence leaders at the Wilson Center on November 17.

“If you’re a military commander and you’re told to look at security threats across a broad spectrum, clearly a North Korea nuclear weapon is a problem,” said retired U.S. Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear III, who last served as head of U.S Pacific command which includes responsibility for East and South Asia. “But in the long run, it’s my sense that the nexus of humanity and the things that are happening in the environment will have a significant impact on the security of not only our nation but our friends and our allies and all the nations of the world.”

Locklear spoke alongside Sherri Goodman, Eric Schwartz, Ellen Laipson, and Caitlin Werrell for the launch of The U.S. Asia-Pacific Rebalance, National Security, and Climate Change, a report produced by the Washington DC-based Center for Climate and Security in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, the Center for a New American Security, and the University of Oxford.

The report comes at a time when the security implications of climate change are being discussed by a broader audience and the United States has announced a “rebalance” toward the Asia-Pacific, which includes more concerted efforts to increase diplomatic engagement and trade.

According to Werrell, the co-founder and director of the Center for Climate and Security, the report is a strategic “roadmap” for how the U.S. can address climate change risks within this new outlook.

A Region Passed Over?

The world has entered a period of “unprecedented global change” bringing with it a plethora of new challenges and opportunities, says the report, authored by security and climate experts from academia, government, and think tanks.

“These changes are prompting U.S. policymakers, decision-makers, and military planners to better understand how climate changes are altering the Asia-Pacific security environment and to reevaluate and adjust our long-term ‘whole of government’ strategic priorities and approaches in the region,” writes Locklear in the forward.

The Asia-Pacific Rebalance, National Security, and Climate Change (Report Launch)

 

The Asia-Pacific is vulnerable to the effects of climate change via rising seas, growing coastal populations, shrinking glaciers, and water insecurity.

Joshua Busby and Nisha Krishnan of the University of Texas at Austin write in their chapter that the region has been given short shrift.

Asia routinely has the most people affected by climate-related disasters in the world, including more than 1.4 million in China in the last decade. But U.S. development and humanitarian aid is disproportionately directed toward Africa. A similar phenomenon plays out in research and policy, in part thanks to a focus on addressing climate-related armed conflict.

“Though that may have ample justification, the relative neglect of Asia’s particular vulnerability to climate security consequences and the patterns of resource allocation deserve more treatment in the future,” Busby and Krishnan write. (See the Strauss Center’s program on Complex Emergencies and Political Stability in Asia for more on the team’s work.)

Blunting the Edge of Natural Disasters

In this respect, finding ways to reduce the risk of natural disasters is critical, said Eric Schwartz, dean of the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and former assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration.

Governments have been more committed to creating national resilience plans and creating a framework for disaster preparedness. Bangladesh has reduced the number of fatalities from major cyclones from hundreds of thousands to a tiny fraction of that through a concerted effort to build an early warning and shelter system, said Locklear.

But conditions are worsening and Bangladesh is the exception, not the rule. U.S. support for disaster risk reduction linked to climate adaptation “would be seizing a very valuable national security opportunity,” said Schwartz, who helped lead the UN response to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

Super Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines in 2013, was an example of the importance of American “soft power” in action, writes the American Security Project’s Andrew Holland in his chapter. More than 13,000 U.S. seamen and marines responded to the disaster, and that commitment meant a great deal to an important ally.

Vietnam, a prospective U.S. ally, could lose 40,000 square kilometers of land to sea-level rise if adaptation measures are not taken, writes Marcus D. King of George Washington University. It’s also embroiled in a dangerous stand-off over access to natural resources in the South China Sea with China and is heavily reliant on off-shore fisheries for food. U.S. assistance in helping Vietnam adapt to climate change, maintain the viability of its fisheries, and enhance its coast guard capabilities could therefore be strategically prudent.

“The United States Is Going to Be Involved”

“While efforts to fully pivot to the Asia-Pacific region have been slowed by growing violence in the Middle East and North Africa and diplomatic crises with Russia, military and diplomatic strategists well understand the long-term economic and military importance of fully engaging with our partners in the Asia-Pacific Region,” writes Nancy E. Brune, executive director of the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, a non-profit think tank based in Nevada. “Critical to our mutual success is our ability to build capacity among our allies in the region to prepare for and respond to the changing external threat environment, which consists of both kinetic and non-kinetic threats.”

The panelists emphasized the need for greater collaboration by the United States with its partner countries around research on climate change and adapting to and mitigating its effects.

“Environmental issues are sort of universal, shared concerns and become an opportunity, I think, for public diplomacy as well as more concrete forms of cooperation,” said Ellen Laipson, distinguished fellow and president emeritus of Henry L. Stimson Center and former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council.

Non-government environmental and scientific cooperation may even help encourage more openness in otherwise closed societies.

“Transparency is a great thing,” said Sherri Goodman, president and chief executive officer of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and former deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security. “Not just a sensor on an embassy, but I think we’re going to see ocean sensors providing all sorts of data…I think that’s going to be able to produce whole new ways of doing business and whole new methods of citizenry demanding responsible resilient action from their governments.”

The bottom-line as to why these issues are important to national security, said Schwartz, is “the United States is going to be engaged.”

“If there are floods in Pakistan and displacement that compounds displacement as a result of internal conflict, as there was, the United States is going to be involved,” he said. “And we’re going to be involved – at least over the next several decades – to a greater extent than any other government in the world. So not only do we have to consider these national security challenges in terms of the way other governments consider them, but we also have to consider them in terms of the leadership responsibilities that we will take on.”

Event Resources:

 

Photo Credit: Destruction in Tacloban City, the Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan in January 2014, courtesy of flickr user Claudio Accheri.

Written by Schuyler Null and Deepshri Mathur.

Speakers

  • Caitlin Werrell

    Co-Founder and Director, Center for Climate and Security
  • Admiral Samuel Locklear III, USN (Ret.)

    Former Commander of U.S. Pacific Command; Contributing Author
  • Sherri Goodman

    Senior Fellow
    Former U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environmental Security)
  • Eric Schwartz

    Dean, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota; Former Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration
  • Ellen Laipson

    Distinguished Fellow and President Emeritus, Henry L. Stimson Center; Former Vice Chair of the National Intelligence Council