Retired Marine General Sees Climate Change as National Security Threat

Apr 6, 2018

A retired Marine general and expert on national security is in Maine Thursday to discuss what he sees as one of the biggest threats to stability: climate change. General John Castellaw says there are currently 32 locations around the world where conflict, aggravated by climate change, is affecting U.S. interests, and he sees a few ways to restore order.

Lieutenant General John G. Castellaw, United States Marine Corps (Retired)
Credit climateandsecurity.org

Castellaw spent 36 years in the Marines. He says his view of climate change as a national security threat was shaped over time, and that he's not alone. He says his peers in the military share his assessment.

"All of us that have had the military as a profession are taught to approach these issues without emotion,” says Castellaw. “What are the facts? The most important thing to me is not huggin' bears or kissin' trees or anything like that, the most important factor is what do we need to do to ensure the defense of this great nation of ours? And so those in the military are not going to not take into consideration any threat that has impact on their ability to achieve that mission.”

Castellaw points to the Lake Chad Basin crisis in central Africa as one region where climate change is acting as a "threat multiplier," creating competition for water resources, disrupting food production and destabilizing security.

"I went to that location in the early 90s and came back last year, and I flew over the lake and I looked down and it's ten percent of what it was in the 1960's,” he says. “You already had some tension between herdsmen who ran cattle, millions of cattle and fishermen and farmers and so when you have that lake go down you have instability."

That instability, Castellaw says, makes the area ripe for terrorist groups like Boko Haram to exploit the area, and also puts large numbers of people on the move in search of food and safety, creating issues for neighboring countries and for their partners.

Closer to home, Castellaw is concerned about the threat of sea level rise on several dozen military installations around the country, including the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

"Right now you have maybe a dozen extreme flood events that have an impact on the shipyard,” he says. “By 2050 it's gonna rise to potentially 180 and that will impact dock yards, some of the crane tracks, some other facilities. And why do we care? We care because Portsmouth is only one of four naval shipyards that we still have in existence and their primary mission is to refurbish and modernize nuclear submarines. And we've invested a whole lot of money in that shipyard that was created in 1800 and we'd like to see it go on a couple more hundred years."

The shipyard has installed a microgrid to mitigate for some of the effects of sea level rise but Castellaw says addressing the fundamental causes of climate change, is also essential. That means curtailing the use of fossil fuels and transitioning to cleaner alternatives, such as solar and natural gas.

Gen. Castellaw will be discussing the national security implications of climate change at a forum Thursday evening at the University of Southern Maine with Sen. Angus King.

This story was originally published April 5, 2018 at 4:07 p.m. ET.