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Retired admiral looks to sink climate change threats

There are plenty of threats facing the U.S. Navy these days.

China is building artificial islands in the South China Sea, claiming sea lanes for itself. North Korea is reportedly trying to mount nuclear-armed ballistic missiles aboard its submarines. Iran’s patrol boats harass Navy warships in the Persian Gulf. And pirates lurk in waters off unfriendly coasts.

But there’s another threat that outpaces all of these, according to a former top Navy officer: climate change.

Vice Admiral Lee F. Gunn, who spent nearly 40 years in the Navy before retiring in 2000, doesn’t mince words when asked where climate change ranks on the list of current threats.

“Absolutely, it’s an enormous threat, not just to U.S. interests, the people of the United States, but to the world in a larger sense,” Gunn said. “For the long haul, it’s far more important than any of those” other threats.

Gunn — who is now the vice chairman of the military advisory board of the Virginia-based research and analysis firm CNA Corp. — said the implications of climate change for the military are stark.

Droughts can prompt migration of people across political boundaries, destabilizing nations and creating refugee camps that are prime recruiting grounds for terrorists. Fights over diminished natural resources can weaken governments, leading to armed conflicts. Health crises can arise and spread more quickly than they otherwise would. And the military could be called upon to respond to more humanitarian problems such as providing assistance after severe weather events or natural disasters.

Gunn’s work has import for Nevada, in particular. In a piece he wrote published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, he recommended working out new agreements with Canada and Mexico for the use of fresh water. That’s certainly going to be controversial, especially since U.S. states and water-rights holders jealously guard their allotments now.

“It needs to get started early,” Gunn said. “This is one of those things where we should not wait until we have a water emergency, collectively, across North America before we begin to take this on.”

Another factor: immigration. If a climate crisis prevents farmers in Mexico or Central and South America from producing sufficient food, more immigrants will be prompted to cross the U.S. border. Said Gunn: “But it is important for North Americans, for all of us, to appreciate that we’re all going to be under new kinds of stresses, and we have to work in advance to develop a cooperative attitude so we can work in advance to deal with these things, again, before they become emergencies.”

Another Nevada-specific recommendation: do more clean energy sooner. “Not only do we have to strengthen the electrical distribution network, the grid, in the face of man-made and weather-induced assaults, but we also have to make it more flexible,” Gunn said.

“Nevada is in the catbird seat, I think, with regard to renewables, with the abundance of geothermal, sun and wind,” he said. “It seems to me that Nevada has all the motivation it needs to stop importing natural gas and coal from somewhere else in order to generate its electricity.”

(NV Energy has moved in recent years to wean itself off coal-fired plants while adding more solar power generation to its portfolio.)

The debate over climate change is far from over; many people don’t believe it even exists, let alone that humans are contributing to the problem. Gunn said there were even skeptics on the military panel that developed his recommendations. But Gunn said it’s prudent to plan for changes that we can observe happening in nature, so the U.S. military is ready for the unique challenges it will very likely face in the near future.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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