National Security and Climate Change: The Latest Report

The Guardian in the UK and the NY Times in the US both report today on the release of a 218  page study, commissioned by the CIA and other intelligence agencies, from the  National Research Council, one of the four National Academies, on the linkage between climate change and national security. As John Broder in the Times points out, this is far from the first time national security and climate change have been linked by high-level research groups.

The National Intelligence Council produced a classified national intelligence estimate on climate change in 2008 and has issued a number of unclassified reports since then. The Pentagon and the White House have also highlighted the role of climate change in humanitarian crises and security threats.

Interestingly, the release of the current study was intended to be on Tues, Oct 30 and was postponed with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, “…the sort of thing we were talking about,” said Mr. Steinbruner, the author of the study, and a longtime authority on national security.

The study is significant not only because of who requested it but by it’s list of contributors, all with long and deep experience in the relevant fields.  It is also interesting for what it does not cover, in the interests of having fewer matters looked at in greater depth.  Specifically:

  • First, we focused on social and political stresses outside the United States because such stresses are the main focus of the intelligence community.
  • Second, we concentrated on security risks that might arise from situations in which climate events (e.g., droughts, heat waves, or storms) have consequences that exceed the capacity of affected countries or populations to cope and respond.
    • This focus led us to exclude, for example, climate events that might directly affect the ability of the U.S. military to conduct its missions or that might contribute directly to international competition or conflict (e.g., over sea lanes or natural sources in the Arctic).
    • We also excluded the security implications of policies that countries might undertake to protect themselves from perceived threats of climate change (e.g., geo-engineering to reduce global warming or buying foreign agricultural land to ensure domestic food supplies).
    • These kinds of climate–security connections could prove highly significant and deserve further study and analysis. They could also interact with the connections that are our main focus; for example, an action such as buying foreign agricultural land might go almost unnoticed at first, only creating a crisis when the country where the land is located experiences a crop failure it cannot manage with imports.
  • Third, we concentrated on the relatively near term by emphasizing climate driven security risks that call for action by the intelligence community within the coming decade either to respond to security threats or to a

The Preface, in two bare paragraphs, sets out what is known at the highest levels of scientific understanding:

Core features of the climate change situation are known with confidence. The greenhouse effect associated with the carbon dioxide molecule has been measured, as has the dwell time of that molecule and its concentration in the atmosphere. We also know that the rate at which carbon dioxide is currently being added to the atmosphere substantially exceeds the natural rate that prevailed before the rise of human societies. That means that a large and unprecedentedly rapid thermal impulse is being imparted to the earth’s ecology that will have to be balanced in some fashion. We know beyond reasonable doubt that the consequences will be extensive. We do not, however, know the timing, magnitude, or character of those consequences with sufficient precision to make predictions that meet scientific standards of confidence.

In principle the thermal impulse could be mitigated to a degree that would presumably preserve the current operating conditions of human societies, but the global effort required to do that is not being undertaken and cannot be presumed. As a practical matter, that means that significant burdens of adaptation will be imposed on all societies and that unusually severe climate perturbations will encountered in some parts of the world over the next decade with an increasing frequency and severity thereafter. There is compelling reason to presume that specific failures of adaptation will occur with consequences more severe than any yet experienced, severe enough to compel more extensive international engagement than has yet been anticipated or organized.

I’ll leave you to have a look at the report itself, and to ponder Mr. Steinbruner’s warning:

…that as the need for more and better analysis is growing, government resources devoted to them are shrinking. Republicans in Congress objected to the C.I.A.’s creation of a climate change center and tried to deny money for it. The American weather satellite program is losing capability because of years of underfinancing and mismanagement, imperiling the ability to predict and monitor major storms.



And if all the above is not enough, this week’s edition of Science published the findings of two scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that,

Climate model projections showing a greater rise in global temperature are likely to prove more accurate than those showing a lesser rise, according to a new analysis by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The findings, published in this week’s issue of Science, could provide a breakthrough in the longstanding quest to narrow the range of global warming expected in coming decades and beyond.

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