National Intelligence Council sees climate threat

The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has completed a new classified assessment that explores how climate change could threaten US security in the next 20 years, causing political instability, mass movements of refugees, terrorism, and conflicts over water and other resources. The House Intelligence Committee was briefed June 25 on the main findings.

Problems related to climate change could “seriously affect US national security interests” in a variety of ways, NIC chairman Thomas Fingar told two Congressional committee members. “We assess that climate change alone is unlikely to trigger state failure in any state out to 2030, but the impacts will worsen existing problems, such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak institutions.”

Fingar’s testimony on the analysis, entitled “The National Security Implications of Global Climate Change Through 2030,” singled out concerns over immigration. “We judge that economic migrants will perceive additional reasons to migrate because of harsh climates, both within nations and from disadvantaged to richer countries,” he said.

His testimony was based largely on the moderate projections released earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC studies estimated that the average global temperature will likely increase one-half a degree C over the next two decades and that sea level will rise no more than 75 mms. Fingar said that Africa will be “the most vulnerable region to climate change because of multiple environmental, economic, political, and social stresses” that are already in evidence. Changes in rainfall patterns there could result in as much as a 50% decline in some crops as early as 2020, and agricultural losses could be particularly severe in the Sahel. “Without food aid, the region will likely face higher levels of instability—particularly violent ethnic clashes over land ownership,” Fingar said.

Countries ranked by risk
While the assessment itself is confidential, some analyses used as raw material will be open, including a series of studies done by Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). On commission from NIC, CIESIN ranked countries by looking at three climate risks: sea-level rise, increased water scarcity, and an aggregate measure of vulnerability based on projected temperature change, compared with nations’ ability to adapt.

“We can pinpoint areas of high projected climate change that are also in historically unstable regions. This suggests that climate change is likely to heighten political risks,” said CIESIN deputy director Marc Levy. Countries such as the Netherlands are exposed to sea-level rise, but have large economies and strong governments. However, others suffer both high vulnerability and low levels of adaptive capacity. The more dangerous nations on the CIESIN list (which may or may not match the NIC list) include South Africa, Nepal, Morocco, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Paraguay, Yemen, Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire. (Compare the Failed States Index released by Foreign Policy journal last year.)

“There is clearly great interest among policy makers in knowing whether climate change will make crises such as the conflict in Darfur more prevalent, and whether other violent scenarios might be likely to unfold,” said Levy. “The science of climate impacts does not yet give us a definitive answer to this question, but at least now we’re looking at it seriously.” (Note that UN and British studies have already linked the Darfur crisis to climate change.)

The assessment, commissioned by NIC last year at the request of the House and Senate intelligence panels, is part of a growing recognition among military officials that climate change must be reckoned with. A 2007 report by the Center for Naval Analysis called for a comprehensive look at the issue. The 2008 National Defense Authorization Act mandates the Pentagon to “examine the capabilities of the US military to respond to consequences of climate change,” particularly preparedness for national disasters due to extreme weather. According to, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has approved a yet-unreleased National Defense Strategy that includes planning for environmental and climate problems. (Recall 2004 Pentagon report, “Imagining the Unthinkable“)

CSIS sees “billions” displaced
Last fall, two think tanks, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), jointly released a study, “The Age of Consequences,” predicting that rising temperatures and sea levels are likely to set off mass migrations involving “perhaps billions of people” over the next century.

“Global warming has the potential to destabilizse the world,” CNAS president Kurt Campbell, who analysts say could get a top position in an Obama administration, said at the time. “In my view, this will quickly become the defining issue of our age.” (IPS, June 25; Earth Institute press release, June 24)

See our last posts on global climate destabilization, peak food, the politics of immigration, and the GWOT.

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