News Archive

Climate Change May Challenge National Security, Classified Report Warns

Sea Level, Water Scarcity, Refugees Might Affect Military, Diplomacy

2008-07-02

Countries with two or more risk factors

The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has completed a new classified assessment that explores how climate change could threaten U.S. security in the next 20 years by causing political instability, mass movements of refugees, terrorism, or conflicts over water and other resources. Among the major outside contributors of data was the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), a member of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. While the NIC assessment itself is confidential, the CIESIN data is public, and is posted here.

Members of Congress were briefed on the report June 25 by NIC chairman Thomas Fingar.

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, a coauthor of the CIESIN studies. Many countries with high exposure to climate change have low levels of historical instability, he said; for instance, U.S. allies like the Netherlands are exposed to perils such as sea-level rise, but have large economies and strong governments, and so are not deemed high risks. However, others suffer both high vulnerability to projected temperature changes, and low levels of adaptive capacity based on the strength of state institutions and their histories of instability and conflict. These tend to cluster in economically depressed southern regions. The more dangerous nations on the CIESIN list—which may or may not match the confidential NIC list--include South Africa, Nepal, Morocco, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Paraguay, Yemen, Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire.

The greatest number of people exposed to sea-level rise are in China, the Philippines, Egypt and Indonesia. China and the Philippines alone have 64 million people in the lowest elevation zones (1 meter above sea level). In Egypt, a longtime major recipient of U.S. military aid, and scene of recurring internal strife, 37% of people live in within 10 meters of sea level in the fertile Nile delta. In other nations, disruptions in rainfall or other temperature-driven phenomena could contribute to dangerous instability due to crop failures or other phenomena. These include Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Congo, Ethiopia and Jordan, suggests the CIESIN research.

Climate-related security impacts could be significant when they cause “a noticeable—even if temporary—degradation in one of the elements of national power (geopoliltical, military, economic, or social cohesion) because it indirectly influences the U.S. homeland, indirectly influences the United States through a major military ally or a major economic partner, or because the global impact is so large, that [it] indirectly consumes U.S. resources,” according an NIC briefing document quoted by the newsletter InsideDefense.com, which first reported on the assessment. “The additional stress on resources and infrastructure will exacerbate internal state pressures, and generate interstate friction through competition for resources or disagreement over responses and responsibility for migration.”

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 U.S. military to respond to consequences of climate change,” particularly preparedness for national disasters due to extreme weather. According to InsideDefense.com, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has approved a yet-unreleased National Defense Strategy that includes planning for environmental and climate problems.

Richard Engle, deputy national intelligence officer for science and technology in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, spoke of the classified report in a recent speech. “ We wanted to get down to something that might be actionable for the policy community. So we had to be very specific,” he said. The assessment was originally supposed to be public, but was classified out of fears that it could evoke hostility from red-flagged governments, according to sources close to the process.

Fingar addressed some portions of the 58-page report, “National Security Implications of Global Climate Change Through 2030” before the House Intelligence Committee. The key findings represent the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.

Along with CIESIN, other sources whose data contributed to the assessment include the U.S. Climate Change Program; Center for Naval Analysis; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; the Rand Corp.; and Arizona State University.

“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.”