Climate Change, Intelligence-Climate Change and National Security

The historic international conference on climate change is wrapping up in Paris after two weeks of intense negotiations to reach agreement on a plan to stop global warming.  Nearly 200 nations are working on a verifiable agreement to reduce green house emissions to slow down the expected rise in temperatures and prevent severe floods, droughts, intense weather patterns as well as water and food shortages.    Major (ret.) General Richard Engel, the former Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program for the National Intelligence Council, has studied the impacts of climate change and spoke to The Cipher Brief about what’s at stake for the U.S. and the world. The Cipher Brief: How is climate change a threat to U.S. national security?  Rich Engel: In 2008, we published a National Intelligence Assessment (NIA) on climate change and its impacts on U.S. National Security. Overall, we saw four principle paths by which global climate change would affect U.S. national security. The first was that it would change water availability or second, cause changes in agricultural productivity, both of which would cause people to migrate. Migrations themselves are not necessarily significant to state stability or even conflict as the adverse effects will depend on local circumstances—where people move and the reception they receive. A third effect we anticipated was climate change induced extreme weather events and their capacity to damage economically significant infrastructure. The fourth involved changes to disease patterns from climate change. This included diseases that affect humans, plants, and animals—to include domesticated animals, used for food. To analyze the effects of climate change from a national security point of view, we used a definition of national security that included any affect that would cause a noticeable, even if temporary, degradation (or enhancement) in one of the elements of U.S. national power—geopolitical, military, economic, or social cohesion of the United States itself.  These effects could occur because climate change directly affects the U.S. homeland, or indirectly influences the United States through a major military ally or economic partner, or it has a global impact so significant that it directly consumes U.S. resources. In some cases, the effects of climate change could cause social instability inside a country. In other cases, the local effects of climate change could consume the country’s leadership and prevent them from collaborating with the United States on other issues. Subsequent to the NIA, we have expanded this to include climate change induced regional chaos such that a regional actor is preoccupied and no longer available to collaborate with the United States. Through these potential effects, we concluded that climate change was a national security issue.   climate-model-2 TCB: What are the most immediate impacts climate change will have on U.S. security in the near-term (3-5 years)?  RE:  Our analytical assessment has evolved over time, but what we see now as the greatest near-term adverse effect of climate change is extreme weather events. Extreme weather events can wreak havoc on the critical systems that humans depend upon such as food, water, energy, and health.  Degradation of these systems will have the greatest effect on U.S. security and U.S. interests in the near term. Scientists find it difficult to say that any single extreme weather event is a function of climate change, but they will say some extreme weather events, such as drought or high temperatures, are consistent with what one would expect from climate change. Those extreme weather events then start to drive changes in local circumstances that can manifest themselves in a way that become national security issues. TCB: Beyond the U.S., how do you see climate change impacting global stability? What are the most imminent threats? What role does the Intelligence Community (IC) play in responding to climate change? RE: The most imminent threats are probably water security and degraded food security. A third one is damage to critical infrastructure. Water and food stress will likely occur in the developing world, and damage to valuable infrastructure will likely occur in the developed world.  This will affect everyone in some way, but the effects are different between the developed world and the developing world. The Intelligence Community sees its job as principally advising those who formulate policy as to where, when, and how bad climate change will affect national security. TCB: What options does the U.S. government have to combat and reverse the effects of climate change? What opportunities are there for the U.S. to cooperate with other countries on the issue?  RE: While the IC does not advise on specific policy actions the U.S. government might take, we do report on the broad areas where action is possible.  We also report on the geopolitical reactions to possible US initiatives.  We group possible actions in three broad areas.  The first is mitigation, which is reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The second is adaptation, which involves strengthening the infrastructure and the resilience of the food, water, energy, and health systems. Adaptation is not only beneficial in responding to climate change, but it also makes the systems resilient in the face of other potential stresses. The third category for response is the most technically challenging, and that involves actions to actively reduce the effects of greenhouse gas emissions or actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Geoengineering is the term used to describe these actions.  The intentional modification of the atmosphere or solar energy striking the planet is a very sensitive subject and, understandably, a very difficult one for people to wrap their heads around.  However, geoengineering is one issue I think most people who look at the topic seriously would acknowledge is an option.  But it is not an option without risk and more science is necessary to fully understand the risks. In terms of working with other countries, there are opportunities to cooperate in all three of these areas. TCB: Bill Gates released his The Clean Energy Coalition this week at the Paris conference. Do you think this is a good example of how the public and private sector can work together on climate change? RE: To the extent that Mr. Gates, the government, or private enterprise take action to develop a way to generate power without producing emissions would be a big boon to reducing the risk long term of climate change. We are getting ready to write Global Trends 2035, and technology is one of the things we look at. One of the exciting observations is the amount of effort invested in to new energy systems. We are still very dependent upon fossil fuels for energy, but the improvements we have seen in renewables (wind and solar) for electrical power generation are promising. New energy storage technology is also a key enabler for new energy systems.  The technology improvements have lowered the costs of renewables to where they are almost competitive with other forms of power generation.  Research is also underway to explore advances in different nuclear systems. Development and deployment of these technologies could have huge effects on global energy systems, state stability, and geopolitics. The deployment challenge is kind of cool; if deployment is done like a network—with a lot of small nodes—the capital investment can be done in small increments and sustained over a longer period of time. That also allows for an immediate improvement from the new technologies. A network of system may be a way to see a transformation take place faster than having to spend a considerable amount of time building capital intensive infrastructure. TCB: Are we responding to this problem to late? What effects of climate change are irreversible at this point?  RE: It depends upon how optimistic you are about technology. The first question that needs to be answered is, how fast is the climate really changing, and specifically is the increase in extreme weather events we are observing a result of greenhouse gas emissions, or are the observed events consistent with historical norms? Recent science indicates that temperature extremes are rising at a faster rate than we reported in our 2008 NIA. The greater near term concern is we may already be experiencing a change in fundamental air or water circulation patterns.  The ones that always intrigue me are the mid-latitude jetstream or Asian monsoon. If some of these core atmospheric and water patterns are changing faster than we think, that would probably indicate there is an increased sense of urgency to solve the problem. On the other hand, if a good analysis of the data shows that the extreme weather events we observe are within normal statistical variation, then we have time to build the resilient infrastructure and invest in mitigation. If you can describe how technology will develop and deploy in the future, then I could answer the question of whether it is too late.  Realistically, we just do not know how fast new technology is going to come onboard or what policy choices will be made to encourage new technology deployment or encourage far more aggressive ways to control greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It is a very hard question to answer, because it depends upon both technology and policy choices.


Richard Engel is the Director of the Technology and Strategic Futures Program at the National Intelligence Council.   Previously, he served as the Director of the Enviornment and Natural Resources Program at the NIC and as a senior analyst with the Office of Transnational issues at the CIA.   He is a retired U.S. Air Force Major General, and was commandant of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and the commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base.
Learn more about The Cipher's Network here
Share Your Comments

Only members can comment, Click here to sign up for free right now

(Your e-mail address will not be published)
Submit Review
No Comments Yet