Intelligence Agencies Warn of Climate Risks in Worldwide Threat Assessment

While top Trump administration officials deny climate change, the intelligence agencies warn global warming can fuel disasters and violent conflicts.

Intelligence agency officials testified before a Senate committee on Feb. 13, 2018, about global threats, including climate change. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Intelligence officials testified before a Senate committee about global threats. Left to right: FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Robert Ashley, National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Share this article

Stay informed about the latest climate, energy and environmental justice news. Sign up for the ICN newsletter.

In their annual summary of global threats, the nation’s intelligence agencies warned on Tuesday that climate change and other environmental trends “are likely to fuel economic and social discontent—and possibly upheaval—through 2018.”

While there may not be indications of an abrupt and cataclysmic event on the immediate horizon, the trends are already visible, they said in a statement presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee at a hearing where the Trump administration’s top intelligence officials testified.

The statement was matter-of-fact and brief, but unambiguous. Normally, conclusions like these might not deserve much notice. But in an administration where top officials, including some with intelligence responsibilities, have repeatedly questioned the basic science of global warming, such a frank confirmation of the mainstream consensus was striking.

The intelligence agencies’ Worldwide Threat Assessment contrasted with two other recent documents issued by the Trump administration: the National Defense Strategy published in January and the National Security Strategy published in December. Both of those broke from the pattern of recent years and omitted climate change as a significant concern.

The intelligence community, instead, aligned itself with science agencies. The report’s views reflect those in the thoroughly peer-reviewed interagency National Climate Assessment issued last year, and the facts consistently reported by major scientific agencies like NOAA and NASA.

“Extreme weather events in a warmer world have the potential for greater impacts and can compound with other drivers to raise the risk of humanitarian disasters, conflict, water and food shortages, population migration, labor shortfalls, price shocks, and power outages,” the intelligence threat assessment said. It was presented as the written testimony of Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence appointed by President Donald Trump.

“Worsening air pollution from forest burning, agricultural waste incineration, urbanization, and rapid industrialization—with increasing public awareness—might drive protests against authorities, such as those recently in China, India, and Iran,” the assessment said.

“Accelerating biodiversity and species loss—driven by pollution, warming, unsustainable fishing, and acidifying oceans—will jeopardize vital ecosystems that support critical human systems. Recent estimates suggest that the current extinction rate is 100 to 1,000 times the natural extinction rate.”

Water scarcity and disease outbreaks, two problems related to climate change, also pose risks, it said.

So does the most striking sign of the upheaval, waves of refugees displaced by complex stresses of climate, disease, poverty and other destabilizing factors, the report warned.

“Challenges from urbanization and migration will persist, while the effects of air pollution, inadequate water, and climate change on human health and livelihood will become more noticeable,” the assessment said. “Domestic policy responses to such issues will become more difficult—especially for democracies—as publics become less trusting of authoritative information sources.”