U.S. Intelligence Officials Warn Climate Change Is a Worldwide Threat

Their annual assessment says climate hazards such as extreme weather, droughts, floods, wildfires and sea level rise threaten infrastructure, health and security.

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National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and directors of the FBI, CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency testify on the Worldwide Threat Assessment before a Senate committee. Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty
National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and directors of the FBI, CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency testify on the Worldwide Threat Assessment before a Senate committee. Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

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The nation’s intelligence community warned in its annual assessment of worldwide threats that climate change and other kinds of environmental degradation pose risks to global stability because they are “likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”

Released Tuesday, the Worldwide Threat Assessment prepared by the Director of National Intelligence added to a swelling chorus of scientific and national security voices in pointing out the ways climate change fuels widespread insecurity and erodes America’s ability to respond to it.

“Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security,” said the report, which represents the consensus view among top intelligence officials. “Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution.”

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In just the past two weeks, the Pentagon sent a report to Congress describing extreme weather and climate risks to dozens of critical military installations. (House leaders on Wednesday asked for more details, including an assessment of the 10 bases in each service most vulnerable to climate change.) The Government Accountability Office also recommended the State Department resume providing guidance to U.S. diplomats about climate change and migration. Last week, a scientific paper concluded that drought driven by climate change and the subsequent fights over water resources increased the likelihood of armed conflict in the Middle East from 2011–2015, which in turn triggered waves refugees.

The United Nations Security Council also held a discussion on Friday devoted to understanding and responding to how climate change acts as a “threat multiplier” in countries where governance is already fragile and resources are sparse.

Robert Mardini, the permanent observer to the UN from the International Committee of the Red Cross, said his group’s fieldwork confirms the “double impact” of climate change and war.

“Climate change exacerbates vulnerabilities and inequalities, especially in situations of armed conflict, where countries, communities and populations are the least prepared and the least able to protect themselves and adapt,” Mardini told the Security Council, according to his published remarks. “Conflicts harm the structures and systems that are necessary to facilitate adaptation to climate change.”

In Contrast with the U.S. President

The formal threat assessment is also the latest federal survey of climate change to clash with President Donald Trump’s adamant denial of the established consensus. In late November, the administration issued the Fourth National Climate Assessment, based on the work of 300 scientists and 13 federal agencies, which concluded that climate change threatened human life, ecosystems and the American economy. Trump dismissed the report, saying he did not believe its central findings.

Trump has pushed the message of climate denial through federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, mainly by working to halt rules and research to address climate change. But so far, the White House has not reined in the national security community when its leaders have acknowledged climate change or its agencies have explored its implications. 

Further, members of Congress from both parties have provided the Pentagon, at least, with cover, instructing it in late 2017 to analyze the threats climate change poses to American military readiness.

Regions to Watch for Climate-Related Risks

The 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment echoes the findings of versions from previous years that highlight climate change as a threat to what’s called “human security” in a list that includes terrorism, cyber crimes and weapons of mass destruction. Among the situations and places it cites as being of particular concern are:

  • Urban coastal areas of South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Western Hemisphere that could be battered by extreme weather and aggravated by rising sea levels. It says “damage to communication, energy, and transportation infrastructure could affect low-lying military bases, inflict economic costs, and cause human displacement and loss of life.” (Last year, Hurricane Michael inflicted an estimated $5 billion in damage on Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.)
  • Countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan and Iraq, which are at increasing risk of social unrest and cross-border tension because “changes in the frequency and variability of heat waves, droughts, and floods—combined with poor governance practices—are increasing water and food insecurity.”
  • The Arctic, where receding sea ice “may increase competition—particularly with Russia and China— over access to sea routes and natural resources.”

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