Last week the Senate’s number two Democrat Dick Durbin
and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel
dropped a bill calling for a National Intelligence Estimate
(NIE) to assess the threat of climate to the United States and abroad.
Refreshingly, the bill requires a 30-year time horizon. Climate scientists will still find this window painfully small, but security analysts (and the rest of government, frankly) will recognize this as progress in comparison to the normal Washington policy timelines (a few years or until the next election).
Momentum to consider climate and security connections has been growing over the last few years, with the United States lagging behind. The Europeans long ago jumped on these connections. And numerous developing countries—Egypt, Bangladesh, and small island states, to name only a few—view expected sea level rise from global warming as an ultimate security threat to the survival of large swathes of territory and tens of millions of people. Facing the prospect of longer and deeper droughts, countries in the Horn of Africa are also coming to recognize these fundamental threats to the national interest.
In the United States, Hurricane Katrina provided a glimpse of what a warmer world may be like, the experience of which, it could be argued, made its way into the 2006 revision to the U.S. National Security Strategy. The key passage, admittedly at the end of the document, explains that environmental destruction—caused by humans or nature—presents new security challenges:
“Problems of this scope may overwhelm the capacity of local authorities to respond, and may even overtax national militaries, requiring a larger international response. These challenges are not traditional national security concerns, such as the conflict of arms or ideologies. But if left unaddressed they can threaten national security.”If Durbin’s bill is eventually passed, we can expect the resulting assessment to be markedly different from Peter Schwartz’s scenario for the Pentagon in 2003 or the new report for “an unnamed intelligence agency” in 2007. Schwartz imagined all things bad happening at once, highlighting the key prospect for nonlinear abrupt climate change and earning great criticism from scientists. It also became a tempest in the teapot when the British press conspiratorial referred to it as a secret report after being pulled from the Pentagon’s website (more likely it was pulled because it was seen as diverging from White House policy on climate change). The new report “Impacts of Climate Change,” departs from the scientifically conceivable but criticized ice age scenario, one that closely tracked with the plot of the over-the-top film The Day After Tomorrow.
The NIE, coordinated and written by the National Intelligence Council, would carry considerable weight across government, passing the climate change challenges through the lens of U.S. national security.