National Research Council Produces Climate and Security Analysis at Request of U.S. Intelligence Community
The CIA may have shut down its dedicated climate change center earlier this year, but a recently released report sponsored by the intelligence community reaffirms the deep connection between climate change and national security. New threats to U.S. national security – like increased food and water insecurity and more natural disasters requiring humanitarian assistance – have emerged as climate change creates unprecedented changes in the global environment.
The global effort required to “preserve the current operating conditions of human societies” is “not being undertaken and cannot be presumed,” writes John Steinbruner of the University of Maryland, chair of the committee of authors, in the preface. “There is compelling reason to presume that specific failures of adaptation will occur with consequences more severe than any yet experienced, severe enough to compel more extensive international engagement than has yet been anticipated or organized.”
The research for Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis was conducted by experts at the National Research Council – part of the United States’ constellation of National Academies – at the request of the U.S. intelligence community.
Over the course of 200+ pages, the report essentially summarizes the leading literature on climate change and conflict with a focus, specifically, on the potential of climate change to add to societal stress. (This approach excludes international competition over resources, for example, or changes to how the U.S. military might conduct its missions.)
The intelligence community, write the authors, must do more to understand how climate-related events “do or do not lead to important security-relevant outcomes such as political instability, violent conflict, humanitarian disasters, and disruptive migration.”
A Threat Multiplier
Like previous climate security assessments, the NRC writes that climate change is likely to a have a “threat multiplier effect,” meaning it is often difficult or not possible to draw direct causal links between climate change’s effects and conflict, but these effects can exacerbate a broad set of underlying conditions, any combination of which might spark conflict.
“The net effect of climate change in the coming decades may be determined in the near term more by social, economic, and political conditions and their interactions with climate facts than by climate factors alone,” the authors write.
For example, the Middle East and North Africa rely heavily on food imports (accounting for 50 percent of domestic food consumption, according to the World Bank) so spikes in global food prices gravely impact economies and livelihoods in that region, and could be considered a “simple potential predictor of increased unrest” in these countries. The report cites, for example, speculation that high food prices, initiated not by changes in local weather but global events, in turn sparked the Arab Spring.
In Pakistan, the Karakoram glaciers that supply the Indus River are changing in “ways that may reduce river flows,” the NRC writes, which has tremendous implications for stability and security. The authors point out that lack of power generating capacity and competition for water between agricultural and power sectors in Pakistan already results in extensive blackouts and has triggered protests – some of which have been violent. On top of this domestic competition, the fact that Pakistan and India share the Indus River basin adds an international dimension to tensions arising from resource constraints. Competition over access to water has “the potential to define critical climate-related conflicts and relief challenges across the globe,” the authors conclude.
Some regions are more vulnerable to natural disasters than others, the authors write, but the impact of such disasters may be felt globally. Environmental crises in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, which the report considers uniquely vulnerable, could strain the region’s own resources as well as those of developed countries that may be asked to help. Fears over desertification and drought triggering flows of sub-Saharan African migrants to Europe, or floods and famine pushing Bangladeshis into India, are commonly cited as worst-case scenarios that would put further pressure on existing political and social stresses.
The NRC also touches on another common concern: melting sea ice in the Arctic. They cite a series of studies showing that an increase in tensions between Arctic countries over control of new resources and trade routes is likely, but interstate conflict is unlikely. The authors also point out that the likelihood of “significant and lasting abrupt climate change” in the next decade – like the scenarios leading to the loss of Arctic summer sea ice or melting of the Greenland glaciers – is difficult to predict. Existing climate models are better suited to explaining gradual changes.
Not All Natural Disasters Are Security Issues
Although the NRC finds many plausible scenarios by which climate change could lead to national security concerns, “it is also clear that the likelihood that any specific scenario will arise is highly uncertain.”
The severity of the event, a place or population’s susceptibility to harm, and effectiveness of coping, response, and recovery mechanisms determine the degree of exposure and vulnerability to a direct climate event. As such, it is difficult to predict security risks solely based on climate trends and projections.
“Political and social upheavals in the aftermath of environmental disasters typically result more from actual or perceived failures of response by governmental organizations than from the disasters themselves,” the authors write.
As a precaution, the NRC recommends monitoring potential new conflict dynamics through periodic “stress testing” of countries, regions, and global systems to assess whether they can handle “potentially disruptive conjunctions of climate events and socioeconomic and political conditions.” These climate stress tests can provide “a framework for integrating climate and social variables more systematically and consistently within national security analysis” and could presumably be incorporated into existing intelligence community exercises that already assess social and political stresses.
Ambiguity No Excuse
The authors suggest several times throughout the report that greater coordination between government – and especially intelligence – agencies will result in a more comprehensive approach to understanding adaptation strategies and vulnerabilities and the ensuing social and political consequences of climate events.
Since “several social, economic, and political factors that contribute to exposure and susceptibility to harm from climate events can be projected with some confidence for a decade or more,” understanding and anticipating these threats is prudent, the NRC urges.
From a national security perspective, “the climate events of most concern are those that would create the equivalent of a perfect storm: a country or region of importance to U.S. national security that experiences an extreme climate-related event or the effects of a climate-related shock to a global system that meets a critical need, that has significant human and economic assets in harm’s way, where those assets are highly susceptibility to harm, where local coping ability is static or decreasing, and where official response systems prove to be ineffective.”
The perfect storm analogy is apt considering the release was actually delayed by Hurricane Sandy, which pushed back the pre-release briefing to the CIA because of government closures. The storm also sparked a renewed national debate about climate change, which the NRC seems to weighs in on unequivocally: While the exact pathways of how climate change will impact national security are unclear, “we know beyond reasonable doubt that the consequences will be extensive,” writes Steinbruner. And it is this very ambiguity that requires the attention of security and intelligence analysts.
Sources: CIA, The Huffington Post, National Research Council, The Washington Post, World Bank.
Image Credit: “The Passage of Sandy,” courtesy of NASA.