July 21, 2008
Climate Change Gets The Fingar: Intelligence Community Weighs in on Climate Security Risks
By Adam Rodriques, Breakthrough Generation Fellow
Taking a break from its everyday responsibilities, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) took a noteworthy step yesterday when it delivered a briefing on climate change to the House of Representatives' Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. The briefing, given by Thomas Fingar, the Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, represents the first time that the American intelligence community has weighed in on the issue of climate change.
Now, these guys are not physicists, nor were meant to be: Fingar explicitly stated that they "did not evaluate the science of climate change per se," choosing to focus instead on analyzing the national security implications of existing predictions (their chosen model was a mid-range IPCC prediction). Nevertheless, the mere fact that this briefing was given at all is hugely significant...and on top of that, they have some very interesting and insightful things to say.
Let's start with the analysis before moving to the greater significance. The NIC's largest-scale finding is that climate change "will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the next 20 years." This is not necessarily because of direct impacts to North America, though. Indeed, the NIC said that, at least over the next few decades, climate change may well benefit the United States, as growing seasons lengthen and new arctic trade routes open. Even so, coastal regions will face increased threat from sea level rises, energy infrastructure will need to be overhauled, and increasing temperatures may eventually turn against farmers and undo the short-term gains.
Worldwide, the NIC's predictions are bleaker. The report stresses that "no country will be immune to the effects of climate change, but some will be able to cope more effectively than others." Particularly vulnerable are the Middle East and Africa, which barely have enough resources to sustain their (ever-increasing) populations today. A dearth of background research limited the NIC's ability to make predictions for the Middle East, but the Council's prognosis for Africa was decidedly bad. Poor states that are heavily reliant on agriculture will be hard-pressed to make ends meet if, as the NIC predicts, yields from some rainfall-dependent crops decrease by as much as 50% by 2030.
The NIC's proposals for what to do about these issues are certainly interesting, and raise some important issues and possibilities. They highlight the problem that may be created by mass migrations of people out of climate-stricken areas, and how relatively-unscathed nations (such as the United States) may have to rethink their immigration policies in order to prevent a worldwide refugee epidemic. In a similar vein, Fingar notes that NGOs may soon find themselves "pressing to broaden the definition of 'refugee' to include environment or climate migrants." It is this sort of global thinking that we need to praise and encourage as we move forward with our efforts to address climate change.
On a broader level, it is important to note the importance of the mere fact of this briefing happening at all. The intelligence community had never spoken up on the issue of climate change before yesterday morning. Not only did they speak up, but they did so in a way that stresses the need to come up with constructive, global solutions, and they also promised to do further research into the national security implications of various "remediations" - that is, nuclear power, CCS, biofuels, or a "family of renewables." These future reports promise to shed some badly-needed light on (just to take one example) how dangerous nuclear power really is. Regardless of what these future investigations produce, it is important that the intelligence community is throwing its considerable fact-finding resources at the issue of climate change. Having them on the side of massive RD&D investments will make it a lot easier to convince the folks on Capitol Hill to sign the massive checks we really need.