In 1995, the CIA published an eerily prescient National Intelligence Estimate, the U.S. Intelligence Community’s most authoritative document, warning that al-Qaeda planned to attack the United States and identifying the U.S. Capitol, Wall Street, and civil aviation as key targets. Now we know that this was just one of many intelligence community warnings ahead of the terrible attacks of September 11, 2001. As George Tenet told the 9/11 commission, all the warning lights were “blinking red.”
President Biden has used similar language to describe the current climate emergency, referring to the devastating impact of climate-driven events across the United States as “a blinking code red for our nation.” Late last month, the Biden administration released a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the security implications of climate change, the first such report in more than a decade.
As former senior intelligence officers responsible for climate change analysis, we are concerned about whether the Intelligence Community (IC) — a community that prides itself on speaking truth to power — has adequately conveyed the seriousness of the climate emergency.
The NIE pulls no punches when warning of the geopolitical blowback to the United States that would accompany inadequate commitments on greenhouse gas reductions, and makes clear that decarbonization policies currently fall far short of keeping global average temperatures below 2°C. The report details how climate change stress will heighten risks of political instability and conflict, and will exacerbate transnational crises such as water shortages and migration.
However, the NIE’s estimates of the scale of risk and how quickly shocks could arrive are almost certainly too conservative (and unquestionably more conservative than those our own organization projected early last year). For example, countries like Iran, Algeria, and Turkey that experienced climate-linked instability this summer curiously do not make the NIE’s list of select countries of concern.
Further, the report’s judgments about the “massive” impacts the United States will face due to climate hazards could easily be lost on policymakers given that they come in the NIE’s very last paragraph. Crucial warnings on the climate-driven risks to human health, ocean stability, biodiversity, and other critical support systems are likewise buried in the document.
The report also overlooks a key driver of climate security risk, which is the role that humans play in increasing their own vulnerability. Continued population growth in coastal areas, for example, shapes risk nearly as much as governance and financial capacity of states.
These shortcomings underscore the challenges that lie ahead for managing non-traditional national security threats such as climate change and infectious disease. Just as the 9/11 attacks prompted a shift in focus from interstate warfare to non-state actor conflicts, so too must the U.S. national security community adapt to meet the rise of ‘actorless threats.’ As with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no proximate actor responsible for the extreme heat, intense storms, and repeated floods that will reshape the global security landscape.
Yet the outdated, state-centric security approach persists, illustrated by the ongoing contention in some quarters that the United States can either tackle climate change or China, but not both. Most recently, critics have accused the Department of Defense of being “dangerously distracted” by climate change at the expense of preparing to compete with China.
This is a false dichotomy and a dangerous underappreciation of the extent to which climate change will dictate the national security landscape for years to come. China itself faces compounding climate risks, from rising sea levels affecting millions of people in coastal cities, flooding in its interior that threatens energy infrastructure, and desertification and migrating fish stocks that undermine its food security. And as the NIE notes, Beijing may seek influence by trying to take advantage of climate impacts in other regions. Policy and intelligence analysis that does not take into account the impact of climate hazards on national security will get answers to key questions about China’s strength and strategy wrong.
Therefore, it is crucial that this report be just the beginning, not the end, of the IC’s efforts on climate change. Analysis of climate vulnerabilities must be integrated across the entire national security enterprise — and soon. As the world witnessed this summer, the security impacts of climate change are already here. Militaries deployed to fight wildfires from North America to North Africa, unprecedented floods shook up political dynamics in Europe, and drought and water shortages sent people into the streets in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.
It’s not too late to ensure this climate NIE doesn’t join the 1995 al-Qaeda report as a rueful anecdote of an unheeded warning that cost American lives.
Note: The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Intelligence Community, or any other U.S. Government agency.