Climate change and cyber threats to security are two critical issues that share a lot in common. In a time of multiplying threats, and diminishing budgets, acknowledging and understanding these links will be a critical step in devising policies and practices to address them both.
Increased understanding among the U.S. security establishment
The U.S. security establishment increasingly understands that climate change impacts (ranging from consequences for food, water, energy, infrastructure and sea lane security) and cyber threats in the form of cyber warfare and cyber-crime, are emerging transnational threats that must be taken just as seriously as other threats, such as the proliferation of nuclear weapons or military aggression by competitor nations. This is evident in the way that both climate change and cyber-security are addressed in the 2010 and 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the 2014 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, and other important documents and policies.
The senior national security leadership of the country has also publicly rung the alarm on both threats in similar ways.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noted that climate change “can significantly add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict,” while Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper states: “Risks to freshwater supplies due to shortages, poor quality, floods, and climate change are growing. These forces will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, potentially undermining global food markets and hobbling economic growth.”
On cyber-security, Director Clapper, in the 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment, asserted that “Several critical governmental, commercial and societal changes are converging that will threaten a safe and secure online environment.” NSA Director General Keith Alexander wrote that “the ongoing cyber- thefts from the networks of public and private organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, represent the greatest transfer of wealth in human history.”
The White House has also treated the issues with a comparable urgency. In President Barack Obama’s second Inaugural Address, he said, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” In 2012, President Obama made a similar statement about cyber threats, announcing “It’s now clear that this cyber threat is one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation.”
Interconnectedness: a strength and a vulnerability
Both climate change and cyber threats are security risks that can affect the safety and security of our most basic resources, such as water, energy and infrastructure, mostly due to a common factor: interconnectedness. As human beings and as nations, we are and always will be directly connected to our environment, as it provides us with the resources necessary for both survival and prosperity. We have also become intimately connected and dependent on our computer-based technologies, with Cyberspace and the Internet being a primary conduit.
And just as climate change can affect our access to (and supply of) water and energy, a cyber-attack on computers and industrial equipment running water treatment facilities, electrical and nuclear power plants, can have significant negative consequences.
Much of the infrastructure affected by climate change, and the infrastructures supporting cyberspace and the Internet, were created without much consideration given to the security risks presented by climate change and cyber threats. These infrastructures were largely built in a time when both threats were either not evident, poorly-understood, or ignored.
Original service infrastructures are particularly vulnerable to climate change. For example, The Gulf Coast Study found that “approximately 2,400 miles of major roads, 246 miles of railways, 3 airports and three-quarters of the freight facilities would be inundated by a four-foot rise in sea level.” It further found that “more than half of the major roads and all of the ports in the region were susceptible to flooding from a storm surge of just 18 feet.” Alaska is also facing a degradation of some of its critical infrastructure due to the melting of its permafrost, in large part precipitated by climate change, and vast swathes of the United States have aging infrastructure with an uncertain capacity to weather a rapidly-changing climate.
According to a report issued by the U.S. Department of Energy, climate change can also cause a domino effect as the disruption of infrastructures can affect one another due to “extensive interdependencies – threatening health and local economies, especially in areas where human populations and economic activities are concentrated in urban areas.” The report elaborates on this domino effect, stating that “vulnerabilities and impacts are issues beyond physical infrastructures themselves. The concern is with the value of services provided by infrastructures, where the true consequences of impacts and disruptions involve not only the costs associated with the clean-up, repair, and/or replacement of affected infrastructures but also economic, social, and environmental effects as supply chains are disrupted, economic activities are suspended, and/or social well-being is threatened.”
Cyberspace faces similar challenges. A Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) paper on Internet Security speaks to the vulnerabilities of the original infrastructure of the Internet by pointing out that “early network protocols that are now part of the Internet were not designed with security features. This makes the essential infrastructure of the Internet fundamentally insecure.”
Recently, the critical infrastructure of the Internet has been under great stress due to the enormous amount of cyber-crimes and threats. In response, Presidential Obama issued Executive Order 13636, which states that any such damage to the Internet infrastructure “would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.” Alexander Ntoko, head of the corporate strategy division at the International Telecommunication Union, confirms this assessment, noting that “Cyberspace is crucial for social and economic development and we are getting to a point where attacks can destroy the internet infrastructure.”
Finally, climate change and cyber-threats often affect the same critical infrastructures, such as the electric grid. According to General (ret.) Michael Hayden “Cyber threats to North America’s electric grid are growing, making electric grid cybersecurity an increasingly important national and international issue.” And according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, the electric grid in large regions of the United States, such as the Midwest, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The global climate and cyber space seem worlds apart, yet they share many similarities. Even though the variables affecting the climate and cyber space are different, the risks associated with them are both anthropogenic, and can affect the same critical equities, including our water, food and energy infrastructures. Developing threat mitigation strategies that acknowledge these similarities, and encouraging cross-pollination between these key sectors, are therefore important first steps for ensuring a climate and cyber-secure future.