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Interview With Major General (Ret) Rich Engel On Climate Security & the National Intelligence Council

Australian Military personnel help Tsunami victims, Banda Aceh, Sumatra. Photo by Benjamin D. Glass

Australian Military personnel help Tsunami victims, Banda Aceh, Sumatra. Photo by Benjamin D. Glass

The Cipher Brief recently sat down with Major General (Ret) Richard Engel, Director of the Technology and Strategic Futures Program at the National Intelligence Council (NIC) to talk climate change and national security. In the interview Engel shed light on the development of the 2008 National Intelligence Assessment (NIA) on climate change and its impacts on U.S. National Security, and the evolution of how the intelligence community evaluates these risks since that assessment. The interview also explores the immediate impacts of climate change on US national security and global stability, the role of the intelligence community in mitigating the risks, opportunities for international cooperation, and whether or not we are too late on some of the risks. The full interview is worth a read.  

The Cipher Brief: How is climate change a threat to U.S. national security? 

Rich Engel: In 2008, we published a National Intelligence Assessment (NIA) on climate change and its impacts on U.S. National Security. Overall, we saw four principle paths by which global climate change would affect U.S. national security. The first was that it would change water availability or second, cause changes in agricultural productivity, both of which would cause people to migrate. Migrations themselves are not necessarily significant to state stability or even conflict as the adverse effects will depend on local circumstances—where people move and the reception they receive. A third effect we anticipated was climate change induced extreme weather events and their capacity to damage economically significant infrastructure. The fourth involved changes to disease patterns from climate change. This included diseases that affect humans, plants, and animals—to include domesticated animals, used for food.

To analyze the effects of climate change from a national security point of view, we used a definition of national security that included any affect that would cause a noticeable, even if temporary, degradation (or enhancement) in one of the elements of U.S. national power—geopolitical, military, economic, or social cohesion of the United States itself.  These effects could occur because climate change directly affects the U.S. homeland, or indirectly influences the United States through a major military ally or economic partner, or it has a global impact so significant that it directly consumes U.S. resources. In some cases, the effects of climate change could cause social instability inside a country. In other cases, the local effects of climate change could consume the country’s leadership and prevent them from collaborating with the United States on other issues. Subsequent to the NIA, we have expanded this to include climate change induced regional chaos such that a regional actor is preoccupied and no longer available to collaborate with the United States.

Through these potential effects, we concluded that climate change was a national security issue.

See here for the full interview.


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