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Intelligence Director on climate change as “underlying meta-driver of unpredictable instability”

Tarbela_Dam_Pakistan_during_the_2010_floods

Tarbela Dam Pakistan during the 2010 floods. Photo by Paul Duncan, U.S. Marine Corps

Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, recently addressed the 2016 INSA & AFCEA Intelligence & National Security Summit. He spoke specifically to national intelligence during a time of transition between administrations, and how looking out at potential future failures and collapses over the coming decades, climate change will be “an underlying meta-driver of unpredictable instability.”

Clapper’s remarks covered the existing security landscape that will continue through to the next administration, regardless of who becomes Commander In Chief. He calls it “a world of unpredictable instability.” From his remarks:

This upcoming transition will happen at a particularly, I think, difficult time as we’re facing the most complex and diverse array of global threats that I’ve seen in my 53 years or so in the intelligence business. So we are living in what I’ve come to call a world of unpredictable instability, in which two-thirds of the nations around the world are at some risk of instability in the next few years.

The Intelligence Community spends a lot of time trying to predict where this “world of unpredictable instability” will lead to state failures and collapses, as well as trying to reduce uncertainty for decision-makers. Director Clapper continued:

Nearly everywhere, the IC can point out the potential for failures or collapses. We certainly can’t anticipate the specifics, the when, where and how for our policymakers. This unpredictable instability has been a constant for certainly this administration and will be, I think, for the next one too no matter who our President is.

Despite the difficulty of predicting failure and collapse, Clapper pointed specifically to the role that climate change will play in this mix:

In the coming decades, an underlying meta-driver of unpredictable instability will be, I believe, climate change. Major population centers will compete for ever-diminishing food and water resources and governments will have an increasingly difficult time controlling their territories. And so because of all of these factors, after ISIL’s gone, we can expect some other terrorist entity to arise and a cycle of extremism which will continue to control us for the foreseeable future. And by the way, our more traditional adversaries like Russia and China and Iran and North Korea will continue to challenge us.

Clapper expanded on this during the Q&A session where he was asked “How are we positioned to deal with impacts of such changes as climate and technology?”

Well, I alluded to that briefly in my remarks, and I do think climate change is going to be an underpinning for a lot of national security issues. The effect on climate, which drives so many things ‐‐ availability of basics like water and food, and other resources, which are increasingly going to become matters of conflict, and already are, between and among countries. And so this is going to give rise to national security insight that we’ll need to understand this and hopefully help anticipate it. So I think climate change over time is going to have a (inaudible) effect on our national security picture.

Director Clapper highlighted that the Intelligence Community is a “pillar of stability” during elections and traditions between administrations. Decision-makers should heed their warning on climate change, now and throughout the coming decades. Otherwise, this world of “unpredictable instability” will get even more unpredictable, and more unstable.

*Caroline Houck with Defense One covered this issue as well in an article worth reading.


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