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U.S. Intelligence Community: Impacts of Climate Change Raise the Risk of Conflict in 2018

Dan_Coats_official_DNI_portrait

Official portrait of DNI Director Dan Coats, 10 March 2017

For the past ten years, beginning with the last year of the George W. Bush Administration, the U.S. intelligence community (IC) has annually warned policy-makers of the security implications of climate change. This year is the eleventh. Yesterday, during a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Director Dan Coats released the annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” which reflects the perspective of the entire U.S. intelligence community regarding the most significant risks to national security. Notably, the assessment includes a robust section titled “Environment and Climate Change” which not only details a range of security threats related to climate change, but also asserts that these risks, combined with other natural resources stresses, “are likely to fuel economic and social discontent–and possibly upheaval–through 2018.” In other words, the U.S. intelligence community believes these threats are not on the distant horizon, but rather, already occurring and likely to increase political instability this very year.

The assessment also notes that “Extreme weather events in a warmer world have the potential for greater impacts and can compound with other drivers to raise the risk of humanitarian disasters, conflict, water and food shortages, population migration, labor shortfalls, price shocks, and power outages.”

The warning of the potentially destabilizing impacts of climate change is even more concerning than the NIC’s 2017 assessment, which identified the likelihood of an increase in extreme weather events as a result of climate change, but stopped short of addressing the heightened probability of attendant social and economical upheaval and conflict. This is noteworthy as it is the first Worldwide Threat Assessment that is wholly a product of analysis conducted under the current Administration, and affirms the apolitical approach of the IC.

Below, see all of the most relevant excerpts.

From the “Environment and Climate Change” section:

  • The impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent—and possibly upheaval—through 2018.
  • The past 115 years have been the warmest period in the history of modern civilization, and the past few years have been the warmest years on record. Extreme weather events in a warmer world have the potential for greater impacts and can compound with other drivers to raise the risk of humanitarian disasters, conflict, water and food shortages, population migration, labor shortfalls, price shocks, and power outages. Research has not identified indicators of tipping points in climate-linked earth systems, suggesting a possibility of abrupt climate change.
  • Worsening air pollution from forest burning, agricultural waste incineration, urbanization, and rapid industrialization—with increasing public awareness—might drive protests against authorities, such as those recently in China, India, and Iran.
  • Accelerating biodiversity and species loss—driven by pollution, warming, unsustainable fishing, and acidifying oceans—will jeopardize vital ecosystems that support critical human systems. Recent estimates suggest that the current extinction rate is 100 to 1,000 times the natural extinction rate.
  • Water scarcity, compounded by gaps in cooperative management agreements for nearly half of the world’s international river basins, and new unilateral dam development are likely to heighten tension between countries.

From the foreword, under the heading: “Tension within many countries will rise, and the threat from Sunni violent extremist groups will evolve as they recoup after battlefield losses in the Middle East.”

Challenges from urbanization and migration will persist, while the effects of air pollution, inadequate water, and climate change on human health and livelihood will become more noticeable. Domestic policy responses to such issues will become more difficult—especially for democracies—as publics become less trusting of authoritative information sources.

Read the complete 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment here.

For previous U.S. intelligence community assessments covering climate change, see the Intelligence section of our Resource Hub.


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