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Climate Risks in the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community


Official portrait of DNI Director Dan Coats, 10 March 2017

For the third time during the current U.S. Administration, climate change was included in the annual 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community released by the Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats. Consistent with threat assessments and memoranda from the National Intelligence Council and CIA during both the GW Bush and Obama Administrations, the assessment raises concerns about the national security implications of a changing climate. This demonstrates a strong bipartisan consensus regarding the security risks of climate change.

Reiterating a point we make each year when the Worldwide Threat Assessment is released, given that climate change acts as a “threat multiplier” – multiplying existing threats in the security environment – one cannot contain the threat to the specific sections described below. For example, climate change is likely to have a significant impact on health security, as included in this year’s assessment, as well as nuclear proliferation, which is covered separately in the threat assessment. It may contribute to the conditions that allow for terrorism, or international organized crime, to thrive. It may also make mass displacements of people, instability, conflict, and atrocities, more likely. Climate change influences the entire geostrategic landscape. In that sense, one could walk through the entire threat assessment report and identify ways in which climate change will intersect with nearly every risk identified, and in most cases, make them worse.

This is not news to the intelligence community. Climate change has appeared in the Worldwide Threat Assessment for almost a decade. Indeed, climate change has been a visible feature of the U.S. intelligence community’s concerns since at least 2008, with the release of the National Intelligence Assessment (NIA) on the National Security Implications of Climate Change to 2030 and the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World. Beyond these documents, the U.S. intelligence community’s concerns about climate change go back to the early 1990s, with the creation of the Medea program.

For more on climate change in previous Worldwide Threat Assessments, and additional documents from the U.S. intelligence community on climate change risks see the intelligence section of our Climate Security Resource Hub. Below are excerpts from the 2019, 2018, and 2017 Worldwide Threat Assessments (during this Administration), where climate change is explicitly identified as a security risk.

Climate change in the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment

(Page 21)

The United States will probably have to manage the impact of global human security challenges, such as threats to public health, historic levels of human displacement, assaults on religious freedom, and the negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change.

Global Health
We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or largescale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support. Although the international community has made tenuous improvements to global health security, these gains may be inadequate to address the challenge of what we anticipate will be more frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases because of rapid unplanned urbanization, prolonged humanitarian crises, human incursion into previously unsettled land, expansion of international travel and trade, and regional climate change.

(Page 23)
Environment and Climate Change

Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond. Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security. Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution.

  • Extreme weather events, many worsened by accelerating sea level rise, will particularly affect urban coastal areas in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Western Hemisphere. Damage to communication, energy, and transportation infrastructure could affect low-lying military bases, inflict economic costs, and cause human displacement and loss of life.
  • Changes in the frequency and variability of heat waves, droughts, and floods—combined with poor governance practices—are increasing water and food insecurity around the world, increasing the risk of social unrest, migration, and interstate tension in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Jordan.
  • Diminishing Arctic sea ice may increase competition—particularly with Russia and China— over access to sea routes and natural resources. Nonetheless, Arctic states have maintained mostly positive cooperation in the region through the Arctic Council and other multilateral mechanisms, a trend we do not expect to change in the near term. Warmer temperatures and diminishing sea ice are reducing the high cost and risks of some commercial activities and are attracting new players to the resource-rich region. In 2018, the minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic was 25 percent below the 30-year average from 1980 to 2010

Climate change in the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment

(Page 4)

  • 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.

(page 16-17)

Environment and Climate Change
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. 17
  • 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.

Climate change in the 2017 Worldwide Threat Assessment

(page 13-14)

Environmental Risks and Climate Change

The trend toward a warming climate is forecast to continue in 2017. The UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is warning that 2017 is likely to be among the hottest years on record—although slightly less warm than 2016 as the strong El Nino conditions that influenced that year have abated. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported that 2016 was the hottest year since modern measurements began in 1880. This warming is projected to fuel more intense and frequent extreme weather events that will be distributed unequally in time and geography. Countries with large populations in coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to tropical weather events and storm surges, especially in Asia and Africa.

Global air pollution is worsening as more countries experience rapid industrialization, urbanization, forest burning, and agricultural waste incineration, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). An estimated 92 percent of the world’s population live in areas where WHO air quality standards are not met, according to 2014 information compiled by the WHO. People in low-income cities are most affected, with the most polluted cities located in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Public dissatisfaction with air quality might drive protests against authorities, such as those seen in recent years in China, India, and Iran.

Heightened tensions over shared water resources are likely in some regions. The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the construction of the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile is likely to intensify because Ethiopia plans to begin filling the reservoir in 2017.

Global biodiversity will likely continue to decline due to habitat loss, overexploitation, pollution, and invasive species, according to a study by a nongovernmental conservation organization, disrupting ecosystems that support life, including humans. Since 1970, vertebrate populations have declined an estimated 60 percent, according to the same study, whereas populations in freshwater systems declined more than 80 percent. The rate of species loss worldwide is estimated at 100 to 1,000 times higher than the natural background extinction rate, according to peer-reviewed scientific literature.

We assess national security implications of climate change but do not adjudicate the science of climate change. In assessing these implications, we rely on US government-coordinated scientific reports, peer-reviewed literature, and reports produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the leading international body responsible for assessing the science related to climate change.

The Arctic section on page 13 also deals with the implications of a changing climate:

The Arctic countries face an array of challenges and opportunities as diminishing sea ice increases commercial shipping prospects and possible competition over undersea resources in coming decades. In August 2016, the first large-capacity cruise ship traversed the Northwest Passage, and more such trips are planned. In September 2016, NASA measured the Arctic sea ice minimum extent at roughly 900,000 square miles less than the 1981-2010 average. Relatively low economic stakes in the past and fairly well established exclusive economic zones (EEZs) among the Arctic states have facilitated cooperation in pursuit of shared interests in the region, even as polar ice has reced ed and Arctic-capable technology has improved. However, as the Arctic becomes more open to shipping and commercial exploitation, we assess that risk of competition over access to sea routes and resources, including fish, will include countries traditionally active in the Arctic as well as other countries that do not border on the region but increasingly look to advance their economic interests there.


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