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Intelligence Officials Highlight Security Risks of Climate Change in Important House Hearing

Hearing on Climate and National Security_House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence_2019_6_5

Rod Schoonover, Peter Kiemel and Jeffrey Ringhausen before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, June 5, 2019

By John Conger

On June 5, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence held a hearing on the National Security Implications of Climate Change.  The latest in a series of hearings (HASC, HFAC, HOGR) held this year on climate and security issues, the HPSCI was unique in that it called government witnesses.  Specifically, they included Peter Kiemel from the National Intelligence Council, Rod Schoonover from the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and Jeffrey Ringhausen from the Office of Naval Intelligence.

The stage was set by Chairman Schiff who called climate change the “greatest long-term national security threat to the U.S.” and quoted the most recent Worldwide Threat Assessment published by this Administration’s Director of National Intelligence, which stated:

“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.”

The witnesses largely echoed the conclusions of the Worldwide Threat Assessment, and stressed that climate change exacerbates, or acts as an “intensifier” of existing security problems that nations are facing.  This is a construct very similar to the “threat multiplier” idea that has been found in previous strategic documents such as the DoD’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, and originated with the Center for Naval Analyses’ Military Advisory Board.

Mr. Kiemel’s full statement is worth reading, but his overview is worth highlighting here as it’s a succinct description of the Intelligence Community’s high certainty level about climate change-exacerbated threats in the next 20 years:

“We assess that such impacts from climate change almost certainly will have an increasingly significant direct and indirect effect on the social, political, economic, and security challenges faced by the United States and other countries during the next few decades.  The combination of other environmental stresses and human activities makes it challenging to discern the national security implications of climate change in isolation.  In many cases, climate change is likely to exacerbate existing stresses, such as water or food shortages that worsen social and political conditions in a country.

In particular, the effects of climate change are likely to exacerbate existing challenges, including:

  • The potential for political and economic unrest in some countries.
  • Social and political tensions in both partner nations and elsewhere.
  • Food prices and availability.
  • Countries’ investments and economic competitiveness.
  • Stress on US military operations and basing.
  • Risks to human and animal health.
  • The drivers of disruptive human migration.

We assess that the security risks for the United States, linked to climate change for the next several years, will arise primarily from distinct extreme weather events and from worsening pre-existing problems, such as water and food security, around the world. During the next 20 years and beyond, climate change will increasingly compound extreme events on top of broader climate stresses.”

Three areas that were highlighted at the outset of the hearing were food and water insecurity, which drives migration, disputes over resources and instability more broadly; changes in the Arctic, which will see increased commercial activity from trade and resource extraction and draw the attention of Arctic and non-Arctic nations who wish to exert influence; and the impact on military bases, such as in the Marshall Islands, where U.S. bases could be flooded by 2040.

Member questions and answers from witnesses touched on ways in which climate change could spur conflict – climate-driven migration, movement of fish stocks from one Exclusive Economic Zone to another that could precipitate conflict between nations (also here for more that subject), weaponization of water, and increased activity in the Arctic; physical impacts – to the U.S. and other nation’s bases, and separately the impacts to intelligence facilities; the potentially destabilizing implications of geo-engineering; changes in disease vectors and exposures; the interaction of climate stresses with weapons of mass destruction; and improvements in organization and sharing of intelligence, such as the creation of a Climate Security Intelligence Center at the CIA (proposed by Representative Heck in a new bill) or coordinating with allies’ intelligence organizations on climate security.

In conclusion, the hearing was an even-keeled discussion of the national security risks posed by climate change from the perspective of key individuals exploring the issue within the Intelligence Community.  The witnesses converged in offering a clear-eyed assessment that climate change exacerbates security risks today and that its impacts are only going to increase.


For a deeper dive on many of the climate-security intersections identified in the hearing, see our report: Epicenters of Climate and Security: The New Geostrategic Landscape of the Anthropocene.

For the written testimonies (statements for the record) of two of the witnesses , see below. The written testimony of Rod Schoonover did not appear on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence website.  We are currently checking on the status of that statement.

Peter Kiemel, Counselor, National Intelligence Council (NIC), Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI): Statement for the Record

Jeffrey Ringhausen, Senior Naval Intelligence Manager for Russia and Eurasia, Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI): Statement for the Record

Edited to Add on 6/8/2019:

Rod Schoonover, Senior Analyst, Office of the Geographer and Global Issues, State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (State INR):


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