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Heeding the Intelligence Warnings of the Next Crisis

3By John Conger and Kate Guy

In the January 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the Director of National Intelligence offered this clear prediction: “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…”

It is hard to come up with a better description of the current crisis.

A few pages later, the report predicts that “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.”

This is a warning we still have time to address, but that time is running out.

For the past year, we’ve chaired a panel of national security, military, and intelligence experts focused on assessing the future threats posed by climate change.  In the recently published Security Threat Assessment of Global Climate Change, these experts offer a clear-eyed but stunning judgment: If allowed to continue unabated, human-induced climate change will pose severe and potentially catastrophic security risks to all parts of the globe.

First, even the most basic climate models point to increasing climate instability as global temperatures increase. Global water and food systems will be severely impacted by extreme heat, drought, and precipitation events, undermining the health and stability of populations. These climate stressors are projected to be the most intense in areas that are already fragile and with histories of conflict: like Central America and the African Sahel. As weather extremes persist and local governance breaks down, we expect to see a startling increase in violence and failing states in the regions hardest hit. The U.S. military has already had to deal with the dangerous security implications of growing ungoverned spaces, as when ISIS took advantage of harsh drought and crop failures to drive its recruiting efforts across Iraq.

Climate change won’t just lead to instability in fragile regions. Its effects will also render some areas newly uninhabitable. From sea-level rise inundating low-lying, heavily populated coasts of South-East Asia, to temperature and humidity extremes making cities in the Middle East unliveable during summer months, climate effects will force more people from their homes in search of more viable alternatives. This displacement is expected to create unpredictable new patterns of migration, with people moving from rural to urban centers as well as across regions. Depending on the scale and reaction to these migration waves, they could lead to new societal strains, and harsh ethno-nationalist responses in host areas. These increasingly authoritarian actions could threaten democratic systems across the globe, and disrupt the international institutions that depend on them.

These stressors won’t just burden relations within societies, but could also bring about new international tensions.  Nations such as Russia and China are already looking toward the opening Arctic as an opportunity to expand influence – and conflict over newfound resources is a historical constant  States may take advantage of climate impacts on their adversaries to gain relative power advantages, or undermine the ability of overtaxed international institutions to respond to them. Even more worrying, chasms of international distrust are likely to grow, as the vulnerable developing world points the blame towards the industrialized north.

Finally, there are the wildcards which could bring about abrupt impacts. Our Threat Assessment analysis is based on projecting known trends to anticipate their effects into the future… but what about lower probability scenarios that have high impact?  Accelerated melting in Greenland or Antarctica, massive methane releases from melting permafrost, or a rapid growth in agricultural pests – any of these events could trigger dangerous global consequences. Even health risks like pandemics, due to vectors proliferating among ecosystems in new ways, could become more deadly in a climate-changed future.

The security implications of the future climate scenarios we examined were resoundingly negative, leaving no part of the world untouched.  As security professionals, we don’t generally wade into discussions of specific climate policies. However, our security-oriented conclusion was that if we must avoid these future impacts by moving responsibly toward a net-zero emissions posture.

Thinking back to how prescient the intelligence community was in predicting the current pandemic, it is perhaps time we took advantage of the gift of foresight on the security threats posed by climate change, lest we find ourselves looking back at yet another preventable global crisis.

John Conger is the Director of the Center for Climate and Security, and former Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

Kate Guy is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, and a DPhil (PhD) candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. 


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