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Climate and Ecological Security in the 2023 Annual Threat Assessment

By Erin Sikorsky and Michael Zarfos

On March 8, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and other top U.S. intelligence agency leaders came before the Senate Intelligence Committee to present their Annual Threat Assessment (ATA)—a rundown of the top threats facing the United States in the coming year. As in previous iterations, climate and ecological security issues featured in the briefing and submitted testimony from the DNI, with the unclassified version of the testimony’s Foreword stating, “ The accelerating effects of climate change are placing more of the world’s population, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, under threat from extreme weather, food insecurity, and humanitarian disasters, fueling migration flows and increasing the risks of future pandemics as pathogens exploit the changing environment.”

Ecological Security

In the question and answer portion of the hearing, Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) highlighted (1:29:30) the Council on Strategic Risks 2020 report, “The Security Threat that Binds Us,” which he commended for its recommendation of elevating ecological security in U.S. national security policymaking. He noted in particular its assessment of China’s illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.  DNI Avril Haines acknowledged seeing the report, her concern regarding IUU fishing, and explained that the intelligence community was working to follow some of its recommendations, including a greater integration of the federal scientific community with the Intelligence Community (IC).

The ATA identified IUU fishing as a significant driver of stock depletion across the globe. It also highlighted the converging risks that combine with overexploitation to cause species declines. Human pollution (e.g. agricultural and sewage nutrient runoff) and climate change (e.g. warmer, more acidic water) increase the vulnerability of marine species to decline as important ecosystems (e.g. seagrass and coral reefs) are undermined. 

Warming waters are expected to drive important species into new regions of the ocean, while also removing some species from countries’ territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). The presence of heavily subsidized IUU fleets—such as those fielded by China—increases competition for these diminishing and shifting fish stocks. Poorer countries that rely on the sea are ill-equipped to compete with these fleets, leading to reduced economic and food security that may contribute to internal unrest. 

More broadly, the ATA outlines how ecological degradation in general (e.g. deforestation, pollution, wildlife trafficking) can combine with climate change to threaten human and national security. As each of these anthropogenic stressors progresses, natural resources (e.g. food, soil, timber, and water) will in some regions decline or shift in their geographic availability. These outcomes, combined with a changing climate, will impact human health through malnutrition and the spread of unfamiliar diseases. Natural disasters will add immediate stress to punctuate these gradual processes. Where these combined stressors do not immediately contribute to conflict, they will displace populations and exacerbate inequality, which in turn may destabilize societies. 

Climate Finance

An important new angle of climate security in this year’s ATA was its focus on potential geopolitical challenges related to climate finance. The ATA noted, “Tensions also are rising between countries over climate financing.  High-and middle-income countries still have not met their 2015 Paris Agreement pledges to provide $100 billion per year to low-income countries by 2020, and low-income countries want more assistance with adapting to climate effects.”

The assessment goes on to raise last year’s climate-driven floods in Pakistan and the country’s subsequent calls for loss and damage funding as an example. Certainly, the dynamics at COP27 around the creation of a loss and damage fund, including the eventual agreement by developing countries that China would not benefit from such a fund, reflect the changing global dynamics of climate finance. This highlight in the ATA underscores a point the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) made in a briefer earlier this year about the security links to climate finance issues, and the importance of the United States understanding these connections as it approaches allies and partners on climate issues. 

Overall, it is heartening to see both the IC exploring a wide range of climate and ecological security issues in the ATA, and members of Congress expressing increased interest in these critical issues.

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