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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.”
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.
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.
Lyston Lea Joins the Center for Climate and Security Advisory Board
The Center for Climate and Security is pleased and honored to announce that Lyston Lea has joined its distinguished Advisory Board of military and national security leaders. This group supports CCS leadership by providing substantive and strategic guidance.
Mr. Lea recently retired from Defense Intelligence Senior Level Federal service in March 2022, after over 38 years of professional experience working in the Intelligence Community (IC). Before retiring he served as the Principal Advisor to the Director of the National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office (NMIO). During his career, Mr. Lea served in the Analytic Integrity and Standards Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the Defense Intelligence Agency, as a Senior Briefer for the J2’s daily Intelligence Briefing to the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Deputy Office Chief of the Defense Warning Office. Mr. Lea holds a Master of Science in National Security Studies from the National War College, a Master of Arts in Public Administration from Fordham University, and a Bachelor of Arts in History from Washington & Jefferson College.
Read Mr. Lea’s full bio here.
CSR’s Rod Schoonover Cited in House Oversight Hearing: Climate Disinformation a Security Issue
On October 28, 2021 the House Committee on Oversight and Reform convened a hearing on the alleged role of the fossil fuel industry in promoting climate disinformation. This was the first time that executives from Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron, and Royal Dutch Shell testified under oath on the matter. The main oil lobby, the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also testified.
During his allotted time, Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley immediately raised the issue of climate security, saying “I serve on the House Select Committee on Intelligence and we are often briefed on climate change as a threat to our national security.” He cited the importance of recent reports on climate security from the intelligence community, the National Security Council, and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.
On the issue of disinformation, Rep Quigley continued “The hearing today has helped document a long-standing and concerted effort to muddy the scientific waters on the threat of climate change.” Adding, “But I think the person who put all that best was Dr. Rod Schoonover. He served for a decade in the U.S. intelligence community as a senior analyst and senior scientist in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. Department of State and Director of Environment and Natural Resources [at the National Intelligence Council].”He said, and I quote, “If climate change poses a risk to national security, as the Pentagon and intelligence community again reminded us last week, shouldn’t we view climate disinformation through that lens as well?(more…)
Implementing the Biden Administration’s Climate Executive Order – The Defense Climate Risk Analysis
Today marks an important milestone in the execution of the Biden Administration’s climate security strategy. In accordance with the Executive Orders on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration, the White House, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and Director of National Intelligence have just released four key reports: The Defense Climate Risk Analysis; an unclassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate on the Security Implications of Climate Change; Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration; and a Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Addressing Climate Change.
Together, these reports paint a sobering picture of the security risks posed by climate change, exploring not only the direct threats posed by climate hazards to human security, critical infrastructure, and military readiness, but also the secondary threats that emerge when climate effects intersect with other factors such as poor governance, existing state fragility, or violent extremism.
On November 17, 2021, the Center for Climate and Security will hold a virtual seminar discussing these reports and where the Biden Administration goes next. RSVP for this session, Analysis to Action: Advancing Climate Security in the Biden Administration here.
We will also will publish a series of posts examining each report in depth over the next week. Today, we begin with a look at the Defense Climate Risk Analysis.(more…)