Intelligence officials for three decades have warned of security risks from climate change. (Photo credit: Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force)

A series of authoritative governmental and nongovernmental analyses over more than three decades lays a strong foundation for concern over climate change implications for national security.

Most recently, the national intelligence community – including the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other federal agencies – in January 2019 submitted the annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment.” In it, the intelligence agencies stated that “climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water. These impacts are already occurring, and the scope, scale, and intensity of these impacts are projected to increase over time.”

That report from National Intelligence Director Daniel R. Coats, a former U.S. Republican senator from Indiana, was just the most recent in a long string of analyses that any upcoming challenges to such conclusions will have to address. Those conclusions clearly are at odds with the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine and reverse federal climate policies, and they cast doubt on the President’s next day tweet that “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”

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With the White House now reportedly considering an executive order to establish a Presidential Committee on Climate Security that would contest such findings, it’s useful to review the history of climate change/national security official reports and findings. Although it’s unclear where the internal White House thinking on such a committee will lead, it’s been authoritatively reported that the push for such an effort is led by two individuals – Will Happer and Steven Koonin – widely known to have climate change views far different from those of the “established” science community as represented, for instance, by IPCC and the National Academy of Sciences.

Former Princeton physicist Will Happer, now with the White House staff, has a long history of scientifically challenged views about climate science. In the past a frequent favorite witness before House hearings overseen by members rejecting the climate science community “consensus,” Happer has acknowledged in a court case receiving funding from Peabody Coal and from other fossil fuel interests. In 2015 the New York Times reported that he was caught in a Greenpeace “sting” agreeing to take money from unknown Middle Eastern oil and gas interests in exchange for writing a report challenging climate science. Steven Koonin has written on blogs and in the Wall Street Journal pieces in stark contrast to the view of the overwhelming scientific consensus.

Concerned about reports of a potential new presidential review of climate change and national security, 58 former military and intelligence officials on March 5 sent a letter to the president cautioning that “imposing a political test on reports issued by the science agencies, and forcing a blind spot onto the national security assessments that depend on them, will erode our national security.”

Three decades of climate national security warnings

Climate and water resources expert Peter Gleick, in a recent review of more than 100 national security documents addressing climate change, has assessed decades of official national security strategy documents prepared to guide Democratic and Republican administrations on national defense priorities and military strategy. Those analyses began warning about threats to U.S. national security from environmental factors in the late 1980s, and in 1990, a U.S. Naval War College Report warned of potential climate change hazards:

Naval operations in the coming half century may be drastically affected by the impact of global climate change. For the Navy to be fully prepared for operations in this future climate environment, resources of both mind and money must be committed to the problem.

President George H.W. Bush’s national security strategy in August 1991 acknowledged climate change as a security issue. In 2003, concerned by research documenting past instances of abrupt climate changes, the Pentagon commissioned a report with the name “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security.” The report authors wrote:

an abrupt climate change scenario could potentially destabilize the geo-political environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war … Violence and disruption stemming from the stresses created by abrupt changes in the climate pose a different type of threat to national security than we are accustomed to today.

They concluded their report cautioning about climate disruption and conflict becoming “endemic features of life.”

‘… increasing risks from climate change should be addressed now because they will almost certainly get worse if we delay.’

Fast forward to 2007: A group of retired three- and four-star admirals and generals working with the Center for Naval Analyses wrote a report on “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change.” Their report recommended that “The U.S. should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate change at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability.” The authors concluded by saying:

Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States. Accordingly, it is appropriate to start now to help mitigate the severity of some of these emergent challenges. The decision to act should be made soon in order to plan prudently for the nation’s security. The increasing risks from climate change should be addressed now because they will almost certainly get worse if we delay.

A year later, the National Intelligence Council judged that more than 30 U.S. military installations were already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels.

Then came the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review also warning of security threats posed by climate change:

Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.

While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.

The prognoses got no less worrisome when in 2014 the subsequent Quadrennial Defense Review again cautioned that climate change acts as a threat multiplier:

Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes, coupled with other global dynamics, including growing, urbanizing, more affluent populations, and substantial economic growth in India, China, Brazil, and other nations, will devastate homes, land, and infrastructure. Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.

In 2015, responding to a Congressional request, the Department of Defense stated that climate change is posing “a present security threat, not strictly a long-term risk … the Department is beginning to include the implications of a changing climate in its frameworks for managing operational and strategic risks prudently.”

There’s more. Many of those same concerns were echoed in the Trump administration’s January 2019 Department of Defense report documenting vulnerabilities of 79 military installations to events exacerbated by climate change impacts such as floods, droughts, and wildfires. As just one example, Naval Station Norfolk – the world’s largest naval base – is already experiencing frequent sunny-day flooding.

It’s unclear at this point just when – and even whether – the Trump administration will proceed with establishing a formal overview of climate change/national security links. What is clear is that any such review will have an extensive body of previous official reports to upend if it ends up reflecting conflicting viewpoints.

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