U.S. intelligence agencies: Climate change threatens national security

Published 27 June 2008

Climate change could threaten U.S. security in the next twenty years by causing political instability, mass movements of refugees, terrorism, or conflicts over water and other resources in specific countries

The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has completed a new classified assessment which explores how climate change could threaten U.S. security in the next twenty years by causing political instability, mass movements of refugees, terrorism, or conflicts over water and other resources in specific countries. The House Intelligence Committee was briefed Wednesday, 25 June, on the main findings. The assessment itself is confidential, but some analyses used as raw material is open, including a series of studies done by Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). On commission from NIC, CIESIN ranked countries by looking at three climate risks: sea-level rise, increased water scarcity, and an aggregate measure of vulnerability based on projected temperature change, compared with nations’ ability to adapt. “We can pinpoint areas of high projected climate change that are also in historically unstable regions. This suggests that climate change is likely to heighten political risks,” said CIESIN deputy director Marc Levy, a coauthor of the CIESIN studies. Many countries with high exposure to climate change have low levels of historical instability, he said; for instance, U.S. allies like the Netherlands are exposed to perils such as sea-level rise, but have large economies and strong governments, and so are not deemed high risks. Others, however, suffer both high vulnerability to projected temperature changes, and low levels of adaptive capacity based on the strength of state institutions and their histories of instability and conflict. These tend to cluster in economically depressed southern regions. The more dangerous nations on the CIESIN list — which may or may not match the NIC list — include South Africa, Nepal, Morocco, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Paraguay, Yemen, Sudan, and Côte d’Ivoire.

The greatest number of people exposed to sea-level rise are in China, the Philippines, Egypt, and Indonesia. China and the Philippines alone have 64 million people in the lowest elevation zones (1 meter above sea level). In Egypt, a longtime major recipient of U.S. military aid, and scene of recurring internal strife, 37 percent of people live in within ten meters of sea level in the fertile Nile delta. In other nations, disruptions in rainfall or other temperature-driven phenomena could contribute to dangerous instability due to crop failures or other phenomena. These include Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Congo, Ethiopia, and Jordan, suggests the CIESIN research. Climate-related security impacts could be significant when they cause “a noticeable — even if temporary — degradation in

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