According to a joint report, rising temperatures and intensifying climate due to climate change will worsen geopolitical tensions, social instability and the need to provide humanitarian aid. reportThe U.S. intelligence agency last month. The National Intelligence Estimate details the security implications of climate change over the next 20 years. Calder WaltonAssistant director for Research at the Belfer Center’s Intelligence ProjectThis is the organization that organized Harvard Kennedy School’sLast spring saw the first conference on climate change, national security, and other issues. He spoke to the Gazette regarding the report and the crucial role that the intelligence community should play in addressing this crisis. This interview has been edited for clarity.
GAZETTE:We hear about climate change’s threats from an environmental perspective, but we rarely hear about its threats and risks to national security. What does the U.S. intelligence team think about climate change?
WALTON:The U.S. intelligence agency was established in the wake of Pearl Harbor and the Second World War. Its primary purpose was to provide policymakers with decision advantages and forewarning about threats to national security. If the primary purpose of the U.S. intelligence agency is to provide decision advantages over national security threats, then by definition the U.S. intelligence team must play a role in providing key decision-makers with their assessments about climate change, which is the greatest existential threat to human civilization. What will be the effects of climate change on national security, civil society, and economic society? And this isn’t just national security; this is international, globalized security. It is clear that the U.S. intelligence agency must play a part in this. And they’re very, very late to the game.
GAZETTE:What is the role of other intelligence agencies in responding to climate change? Is there a country that is leading the way in this area?
WALTON: I don’t think anyone is a shining star in terms of taking this seriously. I have yet to see a country with an intelligence bureaucrat that is capable of dealing with this and providing assessments about the national security implications for climate change to policy makers in a sufficient manner.
The overwhelming focus of intelligence communities across the globe is still on post-Cold War structures — stealing other people’s secrets. We are now living in an age where globalized challenges are everywhere. The primary one is climate change, but there are also biosecurity and cyber threats. Climate change and pandemics have a lot in common. Scientists predict that climate change will lead to more disease outbreaks. Add in synthesized biology, cyber, artificial intelligence and machine learning. These globalized issues will impact societies all over the globe.
In terms of intelligence and national safety, we are at a crossroads. The U.S. intelligence and national security were designed to deal with groups of states, first the fascist state and then Soviet communism. The wake-up call of nine-eleven about non-state actors was the first. However, the U.S. intelligence used the same postwar framework of established bureaucracies to deal with nonstate actors. And now, with a pandemic and climate change, we’re seeing truly globalized challenges. I believe we need to rethink the way we understand intelligence in order to deal effectively with it. This should be geared towards sharing global intelligence to address global challenges.
GAZETTE: What are the most important lessons from this report?
WALTON: Let’s start with the basics: that climate change does pose a threat to U.S. national security. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is a joint assessment of the entire U.S. intelligence network, 18 agencies. That’s significant. There are no naysayers; there’s no doubt. So that’s a breakthrough. This is a significant milestone in an environment that is extremely polarized, and highly politicized.
The report lists a number of direct and indirect security risks. First, it states that it is likely that temperatures will rise by 1.5 degrees between 2030 and 2030, which is the Paris Agreement target. We are unlikely to stop this from happening. The report also reveals the direct and indirectly-related consequences of climate changes: rising temperatures and the inability to, as they see them, decarbonize our efforts to prevent this temperature rise in the U.S. Direct consequences are related to territorial integrity. The U.S. military’s been talking about rising sea levels on bases since the 1970s, if not earlier. Rising sea level, which is affecting how we’re undertaking military operations. The secondary effects of population displacement, civil disorder, crop damage, and economic realignment, are also evident. Refugee crises, population displacement, and radicalization by people who are angry at their government, or willing to take actions against big polluters, are all possible. Scarce resources leading to political violence, terrorism — that’s the kind of secondary threat progression that the U.S. intelligence community will be looking at.
GAZETTE: China accounts for 30 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, followed by the U.S. Are the risks from climate change multiplying the existing concerns U.S. intelligence has about China, and does it change their approach?
WALTON:It is. What we’re witnessing is the combination of these global challenges to international security — biosecurity, natural and synthesized biology and pandemics, climate change, disinformation — being fused with great power, geopolitical conflicts. There’s this idea that we can either deal with the international security threats of climate change or China. But in reality, they are not mutually exclusive; they’re all interwoven. Geopolitics is now fused to climate change.
What is the U.S. intelligence agency’s view of China and these issues? This is an area that the U.S. intelligence can do a lot in. The most important information will be verification, attribution, and whether China is complying with its public statements about carbon reduction. Is it truthful or lies? That’s where intelligence collection — human intelligence, signals intelligence, imagery intelligence from satellite, overhead reconnaissance, and open-source intelligence — is going to be absolutely key. Senior policymakers in Washington will say, “I need to know whether China is adhering to what they profess to be doing in terms of decarbonization.” So that will be a requirement set to the U.S. Intelligence Committee, to steal those secrets. That is not that different from what we’ve done in the past, and will be increasingly important.
The U.S. intelligence agency could play a significant role and, in my opinion, must play moving forward. It’s disseminating its assessments, particularly from overhead satellite mapping, what the U.S. intelligence community is observing both on the territorial integrity of countries and population displacement. The U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence (USA) agency collected information via satellite platforms about the spread of Ebola to West Africa during the Ebola crisis. It then disseminated it via its website. This is precisely the direction we need for climate change.
GAZETTE:What’s next after this report? Is there another step?
WALTON: The next step is for the U.S. intelligence community to say, “This is what we can deliver. We know what we need; we know what policymakers need to know; we know what the public needs to know; and this is how we can contribute to assessments and messaging and help shape public policy.” The worst thing they could do would be to set up a new bureaucracy within a particular agency and say, “We’re now doing climate change.” It’s time for some bold thinking. This is a profound existential crisis for the way we live our lives, and it’s time for profound thinking about intelligence to inform decision-making. Instead of intelligence agencies focusing on keeping information classified, it seems that climate change should be the focus of intelligence dissemination. This is a complete reversal in tradition.
It’s incumbent for assessments to be as widely read as possible so that we understand this, so that members of the public can hold policymakers’ feet to the coals about making changes. There’s no good if we find out in 50 years’ time, they were being briefed on this. It’s too risky.