By Charles Mead and Annie Snider
Medill National Security Reporting Project
WASHINGTON — This summer, as torrential rains flooded Pakistan, a veteran intelligence analyst named Larry watched closely from his desk at CIA headquarters just outside the capital.
For Larry, head of the CIA’s year-old Center on Climate Change and National Security, the worst natural disaster in Pakistan’s history is a warning.
“It has the exact same symptoms you would see for future climate change events, and we’re expecting to see more of them,” Larry, who asked his last name not be used for security reasons, said in a recent interview at the CIA. “We wanted to know: What are the conditions that lead to a situation like the Pakistan flooding? What are the important things for water flows, food security, [displaced people], radicalization, disease?”
As intelligence officials assess key components of state stability like these, they are realizing that the norms they had been operating with — like predictable river flows and crop yields — are shifting.
But the U.S. government is ill-prepared to act on changes that are coming faster than anticipated and threaten to bring instability to places of U.S. national interest, according to interviews with several dozen current and former officials and outside experts, and a review of two decades’ worth of government reports. Climate projections lack critical detail, they say, and information about how people react to changes — for instance, by migrating — is sparse. Military brass say they don’t yet have the intelligence they need in order to act.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a 23-year veteran of the CIA who led the Department of Energy’s intelligence unit from 2005 to 2008, said the intelligence community simply isn’t structured to deal with a problem like climate change that isn’t about stealing secrets.
“I consider what the U.S. government is doing on climate change to be lip service,” said Mowatt-Larssen, currently a fellow at Harvard University. “It’s not serious.”
Just getting to where the intelligence community is now, though, has been a challenge.
Back in the 1990s, the CIA opened an environmental center, swapped satellite imagery with Russia and cleared U.S. scientists to access classified information. But when the Bush administration took power, the center was absorbed by another office and work related to the climate was broadly neglected.
In 2007, a report (pdf) by retired high-ranking military officers called attention to the national security implications of climate change, and the National Intelligence Council followed a year later with an assessment (pdf) on the topic. But some Republicans attacked it as a diversion of resources.
And when CIA Director Leon Panetta stood up the climate change center in 2009, conservative lawmakers attempted to block its funding. “The CIA’s resources should be focused on monitoring terrorists in caves – not polar bears on icebergs,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said at the time.
Now, with calls for belt tightening coming from every corner, leadership in Congress has made it clear that the intelligence budget, which soared to $80.1 billion last year, will have to be cut. And after sweeping victories by conservatives in the midterm elections, many political insiders think the community’s climate change work will be in jeopardy.