Our man in the greenhouse

Why the CIA is spying on a changing climate

“Right now there’s a gap between, ‘OK, we can have a weather forecast for what the weather’s going to be in the next month, and then we have the climate forecast, which is 30 to 100 years out,” said one Pentagon official. “It really doesn’t help the combatant commanders plan their operations.”

The Defense Department has sponsored research on climate change and security, and last year pledged $7.5 million to study impacts in Africa, where security experts say terrorism and climate change could become twin challenges for weak governments.

For example, some projections point to Niger, which had a military coup last year, as highly vulnerable to climate change.

“Before I started looking at Niger, I wouldn’t have necessarily put it as a place that we would be that concerned about,” said Joshua Busby, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin conducting the DOD-funded research. “But they provide a significant percentage of the world’s uranium supplies, and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is active there.”

The CIA climate center recently brought in an Africa specialist, and Larry himself just returned from a visit to the continent.

Senior intelligence officials say it will take a marriage of regional experts and climate change specialists to make vital connections like these.

Last December, the center launched a website that gives other CIA analysts access to its work and the classified 2008 NIC assessment.  The unit is now developing environmental warning software that combines regional climate projections with political and demographic information.

But whether this early work by the climate change center will be enough to produce needed culture change within the intelligence community remains to be seen.

“You have a lot of regional experts who haven’t thought in those terms,” said one senior intelligence official.  “That’s the difficult part.”

Through the National Academy of Sciences, the CIA is also collaborating with outside experts who include leading climatologists, former CIA director R. James Woolsey and former Vice President Al Gore’s national security adviser, Leon Fuerth.

Ralph Cicerone, a veteran of the 1990s Medea group and now president of the National Academy of Sciences, leads the work.  He said the group is trying to fill scientific holes that could become major problems for policymakers.

“If some future president calls up the secretary of state or the director of Central Intelligence, and says, ‘Gee, I have this draft treaty on my desk, should I sign it?  Can we verify it?’ and one of them were to say to the president, ‘Gee, we never thought of that’ — that’s not an acceptable answer,” Cicerone said.

Intelligence officials also say more work is needed on low-probability, high-impact events. In 2003, a Pentagon-sponsored study (pdf) concluded that if rapid glacial melt caused the ocean’s major currents to shut down, there could be conflicts over resources, migration and significant geopolitical realignments.

“We get a lot of these shocks of one kind or the other — whether it’s Katrina or the financial crisis,” said a senior intelligence official. “We need to be prepared to think about how we would deal with that.”

This summer, the CIA plans to host a climate war game looking at exactly these sorts of high-impact events.  Larry intends to build the scenarios with the help of security experts, scientists and insurance specialists, as well as Hollywood screenwriters who can conjure up the most unforeseeable and disastrous scenarios.

“That’s what we hope to get, the really wacky guys,” Larry said.

An uncertain future

Politics makes such forward-thinking work risky, though.  Intelligence analysis of climate change has been carefully designed to try to sidestep the topic’s political controversy. The National Intelligence Council scrupulously avoided delving into the science of climate change, including whether it is manmade or cyclical, and Larry has been instructed to do the same.

But with many newly elected Republicans questioning the scientific grounding of climate change and politicians from both sides of the aisle looking for places to cut spending, many think this intelligence work could be removed from the agenda.

Soon-to-be Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, plans to disband the House of Representatives’ three-year-old global warming committee, which has pressed the connection between climate change and national security and held a hearing where Fingar and Mowatt-Larssen testified.

“There’s just no doubt that the support for focusing on [climate issues] in the intelligence community — even energy security — has completely diminished,” said Eric Rosenbach, who served as Hagel’s national security adviser. “They need a champion.”

If lack of political support causes this intelligence work to once again fall by the wayside, it likely will be DOD that feels it most acutely.  Not only is the military concerned with how a changing climate could increase conflict, but it is also the 911 responder to humanitarian crises worldwide.

“The Navy must understand where, when and how climate change will affect regions around the world,” Rear Adm. David Titley, the Navy’s oceanographer, said in November at the last climate change hearing of the House science committee’s energy and environment subcommittee this session.

The effects of climate change are most evident in Arctic ice melt, where “new shipping routes have the potential to reshape the global transportation system,” Titley told subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash.

The hearing began with a lively debate on climate science, but by the time Titley testified, Baird was the only committee member left.

But for the lone lame-duck congressman, Titley delivered his testimony to two rows of empty chairs.

This story also appeared in McClatchy newspapers: Why the CIA is spying on a changing climate

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1 Comment

  1. Snapple says:

    Great site, but the video here does not work for me. I saw it on the Mc Clatchy site, however.