Last summer, as torrential rains flooded Pakistan, a veteran
intelligence analyst watched closely from his desk at CIA headquarters just
outside the capital.
For the analyst, who heads the CIA’s year old Center
on Climate Change and National Security, the worst natural disaster in
Pakistan’s history was 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,” he said later, agreeing to talk only if his name were not revealed, for
“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 ... radicalization, disease” and displaced people? As
intelligence officials assess key components of state stability, they are
realizing that the norms they had been operating with – such as predictable
river flows and crop yields – are shifting.
Yet the US government is
ill-prepared to act on climate changes that are coming faster than anticipated
and threaten to bring instability to places of US national interest, interviews
with several dozen current and former officials and outside experts and a review
of two decades’ worth of government reports indicate.
lack crucial detail, they say, and information about how people react to changes
– for instance, by migrating – is sparse. Military officials say they don’t yet
have the intelligence they need in order to prepare for what might
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 wasn’t set up to deal with a problem such as
climate change that wasn’t about stealing secrets.
“I consider what the
US government is doing on climate change to be lip service,” said
Mowatt-Larssen, who is currently a fellow at Harvard University. “It’s not
Just getting to where the intelligence community is now,
however, has been a challenge.
Back in the 1990s, the CIA opened an
environmental center, swapped satellite imagery with Russia and cleared US
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 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 on the topic. But some Republicans attacked it as a diversion of
And when CIA Director Leon Panetta stood up the climate change
center in 2009, conservative lawmakers attempted to block its
“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
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
Environmental issues have long been recognized as key to
understanding what might happen in unstable countries. In the 1990s, while spies
studied such things as North Korean crop yields, attempting to anticipate where
shortages could lead to instability, the CIA also shared a trove of classified
environmental data with scientists through a program that became known as
“The whole group (of scientists) were patriots and this was an
opportunity to help the country do something about the train wreck (we) saw
coming” from climate change, said Robert Bindschadler, a glaciologist at NASA
who received a security clearance when Medea started in 1992.
scientists also helped the CIA interpret environmental data and improve
collection methods, former CIA Director John Deutch said in a 1996
But the Republican-controlled Congress gradually trimmed these
programs, and after President George W. Bush took office in 2001, top-level
interest in environmental security programs disappeared. Intelligence officials
working on them were reassigned.
Terry Flannery, who led the CIA’s
environmental security center until 2000, said he had to tread lightly in his
final years running it.
“You had this odd thing where it became an
interchange of science and politics,” he said. “At times, it was just
Retired Gen. Michael Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009,
said issues such as energy and water made Bush’s daily briefings, but climate
change was not a part of the agenda.
“I didn’t have a market for it when
I was director,” Hayden said in a recent interview.
“It was all terrorism
all the time, and when it wasn’t, it was all Iran.”
administration’s open skepticism of global warming hurt the intelligence
community’s efforts to track its impact. A 2007 congressional oversight report
found the administration “engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate
change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of
Today, climate scientists say their research is hindered
by a data gap resulting from inadequate funding during the Bush years.
2005, the National Research Council said the nation’s environmental satellite
system was “at risk of collapse.”
Even during the Bush administration,
though, pockets of work moved forward.
In 2007, Department of Energy
intelligence chief Mowatt-Larssen built an experimental program called Global
Energy & Environment Strategic Ecosystem, or Global EESE. He tapped Carol
Dumaine, a CIA foresight strategist known around the agency as a creative
visionary, to lead the program.
“Our modern intelligence evolved for a
different type of threat: monolithic, topdown, incrementally changing,” Dumaine,
who has since returned to the CIA, said in a recent interview. She, on the other
hand, was “trying to grow a garden of intelligence genius.”
brought together more than 200 of the brightest minds from around the world to
explore the impact of issues such as abrupt climate change, energy
infrastructure and environmental stresses in Afghanistan.
But after only
two years, the program was shuttered. Former members say it was brought down by
bureaucratic infighting, political pressure from Congress and the Bush White
House, and concerns about including foreign nationals in the intelligence
“The most important thing we lost is data.
We lost the data
that accompanies new ways of conducting intelligence and for getting it right
with environmental problems,” Mowatt-Larssen said.
In April 2007, a group
of high-ranking retired military officers published a report that said projected
changes to the climate posed a “serious threat to America’s national
Within weeks, a handful of lawmakers from both parties were
pushing to get climate change back on the intelligence community’s
Chuck Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, drafted
legislation that called climate change “a clear and present danger to the
security of the United States” and would have required an intelligence report on
Although the provision went nowhere, the National Intelligence
Council moved ahead on its own.
“The goal was to produce enough
understanding of the effects, the way they played out, government capacity, to
tee up for US government agencies the kind of questions they better start asking
now in order to be ready 20 years from now,” said Thomas Fingar, who was the
chairman of the NIC at the time and now teaches at Stanford
Three months after the assessment was completed, the NIC
appointed retired Maj.
Gen. Richard Engel as the director of its new
climate change and state stability program.
Some lawmakers were so
alarmed by the findings of the classified National Intelligence Assessment that
they pushed for a resurrection of Clinton-era environmental intelligence
IN THE months since the CIA’s climate change center began
operations, a team of about 15 analysts has inventoried the intelligence
community’s collection of environmental data, restarted the Medea program and
begun developing tools that bring global climate forecasts down to the regional
But Pentagon officials say the information they need most doesn’t
“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,
who spoke only after he was granted anonymity because he was not authorized to
talk to the news media. “It really doesn’t help the combatant commanders plan
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
“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 Pentagon-funded
research. “But they provide a significant percentage of the world’s uranium
supplies, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is active there.”
climate center recently brought in an Africa specialist, and its director 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 such as 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
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, who agreed to speak only if his name were not revealed, because of the
sensitivity of the topic.
“That’s the difficult part.”
National Academy of Sciences, the CIA also is 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
Ralph Cicerone, a veteran of the 1990s Medea group who’s now the
president of the National Academy of Sciences, leads the work. He said the group
was trying to fill scientific holes that could become major problems for
“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 concluded that if rapid glacial melt caused the ocean’s major currents to
shut down, there could be conflicts over resources, migration and significant
“We get a lot of these shocks of one kind or
the other, whether it’s Katrina or the financial crisis,” the senior
intelligence official said. “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 high-impact events such as Hurricane Katrina. The CIA 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.
But politics makes such
forward-thinking work risky. 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 man-made or cyclical, and the CIA
climate center 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.
House Speaker 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 a lack of
political support causes this intelligence work to fall by the wayside once
again, it probably will be the Pentagon that feels it most acutely. Not only is
the military concerned with how a changing climate could increase conflict, but
it is also the emergency responder to humanitarian crises worldwide.
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 in the previous session of
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,
The hearing began with a lively debate on climate science, but by
the time Titley testified, Baird was the only committee member left.
for the lone lame-duck congressman, Titley delivered his testimony to two rows
of empty chairs.
The writers are graduate students in Northwestern
University’s Medill School of Journalism.
This story is part of Medill’s
National Security Reporting Project, which is overseen by Josh Meyer, a former
national security writer for the Los Angeles Times who now teaches in Medill’s
Washington program, and Ellen Shearer, the director of Medill’s Washington
– Medill News Service/MCT
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