In just-issued intelligence reports released yesterday by the White House, the Department of Defense and U.S. intel organizations finally made public what has been clear in private quarters for some time: the climate crisis is already undermining long-term global security.
The globe could turn into a geopolitical powder keg as global heating accelerates. Photo: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
The reports come from the Pentagon and in the form of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on climate, the first major public disclosure from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Avril Haines is the Director who runs that Office.
Prior to these reports, the public position of the military and intelligence communities was mostly concerned with the impacts of extreme weather, flooding, and high temperatures on military readiness under various conditions. It was evaluated mostly tactically, dealing with issues such as that under certain conditions aircraft might not be able to fly and military personnel might be exposed to high-risk climate conditions.
This is the first public release from either U.S. intel or Pentagon sources which focuses on how the climate crisis is already fundamentally altering the global geopolitical situation. Further, where the past analyses were more about the possible failure of specific military missions, these new reports suggest how entire governments might fall and the balance of power could shift rapidly in years, not decades.
“Climate change is altering the strategic landscape and shaping the security environment, posing complex threats to the United States and nations around the world,” wrote Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement about the Pentagon’s new position document. “To deter war and protect our country, the [Defense] Department must understand the ways climate change affects missions, plans, and capabilities.”
The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) lays out what comes across as an even tougher message about what the world is up against, as the climate crisis transforms the planet.
“We assess that climate change will increasingly exacerbate risks to U.S. national security interests as the physical impacts increase and geopolitical tensions mount about how to respond to the challenge,” that report explains.
The report declares that “current policies and pledges are insufficient” even to meet the goals from the original Paris climate accords, something most climate experts agree now have been blown past in much of the world. It is impossible to meet the Paris agreement’s goal to keep temperature increases under 1.5° C over pre-industrial levels, simply because the planet is already far beyond that point in most areas where people live.
The report also makes clear how continued bickering about who has what responsibility to do something about the climate crisis. “Countries are arguing about who should act sooner and competing to control the growing clean energy transition,” it states.
It also states a damning truth about what countries are up against as they are finally being forced to deal with what the climate crisis is bringing, as well as how they will attempt to gloss over it.
“Most countries will face difficult economic choices and probably will count on technological breakthroughs to rapidly reduce their net emissions later,” it states.
This falls in line with criticisms of U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry’s statements connected with a G7 climate conference this May, in which he seemed optimistic that the world would get to net zero emissions by mid-century, and that it would be accomplished to a significant extent using technologies which are not even present today.
“I am told by scientists…that 50% of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero by 2050 or 2045, as soon as we can, 50 percent of those reductions are going to come from technologies that we don't yet have," Kerry said.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg attacked those statements at the time in a blistering tweet.
“’50% of the carbon reductions needed to get to net zero will come from technologies that have not yet been invented,’” she paraphrased Kerry as saying in a tweet on May 17.
“Great news!” she continued. “I spoke to I spoke to Harry Potter, and he said he will team up with Gandalf, Sherlock Holmes & The Avengers and get started right away!”
Though the sarcasm may have been “over-the-top,” it does echo concerns that world governments are perpetuating dangerous thinking by waiting for some future magic solution to arrive to save everyone.
The NIE says the weak combined approach by the developed nations is also going to leave developing nations and those more vulnerable stuck with having only that dysfunctional group to turn to for assistance. That will, the report says, create “additional demands on U.S. diplomatic, economic, humanitarian, and military resources.”
As part of its reviews, the NIE explicitly named Afghanistan, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea, Nicaragua, and Pakistan as countries which it believes are at acute risk for near-term impacts of the climate crisis, both because of where they are located as well as because of the inadequacy of the resources available to them to deal with the crisis.
The NIE explored how as ocean fishing populations may decline due to increased ocean acidity and crop harvests may be damaged badly by continuing drought on most continents, there are possible scenarios already forming where countries may begin “widespread hoarding” starting just ten years from now. The report warns that could create widespread famine.
The coming global water and food shortages could also drive citizens to begin mass protests in many countries, decrying “governments’ inability to meet basic human needs,” the NIE report continued. Such a situation could force widespread dramatic shifts in political leadership, clustered within just a few years’ time.
These last two situations point to the high potential of major societal collapse by the early 2030s.
The NIE also notes that pressure must be put to bear on other nations to get them to take tougher concerted actions to alleviate global emissions on their part.
“We assess that Beijing would need to follow through on President Xi Jinping’s pledge at the U.S. Climate Summit in April to phase out coal consumption,” the NIE document said.
In the Pentagon report released in parallel with the NIE summary, it warns about how drought and flooding from extreme weather conditions which extend past multiple country borders is already becoming politically and potentially even militarily charged. In the Mekong Delta region, for example, China’s control of many of the sources of water for the Mekong River has already put them in a power position to regulate the lives of nations such as Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam without firing a single bullet. In the Nile River region, the water is needed for agriculture as well as hydroelectric power, spanning borders from Egypt to Ethiopia.
Other conflict opportunities it cites in its report include how ocean warming and weaponizing freshwater resources will disrupt fishery access across the world. That could create food insecurity rapidly, especially as fish migrate from their original locations just to survive.
The Pentagon documents also call out how the scramble to implement new technological solutions such as advanced wind turbines, solar cells, and energy storage systems could force global conflicts over control of the mineral resources needed for some of the components.
Those documents also warn that as global climate migration accelerates with people seeking to escape rising sea levels, extreme weather, unbearable heat, drought, and flooding, some nations will use this as an opportunity to destabilize regions and encourage conflicts which may aid them in their geopolitical objectives.
“Absent a robust strategy from the United States and Europe to address climate-related migration, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, and other states could seek to gain influence by providing direct support to impacted countries grappling with political unrest related to migration,” the White House document on this says.
Climate migration may even need to be added to the list of valid reasons for the U.S. to accept some groups seeking entrance into the country, say some experts.
Though not released publicly as part of these reports, possibly because of the sensitivity involved, Russia’s strategic exploitation of the melting of the Arctic to create a new secure shipping channel linking Asia to Europe is also a concern. Moscow is also building new military bases and strategic infrastructure on the southern edge of the Arctic Ocean. Together these could represent a strategic threat to northern Europe and NATO on one side, and Alaska on the other.
China is also working on strategies to take advantage of the rapidly thawing Arctic.
These may be behind the Pentagon’s cryptic comment about the need to do something about “countering malign actors who seek to exploit climate change to gain influence.”
Together the two sets of reports paint a worrisome picture of how the climate crisis is already destabilizing the global world order, and how it will grow to dismantle even more in the future. That the reports exist at all is a positive, since it shows some realism about such an important topic.
What is missing still is any practical approach to addressing it. If the past is any guideline, the U.S. response will be to throw more trillions of dollars more into the military for offensive and defensive use as the climate crisis throws the world off-balance. What should happen is to invest all that money and a lot more into helping humanity survive global heating.