Last Year, the U.S. Intelligence Community Warned of a Coronavirus Pandemic: Will We Heed their Climate Warnings?

By John Conger, Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell

In the absence of a public hearing and release of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” this year, it is instructive to look at last year’s assessment to see what the nation’s intelligence professionals were predicting. The following passage was particularly striking:

We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or largescale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support. Although the international community has made tenuous improvements to global health security, these gains may be inadequate to address the challenge of what we anticipate will be more frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases because of rapid unplanned urbanization, prolonged humanitarian crises, human incursion into previously unsettled land, expansion of international travel and trade, and regional climate change.

Given the Intelligence Community’s clear assessment of the threat from pandemics over a year ago, serious questions naturally follow: What additional policies and measures could have been put into place to prepare for the potential for “massive rates of death and disability,” or how it would “severely affect the world economy?”

At the same time, we note that climate change and its security implications are also a feature of the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment.  The Center for Climate and Security has long noted that we have a responsibility to prepare for and prevent the security implications of climate change, including the intersection of climate change and health security, as addressed in our own Security Threat Assessment of Global Climate Change published in February of this year.  Perhaps the Intelligence Community’s prescience with regard to pandemic threats will help policy makers better recognize, appreciate and act on their insights into the security impacts from climate change as well.

In addition to the above reference to climate change’s role in the spread of infectious diseases, here is the section on environmental security and climate change from the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment:

Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond. Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security. Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution.

  • Extreme weather events, many worsened by accelerating sea level rise, will particularly affect urban coastal areas in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Western Hemisphere. Damage to communication, energy, and transportation infrastructure could affect low-lying military bases, inflict economic costs, and cause human displacement and loss of life.
  • Changes in the frequency and variability of heat waves, droughts, and floods—combined with poor governance practices—are increasing water and food insecurity around the world, increasing the risk of social unrest, migration, and interstate tension in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Jordan.
  • Diminishing Arctic sea ice may increase competition—particularly with Russia and China— over access to sea routes and natural resources. Nonetheless, Arctic states have maintained mostly positive cooperation in the region through the Arctic Council and other multilateral mechanisms, a trend we do not expect to change in the near term. Warmer temperatures and diminishing sea ice are reducing the high cost and risks of some commercial activities and are attracting new players to the resource-rich region. In 2018, the minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic was 25 percent below the 30-year average from 1980 to 2010.

The ongoing U.S. and international struggles to grapple with the current pandemic prove the grave danger of not heeding these climate warnings. Both threaten systemic security and stability globally, and we now see vividly what that looks like.

Comprehensive policies and investments are needed to both prevent the scale and scope of climate change from increasing (net zero emissions as soon as possible, as recommended in our recent Threat Assessment report), and to prepare for those changes and threats already baked into the system (see our Climate Security Plan for America for a broad suite of recommendations on that front). If actions commensurate to the security threat of climate change are not taken, we run the risk of being just as stricken by crises flowing from those changes, as we are from the current pandemic we are grappling with now. And the consequences of that unpreparedness are almost too severe to contemplate.

The Honorable John Conger is Director of the Center for Climate and Security and the former U.S. Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and former acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment

Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell are Co-Founders and Research Directors of the Council on Strategic Risks and the Center for Climate and Security, as well as Directors and Senior Advisors to the International Military Council on Climate and Security


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