New US Intelligence Community Reports Focus on Climate and Ecological Security Risks

Vice President Kamala Harris swears in Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence Thursday, Jan, 21, 2021 (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

In two new publicly-available, unclassified reports, the US Director of National Intelligence makes clear the critical role climate change and ecological degradation are playing in shaping the US national security landscape, both in the near term and long term. While the US intelligence community has long warned of the threats posed by climate change, the new Global Trends report and the latest Annual Threat Assessment are some of the sharpest, most detailed, and urgent warnings to date.

Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World

The quadrennial Global Trends report assesses the key trends and uncertainties that will form the strategic environment for the United States during the next two decades. This year’s report identifies environment and climate change as a “structural force” that, along with technological change, demographics and human development, and economics, will set the parameters of the future. The report gives more pages over to climate and environment issues than any previous Global Trends, noting, “During the next 20 years, the physical effects from climate change of higher temperatures, sea level rise, and extreme weather events will impact every country. The costs and challenges will disproportionately fall on the developing world, intersecting with environmental degradation to intensify risks to food, water, health, and energy security.”

The report digs into the second and third order effects of climate change and ecological degradation, including increased risks of societal cleavages, competition among states, rising instability and conflict risk, and further strains on the international system. Importantly, climate effects are woven into the report’s final scenarios analysis, as well as its examination of less certain developments within societies, states and the international community. 

Annual Threat Assessment

After not publicly publishing or briefing a threat assessment in 2020, the DNI has reverted back to its normal practice of releasing an unclassified version of its Annual Threat Assessment (ATA) ahead of Congressional hearings with the leaders of key intelligence agencies. Generally, the ATA is meant to cover threats within the next year, though the authors acknowledge that some analysis goes beyond that time frame, given that a “near-term focus may help head off greater threats in the future, such as [on] climate change and environmental degradation.”

Like Global Trends, the threat assessment recognizes the complex global security landscape, stating,”In the coming year, the United States and its allies will face a diverse array of threats that are playing out amidst the global disruption resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and against the backdrop of great power competition, the disruptive effects of ecological degradation and a changing climate, an increasing number of empowered non-state actors, and rapidly evolving technology. The complexity of the threats, their intersections, and the potential for cascading events in an increasingly interconnected and mobile world create new challenges for the IC. Ecological and climate changes, for example, are connected to public health risks, humanitarian concerns, social and political instability, and geopolitical rivalry.”

In her opening statement at the threat assessment hearing in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) on 14 April, DNI Avril Haines noted the United States is facing, “more intense and cascading challenges,” that will “repeatedly test the resilience and adaptability of communities, states and the international system.” She noted that climate change among other threats require the intelligence community to “broaden [its] definition of national security,” and while some climate risks are indirect, “warmer weather can generate direct, immediate impacts,” such as extreme weather and conflict over resources. 

Next Steps

The focus of both reports on complex, cascading risks from climate change and ecological degradation is welcome. Even better, in her SSCI remarks, DNI Haines alluded to making changes to the IC workforce to better manage and understand these risks, noting the IC needs to “develop and integrate new and emerging expertise into our work.” If done right, that’s the kind of action that will lead to longer-lasting, institutional change that can help the United States prepare for and prevent climate and ecological security risks in the years to come.

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