Forget the Islamic State. The new conflicts of the future could be sparked by climate change.
- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
To the long list of the world’s woes, add another: the growing impact of climate change, which could heighten tensions among nations and even spark new wars. That’s the grim assessment of the government’s new National Intelligence Strategy, which lays out what America’s top spies think are the major challenges facing U.S. national security.
The document, released Thursday, is a kind of road map of hazards meant to help U.S. intelligence agencies decide which of the world’s biggest problems to study most intensively over the next four years. Water shortages, as well as fierce competition for food and energy, will continue to bedevil leaders in the United States and abroad, the document concludes. "Many governments will face challenges to meet even the basic needs of their people as they confront demographic change, resource constraints, effects of climate change, and risks of global infectious disease outbreaks."
The strain of a growing world population, coupled with the effects of pollution and climate change, has taxed many of the water systems that feed the world’s people and are vital for agriculture. More than half of the world’s wetlands have disappeared, and climate change around the world has altered weather patterns and led to water shortages, experts say.
Scarcity now poses a global security threat that U.S. intelligence agencies take as seriously as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, according to the strategy, which was produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all American intelligence agencies. And hints of a dystopian future can already be seen. In East Africa, drought has led to lethal fighting among Somali clans for access to potable water. The United Nations World Food Program has estimated that 650 million people are living in areas where flood and droughts can lead to wild spikes in food prices. Public anxiety — and fascination — has given rise to a new genre of films, "cli-fi," with apocalyptic climate-change scenarios at the heart of their plots.
To deal with the destabilizing effects of global climate change, as well as other massive threats, the intelligence community plans to focus on providing "deep context, knowledge, and understanding" about how natural resource concerns are affecting nations on a case-by-case basis, the document states.
This isn’t the first time that U.S. national security officials have warned that shortages could bring countries into violent competition with one another over life’s basic necessities. The previous intelligence strategy, published in 2009, also noted the risks posed by climate change. But the new strategy contains more urgency about the problem, and says that shortages could "exacerbate" regional conflicts that are already raging around the world, whether in war-torn countries or those threatened by pandemics.
The Defense Department has also been sounding alarms on climate change. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review for the first time added it to the list of threats facing the United States. And in 2009, the CIA established a center devoted to studying the security risks from climate change.
The new intelligence strategy arrives at a particularly vulnerable time for the United States, when America’s spies are less capable of gathering vital information than they were a year ago, according to James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, who oversaw its writing. Clapper argues that intelligence collection has been set back because of the leak of classified NSA documents by Edward Snowden, and that relationships with foreign intelligence agencies have been damaged, as well. Add to that increasingly tight budgets, which have led some unnamed agencies to stop collecting intelligence on important targets, and the result is a "perfect storm" that means "we — as a nation — are taking more risk," Clapper said in a statement accompanying the strategy’s release.
The new strategy is also notable because, for the first time, it includes a set of "principles of professional ethics" for U.S. intelligence agencies and personnel. The seven principles include "lawfulness" and "integrity," and are partly a response to the criticism that U.S. spy agencies have taken over their role in torture, warrantless wiretapping, and other controversies since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
"I believe, if we keep these [principles] in front of us, we can continue the crucial work in support of our senior policymakers while we also increase transparency and protect privacy and civil liberties," Clapper said. Ever since NSA documents were leaked by Snowden last year, Clapper’s office has been under pressure to release more information about the legal justification for intrusive surveillance programs, particularly the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records by the NSA. Clapper’s office has declassified and published thousands of pages of court documents and legal memoranda in an effort to counter critics who say that the Obama administration, contrary to the president’s commitment to transparency, has shrouded the actions of U.S. spy agencies in secrecy and launched an unprecedented crackdown on government employees who leak to journalists about programs that the employees think could violate the law.
The Obama administration has prosecuted more federal employees for unauthorized disclosures of classified information than all previous administrations combined. And the Justice Department is currently trying to force a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, James Risen, to identify his source for a story about a failed CIA effort to stall Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Risen has refused to identify his source in court, and his case is likely to end up in the Supreme Court, with far-reaching implications for press freedoms and the intelligence agencies.