Analyzing the Climate Security Threat: Key Actions for the U.S. Intelligence Community 


President Joe Biden’s national security adviser has called climate change an urgent national security priority. Yet, as the person who recently led climate analysis across the U.S. intelligence community, I speak from experience when I say U.S. intelligence agencies are not treating it like one. The House Intelligence Committee agrees, noting in a report from September 2020, “the intelligence community places insufficient emphasis on … interconnected long-term national security threats, such as infectious diseases of pandemic potential and climate change.”



During my time on the National Intelligence Council from 2017 to 2020, I saw this all too often. Existing intelligence structures are organized around regions, state actors and, in the wake of 9/11, tactical threats. Actorless, borderless risks like climate change too often fall through the cracks and receive fewer resources than the so-called “hard” security threats — terrorism, great power competition, and nuclear proliferation — that are considered more important. Yet, as the House Intelligence Committee report pointed out, and as the COVID-19 crisis has unfortunately taught us, in today’s world the distinction between supposedly “hard” and “soft” security issues no longer makes sense. One cannot analyze U.S. competition with China and Russia without examining how climate change will affect their food and water supplies, coastal cities, energy demands, or health security. Similarly, one cannot forecast the likelihood of conflict in fragile states without exploring how climate change contributes to instability, nor can one understand extremist trajectories without digging into how the opportunity cost of joining terrorist groups is lowered when the effects of climate change eliminate the ability to make a livelihood from farming, for example. Indeed, these issues are not “soft” at all — they have real and wide-ranging “hard” security implications.

The bottom line is that the United States’ siloed approach to intelligence is largely incompatible with the scope and nature of a shared global threat like climate change. Earlier this year, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell stated that of the three greatest threats to the United States — nuclear war with Russia, pandemics, and climate change — only the nuclear threat receives the attention it deserves. This must change not only because the intelligence community’s top customer, Biden, is intensely focused on climate but because the community will fail in its duty to protect the United States if it does not. There are three primary actions the intelligence community and its new leaders should take to recalibrate their approach to the changing security landscape.

First, the intelligence community should take advantage of new analytic tools and methods, particularly those that exist in the real, unclassified world. As highlighted in The Center for Climate and Security’s Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent framework, we live in a moment of unprecedented capabilities. Advanced climate modeling allows us to project the implications of different emissions levels on risks such as the rising of sea levels, rainfall variability, wildfires, effects on biodiversity and marine and terrestrial ecosystems and functions, and new disease ranges. Thanks to Congress, the intelligence community now has structures through which it can more easily access these capabilities: a Climate Security Advisory Council and a National Academies Climate Security Roundtable. Both are designed to marry the technical capacity of federal scientific agencies with the global geopolitical and regional expertise of the intelligence community. Such partnerships can help illuminate how physical climate change effects will shape political, economic and security dynamics in countries and regions the United States cares about.

Translating this knowledge into timely analysis for top policymakers is the next step. An interagency Climate Security Crisis Watch Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as called for in our Climate Security Plan for America, could do so by leading government-wide assessments of the security risks of climate change. Had the CIA not closed its Center on Climate Change and National Security in 2012 because of congressional pressure, the intelligence community would not now be playing catch-up. A director of national intelligence watch center would elevate climate security to the level of cyber security and terrorism — both monitored by cross-cutting centers — providing resources and attention commensurate with what Biden calls an “existential threat.”

These structures will only bear fruit if they have the full backing of senior intelligence leaders. Therefore, the second key action Biden’s new intelligence team should take is to regularly and clearly communicate the gravity of the national security risks posed by climate change. When Biden announced Avril Haines’ appointment to director of national intelligence, she identified climate change as a threat that will “define the next generation.” The nominee for CIA director, Amb. Bill Burns, has made similar comments. These statements are good signs, but more is needed.

Haines will have an opportunity to set a marker early on when she delivers the 2021 Worldwide Threat Assessment to Congress. The assessment, which the Trump administration declined to provide publicly in 2020, has regularly included a brief mention of the threat of climate change as one of many facing the United States. This year, however, she has the chance to place it front and center, showcasing it as top concern that exacerbates and influences other security risks. This should be followed quickly by tasking the National Intelligence Council to meet Biden’s campaign pledge of a National Intelligence Estimate on climate change.

Finally, to ensure these words are followed by actions, the intelligence community should have the personnel and financial resources to carry out the work. The Climate Security Plan for America recommends appointing a national intelligence officer for climate security in the National Intelligence Council — a senior champion who can lead across and coordinate the work of all 17 intelligence agencies would be invaluable. The bench of intelligence community officers with scientific expertise and understanding of climate modeling should also be deepened significantly.

It’s not enough, though, to merely build bigger teams of functional experts. New approaches for organizing analytic endeavors must be considered given that climate change influences nearly every other top security priority. Climate security analysis must be fully integrated. For example, regional teams could include a climate security analyst along with the current cadres of political, military, economic, and targeting analysts. At the same time, scientific literacy should be deepened throughout the workforce so that all officers feel confident in their ability to understand climate change security risks. This can be achieved through more robust internal climate security training programs as well as by expanding sponsorship of outside academic training beyond traditional security and area studies programs.

Tackling these three climate security priorities early would ensure that the intelligence community can meet the demands the Biden administration will place on it. Importantly, these changes should be institutionalized in such a way to stand the test of time. While the intelligence community must be responsive to the needs of the president, it also has a responsibility to warn policymakers about threats irrespective of current political priorities. It is certain that climate change will increasingly shape the national security landscape during the next two decades and beyond, and the intelligence community must not be caught flat-footed again.



Erin Sikorsky is deputy director of the Center for Climate and Security, and the director of the International Military Council on Climate and Security. Previously, she served as the deputy director of the Strategic Futures Group on the National Intelligence Council in the United States, where she co-authored the quadrennial Global Trends report and led the U.S. intelligence community’s environmental and climate security analysis.

Image: NASA