Secrets Alone Won’t Save Us: Providing ‘Decision Advantage’ on Climate Security

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When I was a CIA officer, one thing about work I could actually share with my family was a tour of the museum at headquarters in Langley. Visitors would marvel at the concealment devices and exclaim over tales of derring-do in the name of gathering hidden information. When we arrived at the section on Directorate of Analysis, however, they would feign interest. Printed copies of reports weren’t as interesting as the exhibit on robot spy fish.

Stealing secrets has always captured the public imagination about the intelligence profession, with good reason. Secrets were the claim to fame of the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Ahead of D-Day, it was “Wild Bill” Donovan’s placement of spies throughout European ports and behind enemy lines that gathered information needed to support a successful invasion. As President Dwight Eisenhower said of the Office of Strategic Services: “If [it] had done nothing else, the intelligence gathered alone before D-Day justified its existence.”



Of course, the security and intelligence landscape has changed significantly since the days of Eisenhower. More often than not, “going behind enemy lines” means signing into a computer, not jumping out of an airplane. The risks facing the United States are more complex, involving not only a mix of state and non-state actors, but also systemic factors such as climate change, which the Director of National Intelligence’s 2021 Global Trends report identified as one of just a handful of trends “setting the parameters” of our future world. This world is one in which temperatures and sea levels rise significantly, and weather patterns become ever more unpredictable and more extreme. It is likely that millions of people will be displaced and forced to migrate, tensions will rise within and between states as water and food insecurity grows, and governments will increasingly struggle to manage the compounding risks as climate hazards intersect with other stressors. There is not a single current national security concern of the United States that will not be affected in some way by the climate crisis.

What does a security landscape shaped by climate change mean for how the U.S. intelligence community does business? For some, it suggests a return to first principles. Doubling down on what my family members always found the most intriguing in the CIA museum — collecting secrets — as a way to distinguish the intelligence community from the private sector and open source world. As Joshua Rovner has argued, “The comparative advantage of secret agencies is secret information.” Certainly, collecting secrets about governments plans and intentions regarding climate policy can be important. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry lamented the lack of collection on climate at a conference earlier this year. He maintained that if climate change is truly an existential threat, then the U.S. intelligence community should put as much effort into collecting information about U.S. adversaries’ positions on climate negotiations as it does into sussing out their positions on nuclear agreements.

Secrets, though, are not enough. To meet the goal of consistently providing strategic advantage for the United States, the intelligence community must have the capacity to put those secrets in context — to analyze and communicate how they intersect with other information about risks to U.S. national security.  The trick is not to abandon secrets or try to replicate what the private sector or academia does, but instead to marry clandestine collection with other, all-source information. This is, of course, not a new concept in intelligence studies. Scholars and practitioners have spilled gallons of ink debating the best ways to integrate open source information. The founder of the analytic profession in the United States, Sherman Kent, maintained that integrating data and consulting outside experts were critical to sound tradecraft. Most analysts I knew during my career prided themselves on their deep contextual knowledge of the regions they covered — the history, the academic experts, the local news sources, and the arts and culture.

However, bringing a climate lens to intelligence is not as simple as integrating just one more unclassified source. It is different because of the type of information that needs to be integrated, the skill set needed to do so, and the systemic nature of the risk. First of all, it is hard science on top of social science. This requires a ‘climate competent’ workforce that is scientifically literate. This doesn’t mean creating big teams within the intelligence community that are doing climate science. What it does mean is ensuring intelligence officers are able to understand and incorporate climate models and climate analysis into their work on a regular basis.

What does this look like in practice? It can be as straightforward as using references like Climate Central’s “Surging Seas” tool or regularly consulting scientific primary sources and literature. It also means leveraging more complex tools and practices. Advances in machine learning and computing power are leading to new modeling tools that can provide a wealth of relevant information to intelligence analysts. One example is the use of “large ensemble assessments,” which are repeated runs of the same climate model, adjusting the starting-point conditions each time. Such ensembles allow scientists to more clearly show a range of potential regional climate trends — important information for analysts to incorporate into their work as they assess possible future economic, political, and conflict scenarios in different parts of the world. Another example is “high resolution” climate models, that, thanks to advances in supercomputing power, can better represent small-scale atmospheric processes. These models allow for more precision in risk assessments.

Moving forward, relying on existing climate modeling approaches and tools probably isn’t enough for the intelligence community to truly tackle climate security risks. As Alice Hill, a former climate adviser on the National Security Council, recently detailed, city planners in the United States are desperate for more localized climate data so they can build better adaptation responses. Intelligence analysts need that type of information also, but in areas across the globe. For example, though scientists assess Africa will face some of the greatest risks from climate change, accurate climate data on the continent is lacking, which inhibits useful predictive modeling of climate impacts. Without more localized and robust predictive climate models for Africa, intelligence analysts won’t have the information they need to answer the kinds of questions they’re sure to get from policymakers in the coming years: How are climate hazards shaping the prospects for peace in the continent’s conflict zones? In which geographies will climate impacts and extremist groups overlap in such a way to increase security risks? Will U.S. competitors’ offers of infrastructure support to African countries stand up to the extreme events brought on by rising temperatures?

While there are opportunities for the intelligence community to partner with the private sector to develop such capabilities, the first stop should be with scientists in the U.S. government. Congress has given the intelligence community a couple of tools to do just that by establishing the Climate Security Advisory Council, designed to link the U.S. government’s scientific and intelligence agencies, and the National Academies Climate Security Roundtable, a mechanism for climate science stakeholders to provide information to the intelligence community. Both convenings provide the community a platform it can use to encourage and shape the development of new modeling approaches that meet its specific needs. Additionally, intelligence agencies should use these groupings to pursue truly interdisciplinary analytic reports that marry climate science with social science. An example of this type of analysis can be seen in a series of reports and story maps released in recent months by the Woodwell Climate Center and the Council on Strategic Risks, detailing how climate change will shape security risks in strategic regions of the globe.

Fully realizing this type of approach within the intelligence community — a big government bureaucracy — is not easy. I have previously outlined the ways in which new resources, new leadership, and new institutional structures can help. To its credit, the Biden administration has taken many steps to do just that, as reflected in the Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. Just as important, however, are less immediately tangible changes in organizational culture and mindset. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines acknowledged these challenges in a recent interview,

Climate is an urgent crisis, but it’s very hard for a variety of institutional reasons to actually integrate it into your day-to-day work in a fully successful way, which is to say that it’s much easier to focus on climate negotiations or what states are doing in their policies.

She went on to say however, that she is starting to see some shifts, noting she has been astonished by,

the degree to which, in addition to focusing on China and all of our major threats that we talk about in our annual threat hearings, all of us [in the intelligence community] have come to the conclusion that … investing in science and technology and tools that allow us to be better at what we’re doing, our institutions, our partnerships, our resilience, our capacity to integrate this expertise, is what is really important at this critical time in our history.

Time will tell if this recognition from intelligence community leaders results in long-term change. If it does, perhaps some day a future president will sing the director’s praises the same way Ike did of “Wild Bill” Donovan and the Office of Strategic Services. As article after article about this month’s record temperatures around the globe point out, the climate is only going to get worse. And the United States can only navigate this warmer world with an intelligence community that collects foreign secrets, but also has the full range of information, tools, and talent it needs to analyze these challenges.



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: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Staff Sgt. Elijaih Tiggs)