Climate change will pose a greater threat to national security in a number of ways including economic impacts, migration surges, natural disasters, the spread of pandemics, and an increased risk of global political instability, intelligence agencies warned in the community’s 2021 Annual Threat Assessment.
“The intelligence community has been looking at climate change over bipartisan administrations for decades now,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the House Intelligence Committee at a Thursday hearing. “And so in a way, it’s just become increasingly accepted as something that is part of the national security landscape.”
The IC assessment finds that “the effects of a changing climate and environmental degradation will create a mix of direct and indirect threats, including risks to the economy, heightened political volatility, human displacement, and new venues for geopolitical competition that will play out during the next decade and beyond.”
“Scientists also warn that warming air, land, and sea temperatures create more frequent and variable extreme weather events, including heat waves, droughts, and floods that directly threaten the United States and U.S. interests, although adaptation measures could help manage the impact of these threats,” the report continues. “The degradation and depletion of soil, water, and biodiversity resources almost certainly will threaten infrastructure, health, water, food, and security, especially in many developing countries that lack the capacity to adapt quickly to change, and increase the potential for conflict over competition for scarce natural resources.”
In January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the world’s seven-warmest years have all occurred since 2014, with 10 of the warmest years occurring since 2005. While NOAA ranked 2020 as the second-hottest year on record, a separate NASA analysis concluded that 2020 tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record.
“Arctic Sea ice minimum coverage reached its second lowest level on record in 2020, highlighting the increasing accessibility of resources and sea lanes in a region where competition is ratcheting up among the United States, China, and Russia,” the intelligence assessment continued. “In 2020, six Atlantic storms passed a ‘rapid intensification threshold’ because of warming temperatures, representing more damaging storms that offer less time for populations—as well as U.S. military installations on the Gulf Coast—to evacuate or prepare.”
Last year’s storm season also pummeled Central America, a region already “suffering from several years of alternating drought and storms, increasing the potential for large-scale migration from the region as pandemic-related restrictions on movement ease.”
“Environmental degradation from pollution and poor land management practices will continue to threaten human health and risk social unrest,” the report said. “Air pollution was the fourth leading risk factor for premature death globally in 2019, resulting in approximately 7 million deaths, and has been found to increase the susceptibility to and severity of COVID-19 infections.”
Even though COVID-19 lockdowns in the earlier part of the year produced temporary improvements in air quality, “by September 2020 air pollution had returned to pre-pandemic levels,” the IC noted.
“The threat from climate change will intensify because global energy usage and related emissions continue to increase, putting the Paris Agreement goals at risk,” said the assessment. “Even in the midst of a global pandemic that shuttered countries and significantly reduced travel, global CO2 emissions only decreased by less than 6-percent in 2020. By December 2020, they had rebounded to previous monthly levels as countries began to reopen, an indication of how strongly emissions are coupled to economic growth.”