The Impact of Climate Change on National Security

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Industry News
The Impact of Climate Change on National Security
By Susan Smith

By now, the world is knowledgeable about climate change, and recognizes that it is something to take serious note of. But governments are beginning to look at climate change from another viewpoint: the perspective that there is evidence to suggest the rate of climate change poses grave implications to national security. In a panel discussion at GEOINT 2008, a gathering of experts comprised of Maj. Gen. Richard L. Engel, U.S. Air Force (Ret.). National Intelligence Council; Kevin W. Billings, U.S. Air Force; Kea Duckenfield, NGA; John A. Kelmelis, Penn State University; Sean C. Tytler, DIA; Allan Falcon of the U.S. Army Environmental Program Office discussed what makes climate change a national security issue and why.

According to experts, climate change puts pressure on human societies and exacerbates the causes of instability in already volatile regions of the world. Climate change causes drought, famine and other climatic events that in turn may trigger greater violence, mass migrations, border disputes or the collapse of entire governments.

An Acknowledged National Security Issue

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Tropical Cyclone Billy continued traveling westward along the coast of Western Australia on December 24, 2008. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image the same day, at 11:40 a.m. local time.
Anything that degrades U.S. power is considered a national security issue, according to Maj. Gen. Richard L. Engel, U.S. Air Force (Ret.), National Intelligence Council (NIC). Looking forward to the year 2030, Engel said there are three paths to address:
  • Direct water scarcity which can create instability
  • Agricultural degradation, particularly if it forces people to move
  • Extreme weather events that damage invaluable infrastructure. In the developed world, people can be economically consumed by these events.
Engel said that after they finished the analysis they provided a view of what it would look like superficially around the world. There are some areas they would like more research in, and in understanding how climate change may impact these countries.

In the intelligence community, Engel said, there are no scientists that look at climate. “We had to rely on outside science expertise and we used social scientists to understand what that meant to people. We find ourselves frustrated looking at the state of science didn’t see enough geographical details to see how it affects the state’s stability. To summarize a 1 degree temperature in a country the size of China doesn’t give much information as to how that would affect people.”

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Variations in CO2, temperature and dust from the Vostok ice core over the last 450,000 years
They also looked at tipping points, as it would be good to know if the globe is approaching one of them.

Engel said they have asked the science and social science communities to help with modeling human behavior. “When you’re looking at state stability, you’re looking at stuff that will cause fractures in society,” Engel said. “We are all fallible carbon units, and we’re more complicated than airplanes.”

One of the NIC’s big concerns is crop failures and understanding where water scarcity issues are going to build up. They are working with the National Academy of Science to look at historical information to understand accumulations of ice. “This brings the science community in conversation with the geospatial intelligence community, which will also help the science community,” said Engel.

Kea Duckenfield, NGA worked as a program manager in the Climate Research System before coming to the NGA, where she saw how climate science is funded and how it fares. Duckenfield stated that in that program, climate change has become “a generally acknowledged national security issue.”

In talking about NGA’s role and GEOINT as it supports research, Duckenfield said there are some challenges to looking at climate change in this way, as it doesn’t respect state boundaries. “It’s not a single factor that will contribute to things happening, the climate signal is very small compared to the amount of noise there is when you’re in the system,” she pointed out. “So you have to be watching it over a period of time. The science questions we have are also the ones the community has. Climate changes and national security will be a gradual process, it won’t be a top priority in the intelligence community, but if you don’t watch it, it will bite. It’s a classic geographic information problem.”

Duckenfield noted that NGA has terrific strengths, and is used to bring in data from a number of different sources. The NGA can use geospatial science to work with geophysical processes and social processes. Already the NGA has produced some great products such as imagery of the Arctic and other locations. “When there’s a disaster, people look for imagery,” said Duckenfield. “If it happens somewhere where citizens are unprepared, they will need immediate response.”

Allan Falcon of the U.S. Army Environmental Program Office puts together environmental monitoring. “If you want to change the local environment, send in the army,” said Falcon. “If you really want it dramatic, send in the Air Force. The human terrain changes too.”

Falcon pointed to a study done at George Mason University in the Department of Climate Dynamics where they have been looking at all the models on climate change and determining whether or not these models are a good guide to what has happened.

Falcon said that the conclusion is, yes, there is change, the models show varying rates, the end result is he believes climate change is going to happen faster than the public realizes. “We have set up a new center at the university for climate change communication,” said Falcon. “It is a social science unit focused on getting climate change information to people, and to see how they’ll cope with it and how worried they will be with it.” The goal is to impress upon the public how important climate change is and teach them what they can do now to impact it.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) conducted an extinction study in which they have catalogued 5,487 wild mammals, according to Falcon. Of those, 1,441 are endangered primarily because of habitat changes, many attributable directly to expected climate change.

In terms of national intelligence, Falcon pointed out that at with the end of the Cold War, the enemy was no longer defined. “The core group of the stable world where people make a profit is going to be the group who wants to maintain the status quo. The unstable world where connections are much less well developed, those are the people who are going to be most resentful of those living in the stable world,” explained Falcon. In the analysis he referenced, the disconnected included South America, Balkans, independent states of central Asia, Middle East (most) and Indonesia. The large populations of China and India are considered connected because they are increasingly connected to the U.S. Falcon said that the disconnected world is where the terrorist threat will come from.

Continents such as Africa, which is very disconnected, is ripe for unrest, as it has a rapid rise in population, less food and already a great deal of climate change. Another factor impacted by climate change are disease vectors which change with the climate and impact agriculture and livestock. By monitoring the disconnected core for change and availability of water and food, the connected world can have a better idea when to step in with humanitarian aid in order to maintain peace.

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