The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats took to Capitol Hill earlier this week, and, in a written testimony to US lawmakers, asserted that climate change is a significant threat that deserves their attention.
At the same time, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not only constantly muddying the waters of climate science, but also suggesting that the warming climate may not necessarily be a bad thing. In tandem with the White House and several other federal agencies, climate research is being nixed and international agreements are being entirely rejected.
It’s hard not to feel like you’ve awoken in an alternate reality when you stand before such a jarring juxtaposition. It is, however, 2018, and this is par for the course.
Coats, the head of the US Intelligence Community, made his remarks via the submission of the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment. This lengthy tome delineates the dangers America faces from any such source, including via cyber attacks, terrorism, organized crime, weapons of mass destruction, hostile states, regional uprisings, and even potential conflicts in space.
“The past 115 years have been the warmest period in the history of modern civilization, and the past few years have been the warmest years on record,” it notes. It adds that extreme weather events can “compound with other drivers to raise the risk of humanitarian disasters, conflict, water and food shortages, population migration, labor shortfalls, price shocks, and power outages.”
“The impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent – and possibly upheaval – through 2018.”
The fact that the report links the effects of climate change to things like conflict is a point worth exploring.
In the recent past, climate change has been sometimes referred to by lawmakers and the military as a “threat multiplier,” in that it’s a phenomenon that makes other pre-existing problems, like water availability or economic collapse, worse. It’s seen as an exacerbating factor.
Suggesting a more direct link between climate change and conflict, though, is deeply problematic at this point. Such connections are often oversimplified, and social and economic factors clearly play powerful roles too. After all, two countries can experience a climate change-enhanced drought, but if one is wealthy and stable, and one isn’t, it’s far more likely an exodus will only take place in the latter.
Yes, climate change does make difficult environmental problems worse. However, although it’s possible that climate change is an additional antagonizing factor in already unstable parts of the world, the evidence behind such cause-and-effect connections is arguably insubstantial at this stage. It’s the mere possibility of such connections that alarms the authors of the report, though.
The US intelligence services, as well as the military establishment, have previously warned against the dangers of climate change. Although sometimes forced to tone down language which attributes it to humans, they treat it as a hazard like any other, and when possible, they prepare for it.
As pointed out by Bloomberg, two policy papers from the Department of Defense didn’t mention climate change as a national security threat, but the Secretary of Defense James Mattis has asserted on several occasions that climate change is a clear and present danger to American interests.
At the same time, although not including climate change in a key strategy document at the end of 2017, the Pentagon has previously indicated that it will continue to prepare for the phenomenon regardless of what the White House says.
So, its spooks looking out for climate change as the EPA shrugs its shoulders. What a time to be alive.