Climate Change Has Not Been Entirely Erased From US Government Priorities

The current administration has done its best to erase and ignore climate change as a growing threat to our economic and physical security. The topic has been removed from the EPA and other agency websites, as well as from the summary of the current National Defense Strategy (actual document is classified). Thus far, though, there is one holdout in government – the intelligence community. On February 13 the Senate select Committee on Intelligence received a briefing from several top members of the intelligence community. This was their annual World-Wide Threats briefing. The accompanying Statement for the Record by the Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, provided much detail prior to the nearly 3-hour hearing. Even though oral discussion of the impacts of climate change on global threats to this country was absent in oral questioning, the written statement by Dan Coates, Director of National Intelligence, made it quite clear that climate has not been erased from their agenda.

In the Foreword of his statement, Coats lays out several drivers to threats, including the risk of interstate conflict; the threat of state and non-state weapons of mass destruction; slow economic growth and technology induced disruptions in job markets fueling populism; and  “challenges from urbanization and migration will persist, while the effects of air pollution, inadequate water, and climate change on human health and livelihood will become more noticeable.”

One of the eleven global threats outlined by Director Coats was “Environment and Climate Change.”  This section, in its entirety:

“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 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. Extreme weather events in a warmer world have the potential for greater impacts and 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. Research has not identified indicators of tipping points in climate-linked earth systems, suggesting a possibility of abrupt climate change.

  • Worsening air pollution from forest burning, agricultural waste incineration, urbanization, and rapid industrialization—with increasing public awareness—might drive protests against authorities, such as those recently in China, India, and Iran.
  • Accelerating biodiversity and species loss—driven by pollution, warming, unsustainable fishing, and acidifying oceans—will jeopardize vital ecosystems that support critical human systems. Recent estimates suggest that the current extinction rate is 100 to 1,000 times the natural extinction rate.
  • Water scarcity, compounded by gaps in cooperative management agreements for nearly half of the world’s international river basins, and new unilateral dam development are likely to heighten tension between countries.”

One area where the written statement is deficient is in failing to make any correlation between other threats and the issue of climate.  “Human displacement” is cited because of record high global displacements, raising the risk of disease outbreaks and political upheaval.  While much displacement is occurring because of conflict, displacement is also occurring as regions become less habitable due to the changing climate.  “Health” is another threat where climate change could be a major factor.  The document, however, is limited in its discussion, only addressing climatological patterns increasing the reach of mosquitos and ignoring its impact on the frequency and diversity of disease outbreaks worldwide.

Despite these deficiencies, it is somewhat reassuring to know there are still a few outposts of rational government operations.