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The US spy community issues its first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on climate change – and it's not pretty

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WASHINGTON – The Biden administration’s top spies and scientists released the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on the global security threats posed by climate change on Thursday, concluding that it will pose ever-greater challenges internationally in the decades to come – and at a rate faster than previously expected due to political squabbling and inaction.

Within a decade, the estimate warned, higher ocean temperatures and acidity could devastate already strained commercial fisheries, droughts could deplete critically important grain harvests and increased food and water scarcity could trigger widespread conflict, hoarding and potentially a global famine.

The diminished energy, food, and water security that follows – especially in swaths of South Asia, Africa and Latin America – will exacerbate poverty, tribal and ethnic tensions and dissatisfaction with governments to the point where some of them may fall, it said. 

"Intensifying physical effects will exacerbate geopolitical flashpoints, particularly after 2030, and key countries and regions will face increasing risks of instability and need for humanitarian assistance,” the report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) concluded.

And while the developing world will bear the brunt of these challenges, the United States and other wealthy nations will most likely be responsible for managing the fallout from increasing global conflict and instability. For Washington, that will likely mean significant additional demands on its diplomatic, economic, humanitarian, and military resources, the report said.

The report represent the consensus view of all 18 U.S. intelligence agencies, and federal scientists provided the baseline observational data and climate modeling for it.

One former senior CIA official welcomed the report but said all of the U.S. intelligence agencies need to take much more concrete steps to actually address the threats posed by climate change – including looming food and water wars.

The intelligence community must focus far more attention on such resource  shortages early, before they become full-fledged confrontations between countries, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen told USA TODAY. 

“Estimates are nice and it’s good to see that they’re paying attention,” said Mowatt-Larssen, who has been sounding the alarm about the national security threats posed by climate change for more than a decade.

“But the real question is how does the (intelligence community) adapt its capabilities to provide better intelligence for policy makers so that they can take actual action in areas that affect our national and global security?” said Mowatt-Larssen, who focuses on climate change as a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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The report contains no bombshells, but rather a sobering look at how climate change “will increasingly exacerbate risks to US national security interests as the physical impacts increase and geopolitical tensions mount about how to respond to the challenge.” Its release comes just days before Biden is scheduled to attend the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland that begins on October 31st.

More geoengineering, more geopolitical conflict

The report released Thursday is the public version; a more detailed, classified version will be given to policymakers with the appropriate security clearances, officials said. 

The ODNI and the 17 intelligence agencies it overseas have warned for years about the security threats posed by climate change, including in their annual Worldwide Threat Assessment reports and appearances before Congress. Virtually all of them have focused on the political instability caused by climate change, especially when it comes to intensifying competition over dwindling food, water and natural resources. 

But this report goes into an unprecedented level of detail about these threats, and others – including man-made ones like geoengineering, or the use of science to slow global warming by seeding the atmosphere with reflective particles or other materials.

More broadly, the estimate concluded, the increasing physical effects of climate change are likely to intensify cross-border geopolitical flashpoints as states take steps to secure their interests at the expense of others. And as temperatures rise and cause more extreme effects, some countries “will unilaterally test and deploy large-scale solar geoengineering—creating a new area of disputes,” the report warned. 

And more conflict between nations will come as they continue to argue over who is to blame for the climate crisis, and who is responsible for fixing it.

“Geopolitical tensions are likely to grow as countries increasingly argue about how to accelerate the reductions in net greenhouse gas emissions that will be needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals,” the report said. “Debate will center on who bears more responsibility to act and to pay — and how quickly — and countries will compete to control resources and dominate new technologies needed for the clean energy transition.” 

A National Intelligence Estimate is the formal term for a significant undertaking by the entire intelligence community to come up with findings and recommendations about a topic of major interest – and concern – for the U.S. government. Officials said this one was headed up by the National Intelligence Council, ODNI’s center for long-term strategic analysis, and launched in response to a President Joe Biden’s executive order on tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad.

Follow domestic security correspondent Josh Meyer on Twitter @JoshMeyerDC and see his other reports: