U.S. Intelligence Tackles Climate Change
Treverton, Gregory F., European Affairs
When congressional Democrats mandated a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) assessing climate change's potential effect on national security, Republicans accused them of caring more about "bugs and bunnies" than hunting for al Qaeda. The effort to prevent the estimate failed, but the project is in train during 2007. But the episode did raise important questions about the role of U.S. intelligence in subjects not traditionally associated with secrets or "spook-dom." Congresswoman Jane Harman, a California Democrat and the former ranking member on the Intelligence panel, defended the idea of an estimate: "This isn't bugs or bunnies, it is survival or destruction. Droughts affect the stability of governments, and stability of governments is one of the few things we need to know about." But Republicans dismissed the study as too "politically correct," and said the call for an estimate was redundant because numerous government organizations already study the issue. To be sure, an estimate or other assessment by U.S. intelligence will not add to the science about global warming. On the science, U.S. intelligence will be a consumer, not a producer. It will not be able to add to what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other august scientific bodies have produced.
Yet despite that fact, the subject is a fit one for intelligence. In the first place, intelligence is not now and never has been only about secrets; to know the value of a secret, it is necessary to know what is out there openly. (In my several stints in government, I have kept lists of howlers produced by secret sources. A made-up example is not far from reality: a French spy reports, secretly, that France is skeptical of NATO. True enough, just not new, as any cursory reading of the French press would indicate.) In this case, intelligence professionals can draw the implications for U.S. national security of climate change. They will not be adding new science or new technical information: instead, they will be helping a new set of policy officials--those in the national security community--know why perhaps they should pay some professional attention to the issue. In an exchange with the Swedish intelligence service in the 1990s, I was impressed by how open-minded in conceptualizing Sweden's "security" they are. The Swedes left behind a "non-paper" outlining particular potential challenges that ranged from incursions by renegade Russian army units, to another nuclear Chernobyl, to intense conflicts over Baltic fisheries.
National Intelligence Estimates bring together the analyses of all the U.S. intelligence agencies into one agreed assessment of a given issue (which may, to be sure, include disagreements on particulars and often do). When I was running the NIE process in the 1990s, I was struck by how valuable that process could be for issues that were not traditional subjects of intelligence. For instance, we did an estimate on AIDS in Africa, where, as with climate change, the best information was outside the intelligence community. In this case, though, it did turn out that a little-known piece of that community, AFMIC, the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center, did have some analysis if not information to contribute. Our analysis concentrated on very specific security implications: how would the spreading of a disease that hit the most mobile and active of the continent's young males disproportionately affect, first, the military forces of the continent and, second, the national leaderships.
In the case of climate change, any intelligence assessment would do well to emulate the method of a recent study by the Global Business Network (GBN). Starting with the science of climate change and working toward the geopolitical effects would play to intelligence's weaknesses. The process, however, can be turned around, starting with political issues already at play, and asking how climate change might affect them. That would cut across analytic stovepipes and give intelligence's regional specialists a framework for thinking about what climate change will mean for their particular areas, based on expertise they already have. …