Spy agencies to study global warming risks

Times Staff Writer

Stepping into the rancorous national debate over global warming, the U.S. intelligence community has launched an examination of the security threats that could be triggered by rising temperatures, officials said Thursday.

The review was announced by the nation’s intelligence director as congressional Democrats and Republicans sparred over whether it was appropriate for the beleaguered U.S. spy services to spend resources studying threats posed by the environment.

The review is expected to identify security problems that could erupt if rising global temperatures cause flooding, food shortages, migration shifts and other disruptions in already volatile parts of the world. Republicans warned it could divert spy agencies’ attention from terrorism and other targets.


“It’s going to take resources from other places,” said Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. The panel voted Wednesday to require the intelligence community to produce a comprehensive report on security threats caused by climate change.

Hoekstra warned that to contribute to the climate change report, CIA officers and spy satellites might be pulled away from what he described as more dire threats.

“I expect that we will go to the [CIA] chief of station in different African countries and say, ‘What do you think will happen in Nigeria or in Kenya if temperatures rise and the agricultural land decreases by 20%?’ ” Hoekstra said in a telephone interview. “Guess what? Radical Islam is active in both those countries.”

But Democrats disputed claims that the measure would divert spy agency resources, and defended their party-line vote on the legislation.

The measure calls for in-depth analysis on an issue that looms as a major source of instability overseas in coming decades, they said.

“Climate change can have a serious impact on military operations and exacerbate global tensions,” said Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the intelligence committee. “For that reason, intelligence analysts are already reviewing the impact of climate change to our nation’s security. Our bill requires that the review be a formal National Intelligence Estimate and that the estimate be provided to Congress.”


National Intelligence Estimates represent the consensus of all 16 U.S. spy agencies, and are considered the most authoritative reports from the intelligence community on national security issues.

The study announced Thursday by the office of Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell was underway before the House committee passed its bill.

The conclusions are expected to be included next year in a report on the main security threats likely to confront the United States through 2025.

But officials said the work could serve as the basis for an intelligence estimate on climate change if required by Congress.

The study is not designed to address the scientific controversies surrounding climate change, or offer any independent projections on rising temperatures or sea levels. Instead, analysts are to use projections provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization affiliated with the United Nations.

The review underscores the extent to which the issue is a growing source of alarm for intelligence analysts, and it pulls U.S. spy services into a thorny political battle.


Although a growing number of scientific organizations have concluded that human factors such as the burning of fossil fuels are causing global temperatures to rise, there are scientists -- and Republican members of Congress -- who dispute the claims.

“Our government should not commit expensive spy satellites and human intelligence sources to target something as undefined as the environment,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), a member of the House intelligence panel who sponsored an amendment banning “environmental spying.” Democrats defeated the amendment.

U.S. spy agencies have periodically examined such threats as famine and disease. At the CIA, a special Center for Environmental Intelligence was created in 1996, although it was later dismantled and folded into another analytic office.

“The intelligence community has for a long time studied the impact that environmental factors -- things like scarce resource and natural disasters -- can have on global security,” said CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano. “Those are real issues.”

Global warming has also become a matter of growing concern to military advisors.

A panel of former high-ranking military officers led by retired Army Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan recently published a report that concluded that “projected climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security.”

The report by the nonprofit CNA Corp. found that food shortages and water scarcity could weaken failing governments and “foster the conditions for internal conflicts, extremism, and movement toward increased authoritarianism and radical ideologies.”