U.S. Is Urged to Step Up Research Linking Climate Change to National Security

Aamir Qureshi, AFP, Getty Images

A Pakistani man carries buckets of water to his house in an Islamabad slum. Water shortages stemming from climate change have led to riots in Pakistan and have exacerbated tensions with India. Both countries have nuclear weapons.
November 09, 2012

U.S. intelligence agencies should take more seriously the security implications of climate change, including placing a greater research emphasis on the likelihood of widespread social upheaval, an advisory panel said on Friday.

The panel, assembled by the National Research Council, acknowledged that the intelligence agencies already are studying scenarios through which steadily warming global temperatures might affect national security.

But the effort so far appears inadequate to the rapidly escalating threat, lacking both attention to detail around the world and coordination between experts in both climate and emergency responses, the panel said in a report.

"There's a lot going on, there are pieces here, but it isn't organized to the extent that it ought to be," said John D. Steinbruner, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland at College Park who led the panel on behalf of the National Research Council, an independent provider of scientific expertise that's chartered by Congress.

The 14-member panel, consisting primarily of university experts, said examples of the risk include places such as Pakistan, where millions of people depend on water delivered from the Himalaya Mountains by the Indus River. Pakistan experienced a series of electrical blackouts and shortages of irrigation water between 2010 and 2012 as a result of decreased water levels in the Indus. The shortages were part of a long-term decline in per-capita water availability, which by 2010 was less than a third of what it was in the 1950s, the report says.

The water shortages, it says, led to demonstrations and riots of increasing frequency and intensity in 2010 and 2011. Those events worsened political relations between India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear weapons. In such cases, the U.S. government, if sufficiently aware of the developing crisis, could act to avert catastrophic conflicts, such as by taking more aggressive steps to help local communities establish alternative power supplies, Mr. Steinbruner said.

"Understanding the connections between harm suffered from climate events and political and social outcomes of security concern is arguably the most important aspect of climate change from a national-security perspective," the report says. "But it has received relatively little scientific attention until now."

The panel suggested that U.S. intelligence agencies devote much more attention to studying the effects of climate change on local communities around the world, and also rely on researchers to help them analyze how those higher temperatures will affect political conditions.

Mr. Steinbruner nevertheless acknowledged limits to the U.S. government's ability to prevent such crises, especially given the rapid pace at which global warming appears to be gaining. Already, he said, deep ocean waters have reached temperatures last seen about 120,000 years ago, when sea levels were about 13 to 20 feet higher than they are now. And ocean temperatures will soon gain another degree, bringing them to the warmth of the Pliocene Epoch, about three million years ago, when oceans were 80 feet higher.

"And what that says to me is, Watch out," Mr. Steinbruner said. "This is looking to me like very big trouble. Very, very big trouble."