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White House, intelligence agencies, Pentagon issue reports warning climate change threatens global security

A firefighter watches as smoke rises from a wildfire in Goleta, Calif., on Oct. 13. Sweeping assessments released Thursday by the White House, the US intelligence community, and the Pentagon conclude that climate change will exacerbate longstanding threats to global security.Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

As the United States and nations around the world struggle to blunt the effects of rising temperatures and extreme weather, sweeping assessments released Thursday by the White House, the US intelligence community, and the Pentagon conclude that climate change will exacerbate longstanding threats to global security.

Together, the reports show a deepening concern within the US security establishment that the shifts unleashed by climate change can reshape US strategic interests, offer new opportunities to rivals such as China, and increase instability in nuclear states such as North Korea and Pakistan. The reports emerge as world leaders prepare to gather in Glasgow next month for crucial UN climate talks.

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And they suggest that the Biden administration is preparing to take on the national security consequences of global warming after four years of inaction under former president Donald Trump. During his presidency, climate-related security assessments were routinely suppressed because they did not match his administration’s skeptical stance toward climate science.

Shortly after President Biden came to office, he ordered that climate change play a far more prominent role in US security strategy.

Now US climate strategists are roaring to the forefront. The Pentagon report in particular marks a change in how the US military establishment is incorporating climate issues into its security strategy, analysts said. Until now, when the Defense Department has considered climate change, it has tended to focus on how floods and extreme heat can affect military readiness rather than the broader geopolitical consequences of a warming world. Now it is worried climate change could lead to state failure.

‘’Climate change is altering the strategic landscape and shaping the security environment, posing complex threats to the United States and nations around the world,’’ Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that accompanied the Pentagon report. ‘’To deter war and protect our country, the [Defense] Department must understand the ways climate change affects missions, plans, and capabilities.’’

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The shift in Washington comes as militaries and security agencies around the world are accounting for global warming in their planning. At NATO, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg earlier this year made climate change a major focus of the defense alliance as it overhauls its strategic plans. The British military this spring unveiled a sustainability report that counsels a top-to-bottom overhaul of military operations to prepare for far more climate-related deployments in the coming decades.

The release of the US assessments ‘’sends a warning message ahead of next month’s UN summit, of the grave risks that we’re facing and why it’s so critical. These reports are overdue,’’ said Erin Sikorsky, the director of the Center for Climate and Security and a former senior US intelligence official focused on climate issues.

The new National Intelligence Estimate on climate, a first-of-its-kind document by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, builds on other grim warnings from national security officials about how a changing climate could upend societies and topple governments.

‘’We assess that 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,’’ the document states. It also concludes that while momentum to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases is growing, ‘’current policies and pledges are insufficient’' to meet the goals that countries laid out in the landmark Paris climate accord.

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A former senior intelligence official lauded the document’s contribution to understanding the security implications of climate change.

‘’This NIE represents a valuable iteration on findings from past intelligence assessments,’’ said Rod Schoonover, who was the director of environment and natural resources at the National Intelligence Council in the Obama and Trump administrations.

‘’However, the report lacks a singular top-line statement that adequately conveys the seriousness and immediacy of the multifactorial risks associated with ongoing climate-linked stresses, and humanity’s tendency to increase its own vulnerability to these stresses,’’ Schoonover said.

The NIE offers a dim assessment of the prospects for unified international action.

‘’Countries are arguing about who should act sooner and competing to control the growing clean energy transition,’’ it states, concluding that ‘’most countries will face difficult economic choices and probably will count on technological breakthroughs to rapidly reduce their net emissions later.

As developing and vulnerable nations cope with the effects, they may turn to Washington for help, ‘’creating additional demands on US diplomatic, economic, humanitarian, and military resources,’’ it says.

The Pentagon’s Defense Climate Risk Assessment takes a similar approach, but from a military perspective, examining how China and others could take advantage of rising sea levels and melting glaciers — and what the Pentagon needs to do to respond.

The Pentagon warns that disruption to fisheries could spark conflict over food security. Unpredictable rainfall might increase tensions over access to rivers that cross national boundaries, such as the Nile and the Mekong. Even efforts to combat climate change could lead to unintended consequences, such as conflicts over access to the rare minerals that are needed to build circuitry and wind turbines.

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The report says the Defense Department should ready itself to provide humanitarian assistance in climate crises, incorporate climate-related issues into its war games — and also work on ‘’countering malign actors who seek to exploit climate change to gain influence.’’ Some of the most specific analyses remained classified.

The White House report on migration, which examines the way climate change is driving human movement around the world, notes that drought and other extreme weather can spark conflicts and force population displacements — and that countries such as China and Russia are poised to take advantage.

‘’Absent a robust strategy from the United States and Europe to address climate-related migration, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, and other states could seek to gain influence by providing direct support to impacted countries grappling with political unrest related to migration,’’ the White House report says.