European Affairs


U.S. Intelligence Tackles Climate Change     Print Email
Gregory F. Treverton

Gregory F. TrevertonWhen 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. The episode did however 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.

For instance, many mega-cities in poor and medium income countries already are feral in their disorder and lawlessness. How might climate change, producing either more flooding or more water scarcity or both, in unpredictable turn, affect the future of that particular political factor? Or take another example: what already seemed a consensus at the end of the last century, about a limited role for government, is now under pressure in countries from Russia to South America. How will that debate be affected if private-sector mechanisms, like insurance, are overwhelmed by the effects of climate change, especially but not only in poorer countries? As the GBN report puts it, if in the United States the state steps in to provide insurance to protect against climate change-driven storms, it will soon become clear that grandmothers in Albany are paying to insure the lifestyle choices of beachside condo-dwellers.

On another occasion when I was overseeing the NIE process, we were asked by TRANSCOM, the U.S. military transportation command, to do an estimate on humanitarian emergencies. TRANSCOM had the eminently sensible idea that if it was going to be called on to deliver relief supplies in the near future, it might start thinking about which countries it would engage and what kinds of airports and seaports they had. In this case, too, the intelligence larder of special information wasn’t impressive, so we turned to the dozen most important international humanitarian organizations. We asked them to join us for a conference, and to bring a two-page paper. They weren’t wild about cooperating with the government in general, especially with intelligence. But that skepticism was eventually offset because we cared about their issue. They all came, brought papers and, in effect, wrote the first draft of the estimate.

After a visit to Bosnia in 1994, I stopped in Geneva to visit the UN, Red Cross and other international relief agencies. What quickly struck me about those agencies, and struck their officials too in our conversations, was that we were in the same business! I sat behind walls of security in the CIA building, and they, careful about their private status, were often edgy about getting too close in cooperating with governments, let alone intelligence, but we faced the same challenge. For both of us, achieving warning of impending crises was often not so hard; for the relief agencies, particularly, famines are pretty predictable, even when those famines are created by politics. It was harder for us both to get attention to the warning from relevant political actors – the U.S. government in my case, the UN and the international donor community in theirs.

Inducing the targets of our warning to act required them to make preparations based on “iffy” arguments; it was a bother, and perhaps one that might turn out to be unnecessary to boot. My problem was overloading an American government that, for all its capacity, seems hard-pressed to deal with more than one crisis at a time. The counterpart problem for the relief agencies was “donor fatigue.” Afghanistan might still be on the verge of a humanitarian disaster, but it was no longer in the headlines in the mid-1990s; it had been “solved” by the Soviet withdrawal and had returned to obscurity.

These instances suggest to me other values in intelligence reaching out on issues like climate change. Reaching out surely is good for intelligence because it bespeaks an openness to the outside world and a willingness to listen. The reaching can make intelligence analysts and their agencies part of valuable networks. For the outsiders, too, the process may build useful networks, and it may help specialists, in this case climate change scientists, learn another vocabulary in which to articulate their concerns.

A final value is one that has to be exercised carefully. It is suggested by the NIE on Iraq in February, Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead, one requested by Congress and whose key judgments were, unusually, made public at the same time as the estimate was presented to the executive branch. The estimate hardly said anything new. It did, though, give the sanction of “the government” and its best information to a very sober view of the war that most Americans had come to in any case. In that sense, because it had the weight of the intelligence community – for all its recent failings – behind it, it had more credibility than the administration’s pronouncements on the war. In a subtle way – and one that is hardly to the liking of intelligence professionals, for it puts them at some odds with their principal executive-branch masters – it shifted the terms of the debate.

So, too, it is likely to be with climate change, especially after Mr. Bush’s recent U-turn on the issue.

Gregory F. Treverton is director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for Global Risk and Security and was vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the first Clinton administration. He is the author of Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 2-3 in the Summer/Fall of 2007.