U.S. intelligence agencies usually work hard to stay outside the political fray, but this week they waded firmly into the debate over climate change by producing an unsettling assessment of the national security implications of changing weather patterns.
"We assess that no country will be immune to the effects of climate change, but some will be able to cope more effectively than others," says Thomas Fingar, who heads the National Intelligence Council, which drafted the assessment, adding that sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Central and Southeast Asia would be the hardest-hit regions. "However, the spillover—from potentially increased migration and water-related disputes—could have a harmful global impact."
The full report, issued as a National Intelligence Assessment, is classified, and officials say they are not planning to release it. The NIA is distinct from the better-known National Intelligence Estimates by being more speculative and relying more heavily on public sources. Both represent the consensus judgment of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies and carry great analytic weight in Washington.
Appearing before a congressional panel, Fingar discussed the report's findings, which focused heavily on the potential impact of climate change in the next two decades on agricultural production, severe weather effects, water resources, and the possibility of refugee flows from newly drought-ridden areas.
In Africa, for example, climate-related tensions are "a main contributor to instability," Fingar said. "We judge that sub-Saharan Africa will continue to be the most vulnerable to climate change because of multiple environmental, economic, political, and social stresses." In other words, African countries are among the least equipped countries to adapt to changing climactic patterns. Yields of some of Africa's more rainfall-dependent crops, for example, could plummet by up to 50 percent.
There could be similar problems in Asia, where populous nations are likely to experience an increase in either droughts or extreme weather that produces severe flooding. Most alarmingly, the assessment worries that between 120 million and 1.2 billion people could continue to experience what analysts politely term "water stress" with Asia's fast-growing population. This could create massive refugee flows as large groups of people leave for more stable areas.
But the intelligence community concluded that climate change alone is "unlikely to trigger state failure" or full-blown water wars between countries battling over increasingly scarce water resources.
And not all the effects of climate change are necessarily negative. The study pointed out that the United States could experience some economic boosts from cereal crop yields that are expected to rise by as much as 20 percent. But those gains could be offset by the costs of responding to more severe natural disasters and rebuilding expensive coastal infrastructure vulnerable to flooding.
Fingar was careful to note that the intelligence community did not research the science of climate change. Instead, it relied on midrange projections from the most recent report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.