An assessment from 18 US intelligence agencies underscores the looming interconnected natural, geopolitical and economic crises stemming from the climate emergency.
A seminal US intelligence report warns that climate change would “exacerbate risks” to national security and “fuel global tensions,” with countries in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East especially at risk from climate-driven instability.
What emerges from the 27-page assessment is a picture of a world failing to cooperate, leading to dangerous competition and instability. Poorer countries will be less able to adapt to climatic disruption, increasing the risks of instability and internal conflict.
Coming ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow at the end of this month, the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Climate Change is the collective view of all 18 US intelligence agencies.
“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 Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said in the document.
“Intensifying physical effects will exacerbate geopolitical flashpoints, particularly after 2030, and key countries and regions will face increasing risks of instability and need for humanitarian assistance.”
The US and its allies will not be immune to the challenges either, the report cautioned. In some cases, the fallout from the climate crisis elsewhere is likely to create “additional demands on US diplomatic, economic, humanitarian and military resources,” the report said.
The assessment estimates it to be “unlikely” that countries committed to the 2015 Paris Agreement will meet its goals. “The current pace of transition to low- or zero-emission clean energy sources is not fast enough to avoid temperatures rising above the Paris goal of 1.5 degrees C”.
Growing global tensions
The eleven countries identified in the report where energy, food, water, and health security are at high risk include Afghanistan, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia.
One of the main risks from instability in developing countries is the spillover of refugee flows, sparking an intense humanitarian and migratory crisis.
Accelerated by droughts, access to water is set to become a source of heightened conflict, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where 60 percent of surface water cut across boundaries.
Similarly, India and Pakistan also have long-standing issues over water. The report warns that the Mekong River basin could cause a rift between China, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Another source of risk is that countries might decide to implement geo-engineering to counter climate change, which involves atmospherically invasive technology that is governed by few rules or regulations.
By one country choosing to act alone then creates the chance the problem is simply shifted over to another country that is negatively affected but unable to act without access to geo-engineering technologies.
Countries will also progressively compete to secure their own interests in places like the Arctic, where melting sea ice has fueled a race to access oil, gas, and minerals and to establish new shipping routes.
The report does take note of unforeseen events that may alter its bleak projections.
Apart from breakthrough technologies like geo-engineering, the looming existential threat of climate change itself could act as a spur for greater global cooperation and mobilisation of resources.
In a statement accompanying the report, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin referred to climate change as an “existential threat”.
“Climate change touches most of what this Department does, and this threat will continue to have worsening implications for US national security,” Austin said.
The ODNI report was one of four assessments related by the White House, all part of an effort to put climate change concerns at the forefront of US national security and foreign policy.