The U.S. government’s intelligence analysts are failing to match the heated rhetoric used by President Biden and his administration in describing threats posed by climate change, instead dubbing vague “direct” or “indirect” dangers from global warming.
Mr. Biden is set to host a virtual summit of some 40 world leaders Thursday and Friday devoted exclusively to climate change, which the White House now regards as a “crisis” requiring immediate, global action to avert catastrophe.
“There is little time left to avoid setting the world on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic, climate trajectory,” Mr. Biden stated in a sweeping executive order signed in January.
That dire assessment was challenged by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, the senior intelligence official overseeing the nation’s 17 spy agencies, who made no mention of a climate crisis or an existential threat from climate change in a survey of global challenges and threats in House and Senate testimony last week. The terms also are not mentioned in the annual comprehensive DNI threat assessment made public earlier this month.
Climate change skeptics say the disconnect between Mr. Biden and the intelligence agencies isn’t just one of messaging. The overemphasis on climate change, they argue, risks diverting important resources needed for more pressing dangers.
“The focus on climate change as a national security matter is a dangerous diversion for our military from what should be its core mission: protecting the nation against aggressive adversaries,” Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview.
“While we need our installations to be more resilient, China, Russia and Iran are not our biggest threats because of climate change,” he told The Washington Times. “They are our biggest threats because they hate our way of life and the freedom we represent to those they wish to repress: their own citizens.”
The DNI threat assessment report for 2020 states that climate change, combined with environmental degradation, does not pose a clear, direct security threat to the U.S.
“We assess that the effects of a changing climate and environmental degradation will create a mix of direct and indirect threats, including risks to the economy, heightened political volatility, human displacement and new venues for geopolitical competition that will play out during the next decade and beyond,” the assessment states.
Heat waves, droughts and floods could worsen, but the assessment added that those problems could be addressed through unspecified “adaptation measures.”
Mr. Biden’s presidential order outlines an ambitious governmentwide plan “to confront the existential threat of climate change.” It requires all federal agencies to factor the supposed threats posed by climate change into policies aimed at lowering global temperatures. The order blamed recent wildfires, hurricanes and tropical storms on climate change and said the Pentagon believes two-thirds of critical military bases are directly threatened by global warming. It did not elaborate.
Mr. Biden’s climate summit this week is easily his most ambitious foreign policy move on the issue since taking office, although it is not clear whether Chinese President Xi Jinping, representing the world’s most prolific polluter, will take part.
The presidential order also directs the U.S. intelligence community to produce a “national intelligence estimate” — a major analysis produced by all spy agencies — on the threat of climate change. The estimate is due to the White House by May 27.
No details of the estimate could be learned, but the tone of the DNI threat assessment suggests it is likely to produce a similarly modest assessment of the dangers rather than matching the dire warnings voiced by the Biden team.
A DNI spokesman insisted there is no daylight between the intelligence community and the White House on the issue. Work on the national intelligence estimate is underway, the official said.
“The [intelligence community’s] assessment makes clear that climate change is a serious threat and outlines the impact climate change has had, is having and will continue to have on global stability and national security,” the DNI official told The Times.
Talks on the national security impact of climate change also will be part of the Leaders Summit on Climate this week, the official said.
The recent intelligence community analysis of the future, called Global Trends 2040, also discusses the challenges posed by climate change.
That report also is notable for a lack of alarmist terms such as “climate crisis,” “climate emergency” or an “existential threat” from global warming.
In response to what it calls the climate crisis, the administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement repudiated by President Trump and is developing policies that likely will include emissions restrictions on American industry. The goal is to limit greenhouse gas emissions in the short term and to produce zero emissions of such gases by 2050.
The administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, issued in March, also uses the terms “climate crisis” and “climate emergency.” It calls for a crash program of “clean energy transformation.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a statement in January saying he fully supports the president’s decision to include climate change as “an essential element of our national security.” He promised to incorporate the impact of climate change on U.S. “security strategies, operations and infrastructure.”
Mr. Austin said defense installations across the country and around the world experienced increasing floods, droughts, wildfires and extreme weather.
“We know firsthand the risk that climate change poses to national security because it affects the work we do every day,” he said.
Climate change scenarios will be added to war games and the next national defense strategy, Mr. Austin said.
Ms. Haines, the DNI, told lawmakers this month that climate change could fuel disease outbreaks, exacerbate food and water shortages, and intensify political instability and humanitarian crises.
“Although much of the effect of a changing climate on the United States security will play out indirectly, in a broader political and economic context, warmer weather can generate direct immediate impacts, for example, through more intense, frequent and variable extreme weather events, in addition to driving conflicts over scarce national resources,” she told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Climate change combined with economic deprivation could drive vulnerable populations from their homes, increasing the risk of political upheaval, she said.
Climate change policies seeking global cooperation are expected to clash with the administration’s effort to pursue hard-line policies toward China on a range of other issues, including technology theft, human rights and Beijing’s military expansionism in Asia.
A source close to the White House said National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan already has clashed on policy issues with former Secretary of State John Kerry, Mr. Biden’s special envoy on the climate issue, who met this month in Shanghai with China’s top climate official. Mr. Kerry has said the administration’s climate change agenda would take precedence over policies aimed at pressing Beijing on its treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority, its crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and its continuing piracy of U.S. intellectual property.
Mr. Kerry met last weekend in China with his counterpart, Xie Zhenhua. The talks produced a joint statement promising cooperation on the “climate crisis.”
China has promised in the past to curb pollution, but it continues building large numbers of coal-powered factories. Beijing remains the world’s most pervasive greenhouse gas emitter, accounting for an estimated 28% of all carbon dioxide emissions.
The U.S. reduced its greenhouse gas emissions 5% during the Trump administration from 2018 to 2019, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Dakota Wood, a Heritage Foundation national security expert, said the DNI threat assessment reveals significant differences on the issue between the president and his advisers and the intelligence agencies.
“The politically minded, ‘combat climate change’ activists always use stark language, so climate change posing an existential threat — a much overused and consistently misused term typically lacking perspective — to the U.S. is par for the course,” he said.
Mr. Wood said the president and climate activists are motivated by a political agenda while intelligence agencies appear to be taking a more analytical approach to the challenges of climate change and the potential for problems. But the analysts stopped short of recommending ways to reduce carbon emissions or modifying farm policies.
Intelligence analysts are “all about diagnosis rather than prescription, the opposite of the political community,” he said.
Former CIA officer Fred Fleitz questions whether intelligence agencies should be focused on climate change at all.
“It is alarming that U.S. intelligence agencies are treating climate change as an intelligence matter and that DNI Haines said in the recent worldwide threat hearings that more of our scarce and sensitive intelligence resources need to be devoted to this,” Mr. Fleitz said.
“Although this position represents the intelligence community politicizing their work to curry favor with the Biden administration, it was heartening that our intelligence analysts did not take the extreme view of President Biden that climate change is an ‘existential’ threat to the United States,” said Mr. Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy.
Intelligence analysts understand well that more serious, legitimate threats are out there, including those from China, Russia, biological dangers and nuclear arms proliferation, he said.
Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican who once chaired the House intelligence committee, also questioned devoting resources to climate change.
“Bugs and bunnies are now once again more important to the spooks at our intelligence agencies than the real threats we as Americans face,” said Mr. Hoekstra, U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands during the Trump administration.
“We have plenty of agencies in the U.S. government doing analysis on the impact of ‘climate change,’” he said. “This shouldn’t be a high priority, diverting resources from the threats the intelligence community should be focused on.”