Small increases in global average temperatures since the 1800s pose risks of increased political instability in the developing world, possible food and water shortages, and potentially more military competition in the Arctic but do not represent existential threats to humankind, according to a series of government climate reports that the Biden administration made public Thursday.
A new National Intelligence Estimate produced by the council representing the country’s major intelligence services warns that geopolitical tensions may grow over how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Flashpoints between states vying for resources also could increase, the estimate says.
The reports come as Mr. Biden is pressing for a stronger U.S. climate policy as he prepares to travel to Scotland at the end of the month for U.N.’s global climate summit.
Global average temperatures have increased by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since pre-industrial times in the 1800s. The rise is blamed on the burning of fossil fuels and the increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The average temperature could increase to 2.7 degrees around 2030, the intelligence report said.
However, the 27-page estimate contains few conclusive statements regarding the security impact of climate change over the next 20 years. Many of the findings are assessed with moderate or low confidence by analysts.
“The [intelligence community] has moderate confidence in the pace of decarbonization and low to moderate confidence in how physical climate impacts will affect U.S. national security interests and the nature of geopolitical conflict, given the complex dimensions of human and state decision-making,” the report states.
A separate “climate risk analysis” produced by the Pentagon also presents few facts regarding the impact of increased global temperatures on the U.S. military and the security of the United States, other than noting that unpredictable weather could affect war games and exercises.
“Increasing temperatures; changing precipitation patterns; and more frequent, intense, and unpredictable extreme weather conditions caused by climate change are exacerbating existing risks and creating new challenges for U.S. interests,” the Pentagon report states.
The Homeland Security Department also issued a “framework” to deal with climate change that includes an action plan for national preparedness. The plan calls for community grants and projects from a $1 billion fund.
The three reports appear to fall short of endorsing President Biden’s arguments that climate change poses an existential threat requiring a restructuring of the U.S. economy and energy infrastructure.
The two reports were required under Mr. Biden’s climate policies, including an executive order issued in February. The order states that a “climate crisis” is now the center of U.S. foreign policy and national security.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a foreword to the Pentagon report that “the existential threat of climate change” must be tackled to secure the nation.
“The unprecedented scale of wildfires, floods, droughts, typhoons and other extreme weather events of recent months and years have damaged our installations and bases, constrained force readiness and operations, and contributed to instability around the world,” he said.
Despite the lack of specific impacts for climate change, the Pentagon is ordering the Defense Department and military to “consider the effects of climate change at every level of the DoD enterprise.”
A list of examples of climate impacts domestically and internationally includes “hardships” for Americans caused by extreme weather, and the potential to undermine military training and readiness.
Melting polar and glacial ice are creating a new frontier of competition among states seeking more resources for northern and southern regions.
“In the Indo-Pacific, sea-level rise and more extreme weather events complicate the security environment, place key DoD warfighting infrastructure and surrounding communities at risk, and challenge local capacity to respond,” the Pentagon report states.
China may try to take advantage of climate change impacts in Asia to expand its influence.
The National Intelligence Council report, however, states that no island nation in the Pacific is projected to disappear by 2040, though low-lying islands could face annual flooding from higher seas.
The NIE includes three key judgments. The first is that global tensions among nations could increase as states argue over how to reduce greenhouse gases.
China and India, the first and fourth-largest emitters of greenhouse gas emission, are increasing the amount of gas they produce, while the United States and European states are reducing the amount.
Second, physical effects of climate change could increase cross-border geopolitical flashpoints, such as greater competition for resources in Arctic regions.
One danger is that unspecified nations may “test and deploy large-scale solar geoengineering.” Those efforts seek to affect rising temperatures using man-made means, such as injecting temperature-reducing particles in the atmosphere, or marine cloud-brightening with aerosols that seek to reduce ocean temperatures.
A third conclusion is that climate change by 2040 could impact developing countries and increase the potential for instability and internal conflicts. That could result in new demands for American diplomatic, economic, humanitarian or military resources.
“Despite geographic and financial resource advantages, the United States and partners face costly challenges that will become more difficult to manage without concerted effort to reduce emissions and cap warming,” the intelligence report said.
The Pentagon reported described climate change as “one of many factors that contribute to instability and conflict; resilience and strong governance responses can reduce the likelihood of climate hazards having security implications,” the Pentagon said. “However, in worst-case scenarios, climate change-related impacts could stress economic and social conditions that contribute to mass migration events or political crises, civil unrest, shifts in the regional balance of power, or even state failure.”
Other possible problems could include food shortages, an increase in vector-borne diseases such as malaria, more water disputes between nations, and disruptions for nomadic populations.
“Global supply chains are at risk to extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change,” the Pentagon report said, noting floods in Thailand that disrupted part supplies for computer disk drives and cars.
The Pentagon is looking at how climate change will impact security and defense missions in the next National Defense Strategy and the National Military Strategy.
War games by the military also will now factor in climate change, such as temperature extremes or excessive rainfall. Wildfires and other extreme weather will be noted in war games that could reduce weapons accuracy or range.
The White House issued a fact sheet on climate change and national security that blames “human activities” for the problem.
Extreme weather, wildfires, flooding and drought are said to be signs of climate change problems.
“We are already experiencing the devastating impacts that climate has wreaked on almost every aspect of our lives, from food and water insecurity to infrastructure and public health, this crisis is exacerbating inequalities that intersect with gender, race, ethnicity, and economic security,” the fact sheet states. “We have reached a point where we cannot reverse some of the changes to the climate system.”