By Frances Beinecke
This week, The New York Timesreported that the CIA is sharing satellite images of the Arctic with global warming scientists. This is no surprise considering that every leading American security institution from the Pentagon to National Intelligence Council has identified climate change as a security threat.
Still, the agency has made it clear that the data-sharing program has no impact on regular intelligence gathering. In other words, no spy satellite was pulled from Afghanistan or Pakistan to collect these images.
But that hasn’t stopped the folks over at Fox News from making the spurious claim that the CIA is “spying on icebergs instead of terrorists.” This line echoes a press release from the ExxonMobil-funded organization called National Center for Public Policy Research, which maintained that the program “diverts intelligence assets to climate research.”
I am shocked that they don’t see the falsehoods in their posturing. The reality is that climate change is a threat to our safety, and by learning more about that threat, the CIA is doing its job.
We will pay for this one way or another. We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind. Or we will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives. There will be a human toll.
Or listen to respected Republican leaders. The American Security Project focuses on emerging strategic challenges and has Kenneth Duberstein, who served as chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan; Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska; and former Pentagon official Richard Armitage, who was deputy to Secretary of State Colin Powell during the Bush administration. In a recent report, the group stated:
Climate change threatens unrest and extremism as competition for dwindling resources, especially water, spreads. State collapse, massive refugee flows, and increased conflict - both between countries and within them -- will be more common.
Interestingly, the group singled out extremism--the force that powers terrorism. Who do you think will get the 911 call when things start to disintegrate?
More and more security experts are asking the same questions. A few years ago, I attended a gathering of security hawks in Georgia organized by Sam Nunn, the former Senate Armed Services Committee chairman and Bill Cohen, the secretary of defense under Clinton. General Jim Jones was there--this was before he was tapped to be Obama’s National Security Advisor--as were several other generals.
The conference focused on energy security and oil, but it soon evolved into a conversation about climate. Presenters talked about how the money we spend on foreign oil props up oppressive regimes. But they also described how climate change is generating civil unrest in volatile regions of the world.
What really struck me was when one of the generals said, “I came into this climate briefing as a doubting Thomas, but I have come out thinking, ‘My god, this really is a problem.’”
It is realizations like this that prompted the CIA to share some of its data with climate scientists. Like all federal agencies, it is using science to make more informed decisions. The Times quoted an agency spokeswoman, Paula Weiss saying, “Director Panetta believes it is crucial to examine the potential national security implications of phenomena such as desertification, rising sea levels, and population shifts.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is obviously concerned with similar trends. Two weeks ago, Newsweek ran an interview with Secretary Clinton and Henry Kissinger. Clinton explained that in addition to triaging immediate crises, she keeps her eye on emerging threats. She identified energy security and the melting Arctic sea among them.
An area that we're beginning to pay attention to, which is not in the headlines, is the Arctic. With the melting of the ice, with sea lanes opening that were never there before…with five countries ringing the Arctic…With Russia saying that they are going to have an expedition next year to plant their flag on the North Pole. With Canada saying, "No, you'd better not." This is an area that we have to pay real attention to, but it's not an area that I get called about by reporters or have to answer questions about at the White House yet.
I am relieved Secretary Clinton is paying attention to this issue. Indeed, I am a member of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Arctic Climate Change, and we are advocating for an Arctic governance system so we can avoid the kind of standoff Clinton describes.
But the Arctic is just one region under pressure from climate change. The African and Asian coastal cities vulnerable to sea-level rise and the Mid Eastern nations grappling with acute water shortages could become even more volatile flashpoints if we do not start curbing global warming now.
Despite what Fox says, the CIA would be grossly negligent if it didn’t track these mounting threats.