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Of Climate And National Security

Report: Intelligence agencies advised to plan for global-warming disasters

by Jeff Johnson
November 16, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 47

Credit: Newscom
A firefighter in Belmar, N.J., wades down a flooded street after Hurricane Sandy.
This is a photo of an unidentified Belmar firefighter who is helping conduct a house-to-house search operation for potentially trapped people on flooded streets in Belmar, New Jersey, in November 2012 after Superstorm Sandy.
Credit: Newscom
A firefighter in Belmar, N.J., wades down a flooded street after Hurricane Sandy.

Floods, droughts, raging storms, and heat waves are likely consequences of climate change that will lead to unknown, unprecedented, and unpredictable environmental, political, and social global tragedies, says a report released Nov. 9 by the National Research Council. The report recommends that the U.S. intelligence community quickly act to better understand and prepare for the national security impacts of climate change.

“We’d better get ready,” urges the NRC panel chair, John D. Steinbruner, a University of Maryland professor and director of the university’s Center for International & Security Studies. The NRC report was requested by the intelligence community to help them take climate change into account when assessing political and social factors affecting national security.

Steinbruner stresses the problem is real—Earth is warming at unprecedented rates. “We know the consequences will be large, but we don’t know the time, the location, or any of the details of when impacts will occur.”

These impacts, the report notes, are outside the bounds of past experience and will be full of “climate surprises.”

The report calls for close monitoring and careful selection of variables likely to affect climate-change impacts. Some 12 to 15 countries should be closely monitored because of their potential to be affected by climate change as well as their importance to U.S. national security. Another 50 or so countries should also be watched because of potential climate-change and humanitarian concerns.

The intelligence community should periodically conduct “stress tests” of these countries to gauge their vulnerability to climate change, the report says. Steinbruner says the tests should include a country’s “coping ability,” such as its government’s willingness to act in an equitable and effective manner during disasters.

Because climate change is global, Steinbruner adds, the world’s intelligence agencies must overcome an inherent difficulty: secrecy. They must share information. “They can’t do this planning and preparation in their usual way, all by themselves,” he says. “They are going to need allies.”



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