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For America's security, we can't afford to play catch-up with climate change

Jun 11, 2019
In The News

“Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea-level rise, soil degradation and acidifying oceans are intensifying.”

These aren’t my words. They’re not the words of a climate scientist (though climate scientists have been making similar statements for years). Rather, they’re the words of President Donald Trump’s appointee Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, in the Worldwide Threat Assessment he delivered to Congress earlier this year.

In fact, Director Coats listed climate change among the greatest threats to national and global security. He predicted that the rise in sea level will accelerate, bringing even more extreme weather that will endanger low-lying military bases, damage infrastructure and cause loss of human life. Furthermore, the change in climate is expected to drive food and water shortages, mass migration, and rising tensions among and within nations around the globe.

The president may not think much of climate change, but his intelligence agencies sure do.

That is why I have introduced the Climate Security Intelligence Act in Congress, a bill that creates a Climate Security Intelligence Center. It would act as a central hub for the intelligence community on information related to climate change and be located within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

Various intelligence agencies are currently dealing with the impacts of climate change largely on their own. While there are mechanisms and procedures for these agencies to share information with each other and through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, there is no centralized office tasked with identifying and analyzing all the national security implications of climate change. Given the intelligence community’s assessment of the existential threat that climate change poses, that’s a big gap, and it needs to be filled.

The solution I’m proposing has precedent. The ODNI already has two subject-matter-based centers structurally similar to a Climate Security Intelligence Center. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, our government undertook a massive overhaul of information-sharing procedures among intelligence agencies. The ODNI was created. The job of the CIA director — running the CIA and managing the flow of intelligence from other agencies to the president — was split in two. The responsibility of sharing intelligence with the president was given to the new Director of National Intelligence.

In 2004, Congress placed a National Counterterrorism Center in the new ODNI. The counterterrorism center acted as a centralized hub for intelligence. Shortly afterward, the National Counterproliferation Center was created within ODNI as a hub for intelligence about nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Terrorism was a major threat. But a terrorist group with a weapon of mass destruction could pose an existential threat.

After more than three years of playing catch-up, we had finally implemented a system of intelligence-sharing procedures that could better foresee and prevent events like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

We don’t want to be playing catch-up with climate change.

Director Coats did not mince words — climate change poses an existential threat to the U.S. and to every nation. The nature of climate threats will continue to evolve, and we must move quickly to stay ahead of them if we are to mitigate the damage both here at home and around the world.

Climate change is not some abstract future problem. It is happening right now, and we need to equip ourselves to deal with it. The very worst thing we can do is to ignore this growing threat. While we must continue to develop renewable energy and decrease our reliance on fossil fuels to reduce the overall climate threat, we need to ensure that we are prepared to meet imminent climate challenges.

If we fail to do so, we will pay a crushing price economically, in human health and yes, in increased global conflicts and threats to our own national security. By establishing the Climate Security Intelligence Center, we will run toward the problem — and the solution — instead of away from it in fruitless ignorance.