Why the CIA is spying on a changing climate

Medill National Security Reporting ProjectJanuary 10, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Last summer, as torrential rains flooded Pakistan, a veteran intelligence analyst watched closely from his desk at CIA headquarters just outside the capital.

For the analyst, who heads the CIA's year-old Center on Climate Change and National Security, the worst natural disaster in Pakistan's history was a warning.

"It has the exact same symptoms you would see for future climate change events, and we're expecting to see more of them," he said later, agreeing to talk only if his name were not revealed, for security reasons. "We wanted to know: What are the conditions that lead to a situation like the Pakistan flooding? What are the important things for water flows, food security … radicalization, disease" and displaced people?

As intelligence officials assess key components of state stability, they are realizing that the norms they had been operating with — such as predictable river flows and crop yields — are shifting.

Yet the U.S. government is ill-prepared to act on climate changes that are coming faster than anticipated and threaten to bring instability to places of U.S. national interest, interviews with several dozen current and former officials and outside experts and a review of two decades' worth of government reports indicate.

Climate projections lack crucial detail, they say, and information about how people react to changes — for instance, by migrating — is sparse. Military officials say they don't yet have the intelligence they need in order to prepare for what might come.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a 23-year veteran of the CIA who led the Department of Energy's intelligence unit from 2005 to 2008, said the intelligence community simply wasn't set up to deal with a problem such as climate change that wasn't about stealing secrets.

"I consider what the U.S. government is doing on climate change to be lip service," said Mowatt-Larssen, who is currently a fellow at Harvard University. "It's not serious."

Just getting to where the intelligence community is now, however, has been a challenge.

Back in the 1990s, the CIA opened an environmental center, swapped satellite imagery with Russia and cleared U.S. scientists to access classified information. But when the Bush administration took power, the center was absorbed by another office and work related to the climate was broadly neglected.

In 2007, a report by retired high-ranking military officers called attention to the national security implications of climate change, and the National Intelligence Council followed a year later with an assessment on the topic. But some Republicans attacked it as a diversion of resources.

And when CIA Director Leon Panetta stood up the climate change center in 2009, conservative lawmakers attempted to block its funding.

"The CIA's resources should be focused on monitoring terrorists in caves, not polar bears on icebergs," Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said at the time.

Now, with calls for belt tightening coming from every corner, leadership in Congress has made it clear that the intelligence budget, which soared to $80.1 billion last year, will have to be cut. And after sweeping victories by conservatives in the midterm elections, many political insiders think the community's climate change work will be in jeopardy.

Environmental issues have long been recognized as key to understanding what might happen in unstable countries. In the 1990s, while spies studied such things as North Korean crop yields, attempting to anticipate where shortages could lead to instability, the CIA also shared a trove of classified environmental data with scientists through a program that became known as Medea.

"The whole group (of scientists) were patriots and this was an opportunity to help the country do something about the train wreck (we) saw coming" from climate change, said Robert Bindschadler, a glaciologist at NASA who received a security clearance when Medea started in 1992.

Cleared scientists also helped the CIA interpret environmental data and improve collection methods, former CIA Director John Deutch said in a 1996 speech.

But the Republican-controlled Congress gradually trimmed these programs, and after President George W. Bush took office in 2001, top-level interest in environmental security programs disappeared. Intelligence officials working on them were reassigned.

Terry Flannery, who led the CIA's environmental security center until 2000, said he had to tread lightly in his final years running it.

"You had this odd thing where it became an interchange of science and politics," he said. "At times, it was just strange."

Retired Gen. Michael Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009, said issues such as energy and water made Bush's daily briefings, but climate change was not a part of the agenda.

"I didn't have a market for it when I was director," Hayden said in a recent interview. "It was all terrorism all the time, and when it wasn't, it was all Iran."

The Bush administration's open skepticism of global warming hurt the intelligence community's efforts to track its impact. A 2007 congressional oversight report found the administration "engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming."

Today, climate scientists say their research is hindered by a data gap resulting from inadequate funding during the Bush years. In 2005, the National Research Council said the nation's environmental satellite system was "at risk of collapse."

Even during the Bush administration, though, pockets of work moved forward.

In 2007, Department of Energy intelligence chief Mowatt-Larssen built an experimental program called Global Energy & Environment Strategic Ecosystem, or Global EESE. He tapped Carol Dumaine, a CIA foresight strategist known around the agency as a creative visionary, to lead the program.

"Our modern intelligence evolved for a different type of threat: monolithic, top-down, incrementally changing," Dumaine, who has since returned to the CIA, said in a recent interview. She, on the other hand, was "trying to grow a garden of intelligence genius."

The program brought together more than 200 of the brightest minds from around the world to explore the impact of issues such as abrupt climate change, energy infrastructure and environmental stresses in Afghanistan.

But after only two years, the program was shuttered. Former members say it was brought down by bureaucratic infighting, political pressure from Congress and the Bush White House, and concerns about including foreign nationals in the intelligence arena.

"The most important thing we lost is data. We lost the data that accompanies new ways of conducting intelligence and for getting it right with environmental problems," Mowatt-Larssen said.

In April 2007, a group of high-ranking retired military officers published a report that said projected changes to the climate posed a "serious threat to America's national security."

Within weeks, a handful of lawmakers from both parties were pushing to get climate change back on the intelligence community's agenda.

Chuck Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, drafted legislation that called climate change "a clear and present danger to the security of the United States" and would have required an intelligence report on it.

Although the provision went nowhere, the National Intelligence Council moved ahead on its own.

"The goal was to produce enough understanding of the effects, the way they played out, government capacity, to tee up for U.S. government agencies the kind of questions they better start asking now in order to be ready 20 years from now," said Thomas Fingar, who was the chairman of the NIC at the time and now teaches at Stanford University.

Three months after the assessment was completed, the NIC appointed retired Maj. Gen. Richard Engel as the director of its new climate change and state stability program.

Some lawmakers were so alarmed by the findings of the classified National Intelligence Assessment that they pushed for a resurrection of Clinton-era environmental intelligence programs.

In the months since the CIA's climate change center began operations, a team of about 15 analysts has inventoried the intelligence community's collection of environmental data, restarted the Medea program and begun developing tools that bring global climate forecasts down to the regional level.

But Pentagon officials say the information they need most doesn't yet exist.

"Right now there's a gap between, OK, we can have a weather forecast for what the weather's going to be in the next month, and then we have the climate forecast, which is 30 to 100 years out," said one Pentagon official, who spoke only after he was granted anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media. "It really doesn't help the combatant commanders plan their operations."

The Defense Department has sponsored research on climate change and security, and last year pledged $7.5 million to study impacts in Africa, where security experts say terrorism and climate change could become twin challenges for weak governments.

For example, some projections point to Niger, which had a military coup last year, as highly vulnerable to climate change.

"Before I started looking at Niger, I wouldn't have necessarily put it as a place that we would be that concerned about," said Joshua Busby, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin conducting the Pentagon-funded research. "But they provide a significant percentage of the world's uranium supplies, and al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is active there."

The CIA climate center recently brought in an Africa specialist, and its director just returned from a visit to the continent.

Senior intelligence officials say it will take a marriage of regional experts and climate change specialists to make vital connections such as these.

Last December, the center launched a website that gives other CIA analysts access to its work and the classified 2008 NIC assessment. The unit is now developing environmental warning software that combines regional climate projections with political and demographic information.

But whether this early work by the climate change center will be enough to produce needed culture change within the intelligence community remains to be seen.

"You have a lot of regional experts who haven't thought in those terms," said one senior intelligence official, who agreed to speak only if his name were not revealed, because of the sensitivity of the topic. "That's the difficult part."

Through the National Academy of Sciences, the CIA also is collaborating with outside experts who include leading climatologists, former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and former Vice President Al Gore's national security adviser, Leon Fuerth.

Ralph Cicerone, a veteran of the 1990s Medea group who's now the president of the National Academy of Sciences, leads the work. He said the group was trying to fill scientific holes that could become major problems for policymakers.

"If some future president calls up the secretary of state or the director of Central Intelligence, and says, 'Gee, I have this draft treaty on my desk, should I sign it? Can we verify it?' and one of them were to say to the president, 'Gee, we never thought of that,' that's not an acceptable answer," Cicerone said.

Intelligence officials also say more work is needed on low-probability, high-impact events. In 2003, a Pentagon-sponsored study concluded that if rapid glacial melt caused the ocean's major currents to shut down, there could be conflicts over resources, migration and significant geopolitical realignments.

"We get a lot of these shocks of one kind or the other, whether it's Katrina or the financial crisis," the senior intelligence official said. "We need to be prepared to think about how we would deal with that."

This summer, the CIA plans to host a climate war game looking at exactly these sorts of high-impact events. The CIA intends to build the scenarios with the help of security experts, scientists and insurance specialists, as well as Hollywood screenwriters who can conjure up the most unforeseeable and disastrous scenarios.

But politics makes such forward-thinking work risky. Intelligence analysis of climate change has been carefully designed to try to sidestep the topic's political controversy. The National Intelligence Council scrupulously avoided delving into the science of climate change, including whether it is man-made or cyclical, and the CIA climate center has been instructed to do the same.

But with many newly elected Republicans questioning the scientific grounding of climate change and politicians from both sides of the aisle looking for places to cut spending, many think this intelligence work could be removed from the agenda.

New House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, plans to disband the House of Representatives' three-year-old global warming committee, which has pressed the connection between climate change and national security and held a hearing where Fingar and Mowatt-Larssen testified.

"There's just no doubt that the support for focusing on (climate issues) in the intelligence community — even energy security — has completely diminished," said Eric Rosenbach, who served as Hagel's national security adviser. "They need a champion."

If a lack of political support causes this intelligence work to fall by the wayside once again, it probably will be the Pentagon that feels it most acutely. Not only is the military concerned with how a changing climate could increase conflict, but it is also the emergency responder to humanitarian crises worldwide.

"The Navy must understand where, when and how climate change will affect regions around the world," Rear Adm. David Titley, the Navy's oceanographer, said in November at the last climate change hearing of the House Science Committee's Energy and Environment Subcommittee in the previous session of Congress.

The effects of climate change are most evident in Arctic ice melt, where "new shipping routes have the potential to reshape the global transportation system," Titley told subcommittee Chairman Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash.

The hearing began with a lively debate on climate science, but by the time Titley testified, Baird was the only committee member left.

But for the lone lame-duck congressman, Titley delivered his testimony to two rows of empty chairs.

Mead and Snider are graduate students in Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. This story is part of Medill's National Security Reporting Project, which is overseen by Josh Meyer, a former national security writer for the Los Angeles Times who now teaches in Medill's Washington program, and Ellen Shearer, the director of Medill's Washington program.

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