An aerial view of U.S. Naval Base Guam shows several Navy vessels moored in Apra Harbor, March 15. Experts warn that rising sea levels could affect coastal U.S. military bases around the world.

An aerial view of U.S. Naval Base Guam shows several Navy vessels moored in Apra Harbor, March 15. Experts warn that rising sea levels could affect coastal U.S. military bases around the world. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Stacy D. Laseter

A Quartet of Warnings Highlight Climate-Related Threats

Agencies vow to heed climate change in all strategy planning, but experts say that won’t be enough.

Climate change is likely to crank up geopolitical tensions as temperatures rise and nations argue about who is responsible for fixing it, according to a new national intelligence estimate.

The intelligence community document is one of four climate-related reports released on Thursday by national-security agencies ahead of President Joe Biden’s trip to the United Nations Climate Change Conference at the end of this month. They explain how a warming planet is expected to escalate geopolitical tensions, increase instability, and drive migration. Biden will travel to Glasgow for the conference armed with this data in a bid to convince allies around the world to act. 

“We alone cannot solve this challenge. We need the rest of the world to accelerate their progress alongside with us,” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the report release. “These analyses will serve as a foundation for our critical work on climate and security moving forward.”  

The national intelligence estimate found that by 2040, there will likely be rising instability around the world because of strained energy and food infrastructure, which is likely to create an increased demand for humanitarian aid and military help. It concluded that a warming climate will exacerbate existing geopolitical problems, including migration to escape climate impacts. 

But climate change is also likely to increase global political tensions by 2040 as countries argue about who is moving quickly and forcefully enough. Some countries are also likely to resist the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, breeding resentment from those who are taking aggressive action. 

“The cooperative breakthrough of the Paris Agreement may be short lived as countries struggle to reduce their emissions and blame others for not doing enough,” the report says, adding that there is also likely to be friction between developed and developing nations, which will expect financial aid and technology assistance from developed countries to meet emissions goals. 

Countries will also compete to dominate the clean-energy market, including processing for the rare earth metals and minerals that are critical to making products such as wind turbines, electric cars, and solar panels. The competition is likely to center around China, which is already the world’s top processor of rare earth metals because it can sell them cheaper due to lower environmental standards and cost of labor, the report said.

“Sometimes China and climate change are held up…in opposition. Either you deal with China or you deal with climate change,” said Erin Sikorsky, director of the Center for Climate and Security. “What the reports highlight is: you have to be able to look at them together. How does climate change shape competition with China? And how is China reacting?”

The intelligence community’s report is its first climate-focused national intelligence estimate—its most authoritative type of document. But it's not the first time intelligence officials have studied the issue. In 2008, the intelligence community assessed the national security implications of climate change through 2030—and drew many of the same conclusions, said Larry Hanauer, the vice president for policy at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. 

The Defense Department released a Climate Risk Analysis alongside the intelligence assessment. It says the risks related to climate change are growing, including domestic extreme weather that can hurt military readiness and rising sea levels in places such as Guam and the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. military has bases. To respond to this, the Pentagon is promising to consider climate change in all strategy documents, including the National Defense Strategy. 

Two other reports were also released Thursday: a study of how climate change will affect migration and a strategy to address climate change from the Department of Homeland Security. 

It’s important for officials to have this information, especially the intelligence community’s evaluation which represents an objective, nonpartisan outlook of the  threats America might face because of the warming climate, Hanauer said.

“Unlike politicians...the intelligence community has no political agenda,” he said. “Its assessment represents the truth as it sees it.”

“It’s something that all policymakers should take note of,” he added.

It’s not clear whether the national security community’s findings will spur lawmakers or allies to action. Sikorsky said the national security workforce must be educated about the data and science behind climate change, so they can consider it in every strategic decision. Beyond a basic level of understanding, federal agencies must also embed advisors dedicated to climate change throughout their organizations, including at embassies and combatant commands. 

“How do you make sure these reports don’t end up on a shelf?” Sikorsky said. “What I hope is the administration takes this and uses it to help catalyze action at the State Department, [combatant commands], and the intelligence community itself to make sure climate lens is being brought to all conversations.”