Environmental Intel

/ February 18, 2009 at 5:00 AM

Last week, we reported on the worldwide threats assessment presented by retired Adm. Dennis Blair, the new director of national intelligence, to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In addition to the defense implications of the worldwide economic slump, we also touched on Blair's support for an international cyberwarfare "code of conduct" as well as his assessment of missile defense cooperation with Russia.

One aspect we didn't touch on was the national-security implications of worldwide climate change and other environmental issues, something that this week's issue of sister publication Defense Environment Alert focuses on. The issue's top article reports that Blair is reviving the term "environmental security" -- a Clinton-era term stressing the significance of environmental threats to national security -- as a focus for the intelligence community, suggesting it will receive higher priority as a national security concern than it was afforded by the Bush administration.

“Climate change, energy, global health and environmental security are often intertwined, and while not traditionally viewed as ‘threats’ to U.S. national security, they will affect Americans in major ways,” Blair said in Feb. 12 testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “The Intelligence Community has increased its focus on these . . . critical issues,” he added, noting the oil price spike last year that focused governmental attention on energy issues. . . .

Blair’s testimony appears to sidestep a brewing debate over whether threats from climate change should take precedence over energy security threats, which environmentalists have viewed as a key indicator of whether the Obama administration is willing to scale back support for high-emitting fuels as a way to address concerns about dependence on foreign oil.

Late last year, Obama suggested that climate change concerns may be a greater threat to national security than potential threats due to dependence on foreign oil. . . .

But in his testimony, Blair avoids prioritizing the two issues, noting threats from both. “The already stressed resource sector will be further complicated and, in most cases, exacerbated by climate change,” says Blair. “Continued escalation of energy demand will hasten the impacts of climate change,” he says.

However, he warns that “Forcibly cutting back on fossil fuel use before substitutes are widely available could threaten continued economic development, particularly for countries like China, whose industries have not yet achieved high levels of energy efficiency.” Further, “a switch from use of arable land for food to fuel crops provides a limited solution and could exacerbate both the energy and food situations.”

Blair also raised concerns that “lower oil prices may weaken momentum toward energy efficiency and the development of alternative sources of energy that are important for both energy and environmental security.” Even here, however, the situation is complex. Blair notes that low oil prices discourage development of new refinery capacity, creating the conditions for another damaging oil price spike, but have the benefit of “undercutting the economic positions of some of the more troublesome ((oil)) producers.” . . .

Blair reiterates the findings of a National Intelligence Assessment (NIA), that Democratic lawmakers had pushed for and which was published by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in June. The NIA found that climate change will be a significant destabilizing factor, or “threat multiplier.” This theory holds that although climate change and resource scarcity will directly impact the United States, in the near term the impact on other countries in already unstable regions such as Africa and the Middle East will be of more concern. . . .

The emphasis of the intelligence chief on climate and environmental issues goes beyond that afforded by Blair’s predecessor Mike McConnell, who resisted a push by House Democrats in 2007 for the NIC to prepare a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the most high level and involved type of intelligence analysis, on climate change.

-- John Liang