A burning building is seen after warplanes belonging to the Assad Regime carried out airstrikes at opposition controlled areas in Idlib, Syria on Sept. 12, 2016. Image: Bhjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/(Getty Images)
The U.S. intelligence community on Wednesday released a new report finding that global warming is already acting as a destabilizing force worldwide, with more serious ramifications to come in the next two decades...
In the report, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) — a group of public and private sector experts who advise the Director of National Intelligence — found that extreme weather events have growing implications for humans, which “suggest[s] that climate-change related disruptions are well underway."
The report also states that during the next five years, which will largely fall within the timeframe of the next presidential administration, climate change will cause growing security risks for the U.S. that "will arise primarily from distinct extreme weather events and from the exacerbation of currently strained conditions, like water shortages."
According to Brian Deese, a senior advisor to President Barack Obama, this is the first intelligence assessment to find that climate change is already affecting U.S. national security. Previous reports from the CIA, the Defense Department and other agencies had portrayed climate change as a future challenge.
Navy aircraft carriers USS Harry S Truman (L) and USS George HW Bush rest tied to the pier at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Virginia, May 8, 2013. Image: Jim watson/AFP/Getty Images
The new intelligence report starkly warns of climate instability-driven migrations in the next two decades and was released the same week world leaders have been meeting in New York City to consider how to increase support for refugees streaming out of war-torn Syria, Somalia, Libya and other countries.
The report states:
Over 20 years, the net effects of climate change on the patterns of global human movement and statelessness could be dramatic, perhaps unprecedented. If unanticipated, they could overwhelm government infrastructure and resources, and threaten the social fabric of communities
The report is illustrated with examples of climate-related security developments that have already occurred, such as insurgents' exploitation of drought-enhanced desertification in a "food for Jihad" movement in northern Mali during 2015.
The report also comes as the White House announced a new policy framework requiring federal agencies to take the impacts of climate change into account when making national security-related policies and plans. President Obama established this framework through a presidential memorandum.
The NIC report provides more detailed information on how climate change will likely pose national security challenges for the U.S. during the next 20 years, raising the possibility that climate change-related impacts could cause entire countries to collapse.
Members of the Majawa family walk to their church in the village of Mulele, which lies in one of the areas most affected by drought, on Sept. 11, 2016 in Zomba, Malawi. Image: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images
It finds that climate change is "likely to pose significant national security challenges for the United States over the next two decades,” which includes stressing U.S. military operations and bases. For example, the Navy is facing increasing challenges coping with sea level rise, which threatens to swamp some of its largest bases, including in Norfolk, Virginia.
Globally, the report found that climate-related national security disruptions are already underway, with the potential for global warming impacts to overwhelm country's ability to absorb natural disasters and continue to govern its people.
In addition, the report raises the specter of fights over arable land and usable water as heat waves and droughts cause dramatic shifts in the distribution of natural resources.
One of the problems identified in the report is the tendency for human populations to concentrate in coastal areas, where sea level rise will have increasingly damaging effects, as well as in water-stressed areas, such as South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
The White House and intelligence agencies are increasingly seeing climate change-related national security threats worldwide, from the Syrian civil war to insurgencies in Africa.
Scientific studies have shown that a major drought that climate change likely worsened helped spark the devastating Syrian Civil War, which in turn has helped lead to the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.
"The impacts of climate change on national security are only going to grow," said White House Science Adviser John Holdren, on a conference call with reporters.
The White House's actions do not have the force of law, however, and they could be undone by either an upcoming Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump administration.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum at the Plaza Hotel, September 21, 2016 in New York City Image: Drew Angerer/Pool/Sipa USA
“Today’s Presidential Memorandum, while welcome, will need to withstand the transition between administrations to become effective," said David Titley, who retired as a Rear Admiral from the Navy and now directs the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University, in an email to Mashable.
"It is important for the next administration, no matter who wins the November elections, to continue to recognize climate change as a security risk."
However, Holdren said that with climate science showing such clear warning signs — the Earth has now had 16 straight record warm months, an unprecedented feat — it's not in the best interest of the next administration to tinker with the new policy.
The intelligence report did not come as much of a surprise to the White House, Deese said.
“The president directly and his national security team have been making a strong case for years that climate change is having an immediate and growing impact on our national security,” he said.
Francisco Femia, the co-founder and president at the Center for Climate and Security, said the presidential memorandum and the intelligence report are both significant developments.
“What the memorandum is essentially doing is saying look we need to organize our government at the highest levels of national security planning to manage this risk as a systemic risk,” he told Mashable in an interview. Femia said the new actions elevate climate change to the highest level of national security policymaking that it's ever been.
“The timescales are short and I think that’s unique and I think that’s interesting to see the NIC talking about security risks already underway,” Femia said of the intelligence report.
The NIC report also considers the possibility of abrupt climate change from unanticipated tipping points in the climate system.
"Even if sudden shifts in the climate do not materialize, gradual shifts in climate could nonetheless spark surprising secondary effects — such as a massive release of gases from melting permafrost, persistent megadroughts, extreme shifts in critical ecosystems, emerging reservoirs of new pathogens, or the sudden breakup of immense ice sheets," the report states.
"The national security implications of such changes could be severe."
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