February 04, 2010

Intelligence Assessments & Climate Change: 2009 v. 2010

I thought it would be super fun to spend a Wednesday night comparing the intelligence community’s threat assessment language on climate change from last year and this year (pdf links, both). It turned out to be more useful than I’d guessed it would be.

First, categorization. The 2009 assessment places energy and climate change under the umbrella topic of “Environmental Security,” along with global health and demographic changes. “Regional Impacts of Climate Change” is its very own section this year. (Energy is considered in the regional/country-specific sections, and is a sub-section under “The Changing Threat to the Global Economy.”) This likely just reflects the National Intelligence Council’s work in the past year to analyze specific regions with greater fidelity.

Next, placement. In 2009, the Environmental Security section was the last topic before the conclusion. In this year’s assessment, it is fourth-to-last. Take that, health challenges, state and non-state intelligence threats, and international organized crime!

On leadership: the 2009 assessment specifically discusses a U.S. leadership role in international climate diplomacy:

Multilateral policymaking on climate change is likely to be highly visible and a growing priority among traditional security affairs in the coming decades. We observe the United States is seen by the world as occupying a potentially pivotal leadership role between Europe, which is committed to long-term and dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, and a heterogeneous group of developing states wary of committing to greenhouse gas emissions reductions, which they believe would slow their economic growth. As effects of climate change begin to mount, the United States will come under increasing pressure to join the international community in setting meaningful long-term goals for emissions reductions, to reduce its own emissions, and to help others mitigate and adapt to climate change through technological progress and financial assistance.

The 2010 assessment points only to the climate-related leadership of India:

In keeping with its status as an emerging world power, the Government of India exerts strong leadership in global and regional fora and in important bilateral relationships. In multilateral groupings such as the G-20 and the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change, India has reaffirmed its support for various strategic outcomes participating nations hope to achieve in specific negotiations, even though India’s near- to mid-term negotiating positions are reflective of unilateral targets and goals.

Finally, perhaps the most interesting shift is the treatment of climate science. Last year’s assessment includes a section on “Assessing the Impact of Climate Change,” which opens with a list of specific projected climate effects from the IPCC:

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a failure to act to reduce green house gas emissions risks severe damage to the planet by the end of this century and even greater risk in coming centuries. In a fossil fuel-intensive scenario that IPCC examined (A1FI), global average temperatures increase by almost four degrees centigrade. In such a scenario, water stored in glaciers and snow cover would decline significantly, reducing water availability in regions supplied by melt water from major mountain ranges, where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives. Sea-level rise could be up to 59 centimeters by the end of the century and would cause substantial flooding. Individuals in densely populated and low-lying areas, especially the mega deltas of Asian and Africa, where adaptive capacity is relatively low, and which already face other challenges such as tropical storms or local coastal subsidence, are especially at risk. At a four-degree rise, according to the IPCC, up to 30 percent of plant and animal species would be at risk of extinction, global productivity in cereals would decline, intensity of tropical cyclones would increase, and extreme drought areas would rise from 1 percent land area to 30 percent.

Possibly due in part to recent revelations that even the IPCC makes mistakes (in this case a big one on Himalayan glaciers), the 2010 assessment opens with this caveat:

Before I discuss the Intelligence Community’s assessment of the regional impacts of climate change, I would like to note that because we do not conduct climate research to produce these assessments, we reach out to other US Government entities that have expertise in this area. We also do not evaluate the science of climate change per se, nor do we independently analyze what the underlying drivers of climate change are or to what degree climate change will occur.

Anyone want to place a bet on what next year’s assessment will hold on climate change?