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Professor Mark Nevitt: What You Need to Know About the New Climate Security Reports

Posted on Wednesday 10/27/2021
Mark P. Nevitt

(Lawfare | Oct. 26, 2021) Last week, the Department of Defense, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Department of Homeland Security and National Security Council released four distinct reports on the effects of climate change on national security. These reports were issued pursuant to requirements established in two executive orders issued by President Biden earlier this year: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration. These four reports build off the Pentagon’s recent Climate Adaptation Plan and the Department of Homeland Security’s Climate Action Plan, issued in September and October, respectively. Read in conjunction with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, the four reports present a full, albeit bleak, picture of a climate-transformed world.

These reports—particularly the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)—offer a clear-eyed analysis of the climate threats facing the nation and world. The NIE is produced by the National Intelligence Council, the most senior intelligence analysts with deep expertise on future threats facing the U.S. and the rest of the world. It should be mandatory reading for all security professionals. It is also a first-of-its-kind document, summarizing the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community in a candid, forthright manner.

Several broad climatic themes emerge from these reports. I’ve highlighted the following toplines below, with a particular focus on the NIE’s blunt analysis of the scope and scale of the climate crisis.

The World Is Far Off Track to Meet the Paris Climate Accord’s Goals

The NIE reaffirms what climate scientists have already warned: The world is off track to meet the Paris climate accord’s goals of keeping the Earth’s temperature from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial norms. Worse, estimates show that temperatures are expected to increase 2.0 degrees Celsius by midcentury. This is the NIE’s key takeaway

The Paris climate agreement binds 190 nations to a process that relies heavily on voluntary reporting without a clear, legally enforceable mechanism. The agreement sets a goal of “limit[ing] the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels” and “holding the increase in global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius.” Exceeding this threshold will lead to catastrophic, irreversible harm. Unfortunately, the NIE notes, “current policies and pledges are insufficient to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals.” Several key judgments flow from the NIE’s assessment that the world is poised to blast through these temperature thresholds. For example, with a 2.0 degree rise, 99 percent of coral reefs will suffer long-term degradation. This eliminates an entire ecosystem serving 500 million people who rely on coral reefs for economic and food security. And with a 2.0 degree rise, envision an ice-free Arctic summer every five years, increasing competition over resource and transit route access. 

The NIE’s blunt assessment provides sobering context for the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which now takes on an increased importance. How the NIE’s assessment will shape climate negotiations at Glasgow remains to be seen, but it is now impossible to deny the destructive climate emissions trajectory …

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