Apr 9, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Climate change is a major threat to stability, spy agencies say

Illustration of climate change refugees.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Climate change will lead to a less secure, more crisis-prone world that will strain global institutions, according to a major national security assessment released Thursday.

Driving the news: The “Global Trends Report,” produced every four years by the National Intelligence Council, spotlights climate change among the main structural forces shaping the next two decades.

The big picture: Global warming, along with disease outbreaks, financial crises and other forces, will test the “resilience and adaptability” of the international system. There are reasons to believe that many systems large and small may fail under the increased stress.

What they're saying: “Climate change will increasingly exacerbate risks to human and national security and force states to make hard choices and tradeoffs,” the report states.

  • “The burdens will be unevenly distributed, heightening competition, contributing to instability, straining military readiness, and encouraging political movements.”
  • Notably, the report also states that the increasing impacts of climate change may lead to increased demand for geoengineering of the climate. Such schemes, just on the drawing board now, might involve artificially counteracting global warming by spraying tiny particles high into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight, for example.

Context: While national security experts have referred to climate change as a threat-multiplier for years, it's noteworthy this report shows climate change playing such a prominent role in shaping the world order through 2040.

Quick take: This is not your typical grim climate report projecting disaster in the year 2100, i.e. the distant future.

  • Instead, the climate change we will see through midcentury is already baked into the climate system, thanks to how the oceans absorb and redistribute heat.
  • Studies show that even if emissions are sharply reduced now we are still in for additional amounts of warming through mid-century, which will lead to more extreme weather events, sea level rise, and other effects.

What is up to us, however, is how we prepare for and respond to such challenges.

  • We can strengthen democratic institutions or instead become a more fragmented global community with competing power centers, the report shows.

Between the lines: Other “structural forces” affecting the globe include technological and economic trends, which, along with climate change, are likely to determine the winners and losers around the world.

  • Climate change is already affecting developing nations more severely than it is the industrialized world, and that trend is only going to intensify, the report concludes.

Reality check: One lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that while we plan for major threats, they still contain many surprises. Previous editions of this report had considered pandemics, but they did not accurately capture the complexities and far-reaching impacts of COVID-19.

  • It’s discomforting to think we may not be fully understanding or planning for how far-reaching climate change’s reverberations may be felt, but that's likely the case.

The bottom line: Buckle your seatbelt, we're in for a bumpy ride.

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