Alleen Brown and Miriam Pensack, The Intercept:
In the northernmost place in the United States, Point Barrow, Alaska, a National Security Agency collection site has allowed analysts to observe Russia’s military buildup 24/7, as melting Arctic ice opens a new conflict zone. The NSA has also monitored a dispute between India and Pakistan over access to the Indus River system, which is fed by glaciers high in the Himalayas, now shrinking. And as fisheries are facing increasing pressure from seas whose currents and temperatures have already been altered significantly by climate change, the NSA has listened in on phone conversations and monitored the movement of fishing boats engaged in potentially illegal practices that threaten dwindling stocks.
Previously unreleased documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show how the agency has gathered intelligence meant to support U.S. interests related to environmental disasters, conflicts, and resources. In the coming years, greenhouse gas pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels will increase the frequency of ecological crises and conflicts over natural resources. The documents provide a window into the role the United States’s most sprawling international surveillance agency will play in an altered world.
Unsurprisingly, the agency is driven not by an imperative to avoid climate-induced ecological crises, but by a need to respond to such crises as they threaten U.S. political and economic interests or explode into violent clashes.
According to the documents, the NSA targets its surveillance at disputes over natural resources, from the dwindling fisheries of the South China Sea to the newly opened shipping channels of the Arctic. It also plays a role in monitoring natural disasters, including by gathering intelligence after an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011. Documents previously reported on show the agency routinely surveils climate talks, giving U.S. negotiators an edge as they avoid committing to the dramatic emissions reductions necessary to avoid the most dire potential effects of climate change. Intelligence is shared not only with diplomats and emergency responders but also with officials from agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department.
The military has long recognized climate change as a major threat, and over the years, the Defense Department has framed it as a “threat multiplier,” enflaming conflicts by adding to the mix issues like drought, loss of access to drinking water or irrigation, rising sea levels, migration and die-offs of wild game, wildfires, catastrophic storms, and the human displacement that comes with all such issues. A previously published NSA document, dated May 14, 2007, quoted then-Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence James Clapper at an internal NSA conference saying, “Increasingly, the environment is becoming an adversary for us. And I believe that the capabilities and assets of the Intelligence Community are going to be brought to bear increasingly in assessing the environment as an adversary.”
The U.S. intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment, released in February 2018, dedicates a section to the issue of climate change. “The impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent—and possibly upheaval—through 2018,” the assessment said.
Previously unreleased documents indicate that climate change increasingly became a topic of interest in the mid-2000s and early 2010s. Climate change is mentioned repeatedly in reports describing the NSA’s priority issues. A secret NSA report describing geopolitical trends for 2011 to 2016, for example, ranked climate change as No. 31 out of 34 priorities (No. 1 was “global energy security”).
To bring analysts up to date on this increasingly urgent issue, the NSA offered various learning opportunities. For example, in advance of the U.N.’s Cancún, Mexico, climate talks in 2010, approximately 50 analysts attended an entire “Climate Change Day,” according to SIDtoday. And in the summer of 2006, the agency held a seminar on the causes and effects of climate change titled “Fire and Ice.” A description says, “Climate change (most likely as a result of global warming) is expected to accelerate at an unprecedented rate over the coming decades and has already been linked to drought and related famine, shifts in precipitation, and the loss of fresh water resources. Extreme weather patterns are a growing threat.” It adds, “Alternative viewpoints will also be addressed.”
More than a decade later, the intelligence community appears less concerned about the validity of alternative viewpoints. The intelligence community’s publicly released 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment notes, “The past 115 years have been the warmest period in the history of modern civilization, and the past few years have been the warmest years on record. Extreme weather events in a warmer world have the potential for greater impacts and can compound with other drivers to raise the risk of humanitarian disasters, conflict, water and food shortages, population migration, labor shortfalls, price shocks, and power outages.
It underlines that bad air pollution may drive protests in China, India, and Iran. Water scarcity will drive conflicts related to the construction of dams and will complicate agreements around the use of river water. And accelerating biodiversity loss caused by pollution, warming, unsustainable fishing, and acidifying oceans “will jeopardize vital ecosystems that support critical human systems.”