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Intelligence community says climate change effects will "exacerbate risks" to national security

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The destabilizing effects of climate change will worsen risks to national security, especially as countries around the world continue haggling over who bears responsibility for reining in emissions, according to a seminal new assessment released Thursday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  

"We assess that climate change will increasingly exacerbate risks to US national security interests as the physical impacts increase and geopolitical tensions mount about how to respond to the challenge," the document states. "Intensifying physical effects will exacerbate geopolitical flashpoints, particularly after 2030, and key countries and regions will face increasing risks of instability and need for humanitarian assistance."  

The assessment says developing countries are most at risk and the least adaptable to the physical effects of climate change, which could pave the way for "instability and possibly internal conflict." Five of the 11 countries the report identifies as most vulnerable — Afghanistan, Burma, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia and Iraq — are in south and east Asia.  

The assessment also deems it "unlikely" that countries committed to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement will meet its goals: "The current pace of transition to low- or zero-emission clean energy sources is not fast enough to avoid temperatures rising above the Paris goal of 1.5 degrees C," it says.  

Countries will increasingly compete to secure their own interests, including in places like the Arctic, where melting sea ice has fueled a race to access oil, gas and mineral resources and to establish new shipping routes.

While wealthier, more developed countries, including the U.S., are in a "relatively better position" to deal with the costs and risks associated with climate change, the report says that "impacts will be massive even if the worst human costs can be avoided."  

The assessment says some unforeseen events could alter its projections, including a significant technological breakthrough or, conversely, a global climate disaster that would mobilize countries to take action. 

National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) are the intelligence community's most formal and authoritative documents, reflecting the community's collective view of a given national security issue. President Biden tasked the intelligence community with producing the NIE – the first-ever to be focused on security challenges linked to climate change – in an executive order issued on January 27, 2021.   

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in April the U.S. intelligence community would "fully" integrate the effects of climate change into its analysis, calling the destabilizing effects of climate-related events an "urgent national security threat."  

In public remarks Wednesday at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute, CIA Director William Burns said climate change was "the biggest existential threat that any of us face in human society." He recently announced changes to the CIA's internal organizational structure, including the establishment of a center focused on transnational issues like climate change.

The ODNI's report was one of four assessments released by the White House Thursday, all part of an effort to put climate change concerns at the center of U.S. national security and foreign policy.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that in the future, climate considerations will be included Defense Department documents such as the National Defense Strategy, in order to reflect the focus by the department on dealing with climate change.

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