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The Spies Who Came in from the Cold

January 6, 2010

Monday’s New York Times featured an article by William J. Broad on renewed collaboration between U.S. intelligence agencies and climate change scientists. Efforts to exchange arctic surveillance photos and other data for improved understanding of the national security impacts of climate change seem eminently sensible.  (See also the CIA press release on the opening of the Center for Climate Change and National Security.)

Why then do some overseers in Congress, like Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso object to the idea? Well, for starters, they got their way on this question for the past eight years while President George W. Bush and former Wyoming Congressman, Halliburton CEO, and Vice President Dick Cheney were in office. The recently restarted program known as Medea – Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis – was suspended on their watch.

Economic, social, and political instability in oil-rich Muslim nations is among the biggest potential national security challenges presented by global climate change. At the same time, growing concern about the impacts of ice melt and habitat loss on northern climes and their fragile ecosystems has influenced the debate on drilling and exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other remote regions.

The circumstances attending such instability strike most of us as particularly bad news. But that is not the case for those with a vested interest in America’s energy addiction. Enabling instability suits them just fine. Driving up the price of energy makes exploration in previously unthinkable places more attractive and indeed competitive. Defense contractors benefit from our sense of insecurity and our desire to arm our enemies’ enemies.

The U.S. government, on the other hand, gains very little from these exchanges. We face a world in which the effects of climate change drive up the costs of combating terrorism while fueling the cause of extremists seeking to recruit and convert new radicals.

But as Broad’s article makes clear, not all of the consequences of climate change, at least in the arctic region, should strike opponents of this renewed collaboration as negative. Barring international agreements or other new regulations, melting sea ice will facilitate navigation and open access to previously untapped fish stocks and mineral reserves.

According to sources quoted in the article, the fiscal impacts of this program are negligible. U.S. spy agencies maintain extensive sensor networks that produce a very detailed picture of conditions in the arctic region where the effects of climate change have already become quite apparent. The scientists with whom intelligence agencies work receive degraded imagery and must hold appropriate security clearances. In exchange, they aid the country in achieving a better understanding of the world in which we and our children will live.

For once, by bringing our spies in from the cold, it seems we might just be fighting the next war instead of the last one. The next question we must ask ourselves is what we will do with the new information produced by this partnership and the insights it yields.

More information on national security and climate change is available from these sources:

CNA Analysis & Solutions

Council on Foreign Relations

Pew Center on Global Climate Change

U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works

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