Last week’s blog opened with a figure from the January 2017 intelligence report titled, “Global Trends Paradox of Progress.” It showed the projected average surface temperature change based on two emission scenarios: RCP8.5 – a high emission scenario that approximately reflects business as usual practices and the RCP2.6 – a low emission scenario that predicts complete global decarbonization (removal of fossil carbon from the energy sources or capture of the carbon that is not being removed) of energy use before the end of the century. The Global Trends report took the figure from the IPCC report that came out in 2013. Last week, I emphasized the origin of the uncertainty bands in the graph and how their existence does not “prove” Bret Stephens’ New York Times Op-Ed argument that:
We ought to know this by now, but we don’t. Instead, we respond to the inherent uncertainties of data by adding more data without revisiting our assumptions, creating an impression of certainty that can be lulling, misleading and often dangerous.
The same Global Trends series of reports (this one is the sixth in the series) also serves me well for a different purpose. The Spring 2017 semester in my school is almost over (my classes are all done and all that’s left are exams and some special events including a graduation ceremony). My course’s main objective (March 11, 2013) is to teach students about how our contributions to the physical environment affect societal issues in both the immediate and intermediate future. I want them to use information from the present and past to improve the prospects for a better future.
Such a report can serve the additional objective of trying to figure out the impact that the new US federal government might have on such a future. These reports are compiled every four years; the new report came out in January 2017, amid the shift in power. The previous one came out in 2013, in the middle of the Obama administration’s eight years.
The spring semester started at the end of January. I opened the report shortly after it came out, converted it to PDF, and made sure that all my students got it so they could work on the future scenarios within it. As we approached the end of the semester, I reopened the online report and, to my mild surprise, I was confronted with some issues.
Paradox of Progress
The achievements of the industrial and information ages are shaping a world to come that is both more dangerous and richer with opportunity than ever before. Whether promise or peril prevails will turn on the choices of humankind.
What is Global Trends?
Every four years since 1997, the National Intelligence Council has published an unclassified strategic assessment of how key trends and uncertainties might shape the world over the next 20 years to help senior US leaders think and plan for the longer term. The report is timed to be especially relevant for the administration of a newly elected US President, but Global Trends increasingly has served to foster discussions about the future with people around the world. We believe these global consultations, both in preparing the paper and sharing the results, help the NIC and broader US Government learn from perspectives beyond the United States and are useful in sparkling discussions about key assumptions, priorities, and choices.
From this “introduction,” two key statements seem informative: that the timing coincides with newly elected administrations and that it is meant to foster discussion. From these, I surmised that this was probably not the original report that I saw and downloaded.
To make sure, I clicked “Read Full Report.” I got the now familiar letter from the NIC Chairman and a table of contents on the left, which was similar to the original, albeit with different formatting.
I was looking for the climate change entries. They were difficult to find. At the top of the entry page, there was a category, “Annex: Key Global Trends.” I clicked through to that as well as on the “How People Live” button, which was identical to the corresponding section in the original. There was a major entry at the beginning of this segment about “Changes in Earth Systems”:
Storm surges, augmented by sea level rise, are likely to threaten many coastal systems and low-lying areas, and this environmental volatility almost certainly will disrupt food production patterns and water availability, fueling broader economic, political and social stresses. Changes in the Arctic will exceed those felt in the middle latitudes, and reductions in summer sea-ice will make the Arctic more accessible than any time in human history. (Follow this link to read the NIC paper on Implications for US National Security of Anticipated Climate Change.)
This looked promising. I clicked on the highlighted entry and got the following error message:
You may not be able to visit this page because of:
- an out-of-date bookmark/favourite
- a search engine that has an out-of-date listing for this site
- a mistyped address
- you have no access to this page
- The requested resource was not found.
- An error has occurred while processing your request.
Please try one of the following pages:
- Home Page
If difficulties persist, please contact the System Administrator of this site and report the error below.
I gave up.
Additional searching around the report took me to an Andrew Freedman piece, “Trump’s intel agencies tell Congress that climate change poses national security threats.” Given how important I find it, I am citing it here in full:
Each year the intelligence community puts together a “Worldwide Threat Assessment” report, and it inevitably scares the hell out of Congress and the public by detailing all the dangers facing the U.S. (Hint: there are a lot of them.)
This year’s report, published Thursday and discussed at a congressional hearing, makes for particularly disquieting reading.
While it focuses on the increasing danger that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program poses as well as cyberterrorism threats, one environmental concern stands out on the list: climate change.
According to the new report, delivered to the Senate Intelligence Committee by Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence (DNI), warns that climate change is raising the likelihood of instability and conflict around the world.
This is surprising given the Trump administration’s open hostility to climate science findings.
“The trend toward a warming climate is forecast to continue in 2017,” the report states, noting that 2016 was the hottest year on record worldwide. Climate scientists have firmly tied this to human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases, though the report does not make that link.
“This warming is projected to fuel more intense and frequent extreme weather events that will be distributed unequally in time and geography. Countries with large populations in coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to tropical weather events and storm surges, especially in Asia and Africa,” the report states.
The report also cites worsening air pollution in urban areas around the globe, potential water resources conflicts in places like the Middle East. Interestingly, the intelligence report also says that biodiversity losses from pollution, overexploitation and other causes is “disrupting ecosystems that support life, including humans.”
However, there is a caveat in the intelligence community’s assessment that lets Coats avoid being accused of aligning himself with the administration’s critics in the environmental community.
“We assess national security Implications of climate change but do not adjudicate the science of climate change,” the report states. In other words, “We’re just telling you what’s happening, not why it’s happening.”
That report also stated that climate change will cause growing security risks for the U.S. during the next several years. It was the first major intelligence review to cast climate change as a present-day security challenge, rather than a distant, far-off threat.
The military is already experiencing global warming impacts at its bases, particularly the Navy, which is dealing with sea level rise at its facilities.
“The rate of species loss worldwide Is estimated at 100 to 1,000 times higher than the natural background extinction rate, according to peer-reviewed scientific literature,” the report states.
The findings in this report are surprising considering the Trump administration’s hostility to mainstream climate science findings and policies aimed at cutting emissions of greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. Some agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Interior Department, have gone so far as to take down pages devoted to peer-reviewed scientific reports on climate change.
The report that Mr. Coats’ piece cites is not the Global Trends 2017 that his agency came out with in January but a 37-page (the original report is 235 pages + 125 pages of annexes) summary with almost no graphs or data (OS-Coats-051117.pdf). Here is the key page on environmental issues in that report:
Environmental Risks and Climate Change
The trend toward a warming climate is forecast to continue in 2017. The UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is warning that 2017 is likely to be among the hottest years on record—although slightly less warm than 2016 as the strong Ei Nino conditions that influenced that year have abated. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA) reported that 2016 was the hottest year since modern measurements began in 1880. This warming is projected to fuel more intense and frequent extreme weather events that will be distributed unequally in time and geography. Countries with large populations in coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to tropical weather events and storm surges, especially in Asia and Africa. Global air pollution is worsening as more countries experience rapid industrialization, urbanization, forest burning, and agricultural waste incineration, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). An estimated 92 percent of the world’s population live in areas where WHO air quality standards are not met, according to 2014 information compiled by the WHO. People in low-income cities are most affected, with the most polluted cities located in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Public dissatisfaction with air quality might drive protests against authorities, such as those seen in recent years in China, India, and Iran.
Heightened tensions over shared water resources are likely in some regions. The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the construction of the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile is likely to intensify because Ethiopia plans to begin filling the reservoir in 2017.
Global biodiversity will likely continue to decline due to habitat loss, overexploitation, pollution, and invasive species, according to a study by a nongovernmental conservation organization, disrupting ecosystems that support life, including humans. Since 1970, vertebrate populations have declined an estimated 60 percent, according to the same study, whereas populations in freshwater systems declined 13 more than 80 percent. The rate of species loss worldwide is estimated at 100 to 1,000 times higher than the natural background extinction rate, according to peer-reviewed scientific literature.
We assess national security Implications of climate change but do not adjudicate the science of climate change. In assessing these Implications, we rely on US government-coordinated scientific reports, peer reviewed literature, and reports produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the leading International body responsible for assessing the science related to climate change.
In the end, I gave up on the newer format and continued to use the 2013 Global Trends report with some input from the original 2017 report.