On Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment, conveying the consensus viewpoint of U.S. agencies regarding critical global and regional threats.

His testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence focused on the transnational terrorist threat emanating from the sectarian civil war in Syria, and the impact on U.S. intelligence gathering capabilities of the Snowden documents.

Overall, he identified as top threats:

  • cyber-attacks and espionage
  • counterintelligence
  • terrorism/transnational crime
  • proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
  • counterspace (attacks on satellites and communications)

While not mentioned by Clapper as a top threat to the United States, an entire section of the Threat Assessment is devoted to discussing natural resource related concerns: food, water, energy, extreme weather, and the Arctic.

The assessment refers quite forthrightly to the evidence of climate change:

“Empirical evidence alone—without reference to climate models—suggests that a general warming trend is probably affecting weather and ecosystems, exacerbating the impact on humans.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) couches much of their analysis in terms of “resource shocks” to individual nations and regions: how the key inputs into the global economy—agriculture, fossil fuels, and water—are subject to increasing volatility.

U.S. Strategic Response to Resource Shocks

The implications for how the intersection of climate-related stresses and natural resources will impact state effectiveness are quite stark.

From a U.S. strategic perspective, two concerns stand out from ODNI’s assessment: how the United States may be positioned to take advantage of new sources of energy, and why the developing world keeps America’s spies up at night.

ODNI assumes that the United States will be taking full advantage of domestic oil and natural gas reserves that are now economically feasible to exploit thanks to hydraulic fracturing and other innovations in extracting previously hard-to-recover resources.

While such abundance cannot fully insulate the United States from shocks in the global energy market, since prices are affected by supply and demand everywhere, it does minimize those effects.

From the military’s perspective, this is a desirable end state (though the climate implications of accelerated drilling and burning of fossil fuels go unmentioned), since the security situation at strategic choke-points like the Strait of Hormuz or the Malacca Straits has long been a preoccupation.

Those concerns will, over time, shift as climate change takes its inevitable toll on the Arctic Ocean. ODNI’s Threat Assessment notes that the polar region will grow in importance as a sealane for commerce between Europe and Asia, but also as a source of energy in its own right.

Currently, the Arctic Council serves as a forum for nations in the region (and farther afield) to discuss these issues. As resources become accessible to extraction year-round, however, there is a clear fear that nations may jockey for position. It is no surprise, then, that this focus coincides with Department of Defense plans to increase its military presence in the region.

Climate Change as a Threat to Stability

Apart from traditional concerns over inter-state competition for energy resources, it is clear that U.S. intelligence is focused in no small part on how the developing world will cope with myriad governance challenges resulting from a rapidly shifting climate.

The Threat Assessment is pretty clear that climate change does not directly cause conflict throughout the world; the process is a lot more complex. Rather, climate change, and how it impacts agriculture, water resources, and migration, can and will exacerbate underlying governance deficiencies. The Intelligence Community fears that such failures will provide an opportunity for violent non-state actors to fill the void.

What do these climate-related governance challenges look like?

Many countries in the developing world will often lack the financial or technical know-how to always respond with adequate speed to food price shocks. Such disruptions are particularly difficult to deal with in poor communities, where so much of one’s income goes to purchasing food. The same is often true for water resources, which are often depleted for sake of agriculture, acutely dependent on rainfall (which is changing under climate stress), or shared by countries that do not often cooperate.

In Syria, it seems clear from the available evidence that a severe drought, which forced rural populations into its cities, more likely than not contributed to the instability that exploded into open conflict with the advent of the Arab Spring, as Assad’s authoritarian government was not flexible enough to assess and deal with this ecological crisis.

In South Asia, China, India, and Pakistan are all worried that the rivers on which their electrical generation and irrigation systems so dearly rely will be held hostage in the event of a crisis.

Yet, the ultimate takeaway from this Threat Assessment is that while the U.S. Intelligence Community is rightly focused on how climate and natural resource concerns are connected to potential conflict scenarios, the first line of defense remains the diplomatic and development communities (perennially underfunded as they are).

The likelihood is that most of these resource shocks will produce stresses that will require robust humanitarian action (which almost always include the U.S. military and its civilian counterparts in State Department and USAID) and capacity-building within individual nations, rather than a defense posture that anticipates mass interstate conflict.

When disputes arise between nations, the go-to option will likely remain diplomacy, and the best avenue for the United States to make a positive impact will be tailoring its development assistance programs to individual needs in partner countries, whether water management strategies in Pakistan, clean energy development in India, or agricultural sustainability in Vietnam.

All of the available climate evidence suggests the United States will be doing more of this in the coming decades.