A review of National Intelligence Council, “Climate Change and International Responses Increasing Challenges to US National Security Through 2040” National Intelligence Estimate, NIC-NIE-2021-10030-A (2021)

The collective failure of States to mitigate the risks of climate change over the past three decades has led to a widespread debate on the implications of the consistent failure of intergovernmental negotiations, and, on finding new ways of framing the climate crisis so as to enhance international cooperation.  A recent development along these lines has been the rising interest among the security and intelligence communities, especially in the developed countries, for the inclusion of climate change as a threat to national security.  On the issue of climate change, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), recently published by the National Intelligence Council (NIC), which reports to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence of the United States (US), and forms a critical link between the US intelligence communities and policymakers, is a critical document that outlines the global climate trends and provides an overview of the climate and security linkages and framings, as they may emerge in the next two decades.  The NIC has had a long history of strategic-intelligence assessment, especially the NIE and the four-yearly Global Trends Report, both of which have been influential in shaping the US foreign Policy and strategic analysis.[1]

The NIE outlines the risks posed by climate change to US National Security into three broad categories — Geopolitical tensions over climate responses, climate-exacerbated geopolitical flashpoints, and, climate effects impacting country-level instability.  The report assesses 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.”

This assessment is line with a wide range of literature that has been published in the recent years, including State-funded research.  The Global Trends 2040 report[2], published earlier in 2021 by the NIC, also lists environment as one of the five key trends that will shape the future world.  It notes,

Debate will increase over how and how fast the world should reach net zero as countries face hard choices over how to implement drastic emissions cuts and adaptive measures.  Neither the burdens nor the benefits will be evenly distributed within or between countries, heightening competition, contributing to instability, straining military readiness, and encouraging political discord.”[3]

Similar to the NIC, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence think tank, “the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre” (DCDC) publishes the Global Strategic Trends which, in its sixth edition, notes that costs of climate change to governments and societies is going to increase with passing time, and is likely to lead to inequality, social disorder, violence, and intense competition over resources.  The report notes, “Defence and security planning assumptions, not least access, basing, routes, logistics and the environmental envelope in which military capabilities will have to operate, will need to be reviewed.” Many independent organisations and think tanks have likewise pegged climate change as the foremost security risk to States.  The 2021 AXA Future Risks Report, which surveyed 3,500 risk experts from around the world, notes, “Both experts and the public agree that governments are underprepared to face climate change, with just 19% of experts expressing faith in public authorities to mitigate the climate crisis.”[4]

It is evident from this recent swell in research that climate change and national security are emerging as complex, intertwined issues.  The NIE provides a stark overview of the climate security trends that are relevant for countries around the globe, especially those in South Asia, which the report lists as being the most highly vulnerable region in the world.


Highlights of the Report

There are three key judgements that the report posits will shape climate security trends over the next two decades.

Enhanced Geopolitical Tensions

Geopolitical tensions will witness an increase, given the nature of commitments required under the Paris Agreement.  The report judges that the long-term objectives of the Paris Agreement are unlikely to be met as they require high-emitting countries to make rapid energy-transitions away from fossil fuels.  This will require high-level investments in clean energy alternatives and a rapid decline in the use of coal and oil.  Given the large sunk-costs in established fossil-based production systems and the difficulties attached with the scaling-up of clean alternatives, many sectors of the economy, particularly transportation and shipping, will find it difficult to make a rapid transition.  The report cites solar photovoltaic and wind energy sectors as the most effective and economically viable alternatives, but which, too, require infrastructural and R&D investments and changes to the electricity grids and markets.  Nuclear energy and hydropower are the other two non-fossil options that are unlikely to enhance their current shares in the energy basket as they are marred by several issues involving public trust, high costs, and safety.  An example of this trend could be the recent commitments made by India at the COP 26, which include an increase in its non-fossil energy capacity (including hydropower and nuclear energy) to 500 GW by 2030.[5]  The report outlines some of the efforts made towards legally formalising the Paris pledges, but remains sceptical, as most countries have failed to make efforts towards such formalisation through domestic laws.  It assesses that most countries that rely on fossil fuel exports, such as Russia and OPEC countries, will continue to resist a rapid transition and net-zero targets.  The report also flags the issue of competition over key minerals and technologies as the most pressing security concern as these sectors are witnessing high levels of investments from private firms and government agencies in China, the EU, Japan, the US and Russia.  The report predicts that, in the light of the failure of States to collectively mitigate the crisis, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies will emerge as a key part of climate-mitigation strategies, especially in developed countries like the United Kingdom, Norway and the US.  The report also argues that India and China will play a critical role in determining the trajectory of temperature rise as their per capita and cumulative emissions numbers, unlike those of the US and Europe, are on the rise.  It bases its pessimistic assessment on the nature of the Paris consensus which, it argues, is short lived, as questions of “Equity” and “common but differentiated responsibility” (CBDR) are likely to persist.  These issues have been at the core of negotiations for three decades and the US has consistently maintained its objections on the question of equity since the days of the Kyoto Protocol.  The listing of “Equity” and climate finance commitments by developing countries as reasons behind a possible future stalemate seems to expose two core concerns within the UNFCCC negotiations — the blind disregard, especially by the US, for concerns raised by the poor and developing countries who will require these demands to meet in order to make a just transition, and, the continued relevance of the principle of “Equity” and climate justice within climate diplomacy.  The report inadvertently highlights the reasons behind such as divide when it notes,

The United States and others, however, are in a relatively better position than other countries to deal with the major costs and dislocation of forecasted change, in part because they have greater resources to adapt…The United States and key states in the developed world have greater technological capability and financial resources to adapt to climate change, and are likely to realize some benefits in terms of technological competitiveness and agriculture.  Should warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons yield lower heating costs and increased agricultural production, most of the beneficiaries outside Russia are likely to be in the high latitudes, such as Canada and Scandinavian countries.”[6]


Climate Flashpoints

The second key judgement that the report makes related to the geopolitical flashpoints that may arise as a result of the propensity of States to place their self-interest over the collective good.  The report cites a number of studies and projections which, it argues, have improved considerably in terms of their accuracy, increased complexity, and ability to reduce uncertainties.  In the past, these have tended to contribute towards over-simplification and misrepresentations of data.  The report flags four major flashpoints across the globe:

  • The strategic and military competition in the Arctic which is projected to increase given the diminishing sea ice and warmer temperatures, which are opening up possibilities of increased resource exploitation, military presence and infrastructure development in the region by the Arctic states as well as the non-Arctic states. The report notes that the contested nature of such economic and military activity carries the risk of miscalculation and escalation of hostilities.
  • The issue of water security, and transboundary water conflicts in major river basins such as the Indus, Mekong, and Nile, are likely to increase. The report notes that an alarming 263 river basins around the world currently lack any cooperative management agreements which could deescalate such tensions.
  • The issue of migration and large-scale displacement of people due to the increased frequency of droughts and floods is a major humanitarian crisis in the making and it will require massive investments in adaption and loss and damage mechanisms.
  • Finally, the report points towards geoengineering as an important flashpoint as States can unilaterally decide to deploy such untested technologies. The use of such technology carries major ecological implications and it could trigger potential conflict between States, which might blame each other for weather disasters in the future.

All these major flashpoints have been part of discussions for a long time and their potential impacts have been flagged for years, especially in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan.  However, it is important to highlight, as the report does in its Annexure A, that these potential scenarios must be viewed with caution.  While a hawkish view of climate conflicts over resources remains a concern, especially in light of the emerging scientific evidence regarding tipping points, there has been considerable work done in the past by States in order to avoid such conflicts.  Therefore, the development of new cooperative frameworks, and multilateral platforms must be emphasised to a far greater degree, so as to avoid the worst-case scenarios in each of these potential flashpoints.


Regional Arcs of Vulnerabilities: Climate Security in South Asia

The third major judgment that the report makes is of considerable importance for States in South Asia.  The report forecasts that US interests may be indirectly impacted as its partners around the globe face hard and costly challenges.  The report identifies eleven countries in South and East Asia (which includes India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, and North Korea), four countries in Central America and the Caribbean, viz., Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti and Nicaragua, and, Columbia and Iraq, as being the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.  The report notes that these countries will face considerable challenges due to erratic patterns of weather and the unpredictability of disruptive events, which are likely to impact their infrastructure, power-generation, food-security, and exacerbate health conditions.  The lack of financial resources and weak mechanisms of governance are likely to additionally contribute to the triggering conflict, and the mass scale displacement of people.  Small island States and several countries in Central Africa are flagged in the report, for a heightened risk of instability, loss of landmass and socio-economic collapse.  The report also argues that militaries in these highly vulnerable regions will be faced with unforeseen operational challenges — “Under-resourced and ill-equipped militaries will face severe strains when they are called upon to respond to more natural disasters in their own and neighbouring countries…Although militaries will absorb these expenses in normal recapitalization programs spread over decades, the costs to adapt will force tradeoffs with other modernization priorities.



The linkages between violent conflict and climate change have been longstanding, yet peripheral, debate within the security studies discipline that has now, in light of incontrovertible scientific evidence, emerged as a core area of research interest.  The conceptualisation of climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ a term coined in 2007 by the CNA’s Military Advisory Board[7] has gained considerable traction within the research community.[8]  However, the lack of credible ground-level analysis remains a lacuna that will make many States wary of such linkages.

The report makes a critical intervention in the field of climate security studies by highlighting the critical geopolitical flashpoints and areas of concern.  However, its assessment of these impending and, in some cases, ongoing crises remain limited because it foregrounds risks rather than vulnerability.  A hazard-based framing of climate crisis tends to be reductionistic because it does not address the question of adaptation with adequate attention. The report’s listing of equitable burden-sharing as a potential roadblock to climate action is the continuation of mitigation-focused understanding of the climate crisis rather than highlighting the need for building resilience and reducing vulnerability.

As highlighted in the report, US national security interests spread well beyond the country’s borders, which makes its critical for US security establishments to take cognisance of the adaptation needs in the developing parts of the world.  For countries in South Asia, the report is a stark reminder of the worst-case scenarios that are likely to emerge as a result of a business-as-usual approach to climate change.  The recent veto by Russia against the linking of climate and security at the UN Security Council, a position supported by India, is a good case study to understand how very differently climate risks to security around the world are perceived.[9]  It highlighted the need to analyse climate security with a widened aperture, which includes questions of equity, adaptation, climate finance, sovereignty and global commons.  The report is a timely effort that highlights the need for countries to begin conceptualising collective security and environmental peacebuilding as critical facets of their national security.  The reliance on yet-unseen future technologies, successful geoengineering solutions at scale, or unilateral conceptions of climate security, as the report assesses, are most certainly going to collapse in face of a global climate disaster.


About the Reviewer:

Dr Saurabh Thakur is an Associate Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi, India.  His research focuses on issues of climate security and the blue economy in the context of South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region.  He may be contacted at becc1.nmf@gmail.com.



[1] Robert Hutchings and Gregory F. Treverton, eds. Truth to Power: A History of the US National Intelligence Council, Oxford University Press, 2019.

[2] National Intelligence Council, ed. “Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World: A Publication of the National Intelligence Council” US Government Printing Office, 2021, ISBN 978-1-929667-33-8, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/gt2040-home

[3] ibid, 30

[4] AXA Future Risks Report, AXA (2021), accessed on 25 December 2021, https://www-axa-com.cdn.axa-contento-118412.eu/www-axa-com/31ddaea8-21a7-4c22-be16-bfecbb6301b7_FRR2021_EN_Vdef.pdf

[5] “Beyond the sun & the wind: India’s CoP26 commitments” Financial Express, December 29, 2021 https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/beyond-the-sun-the-wind/2392444/

[6] National Intelligence Council, “Climate Change and International Responses Increasing Challenges to US National Security Through 2040” National Intelligence Estimate, NIC-NIE-2021-10030-A (2021)

[7] CNA is not an acronym and is correctly referenced as “CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA.”

[8] “Climate change recognized as ‘threat multiplier’, UN Security Council debates its impact on peace” UN News, 25 January 2019  https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/01/1031322

[9] “Russia vetoes UN security council resolution linking climate crisis to international peace” The Guardian, 13 December, 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/13/russia-vetoes-un-security-council-resolution-climate-crisis-international-peace



0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *