Defining the IC’s Mission Space for Climate Change

Defining the IC’s Mission Space for Climate Change

As part of a special series on climate in partnership with The Intelligence Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Cipher fleeting Expert and Senior Editor Kristin Wood, The Cipher fleeting is focusing on the national security implications of climate change. 

This report is derived from a half-day conference in April 2021 co-sponsored by the Intelligence Project and the ecosystem and Natural Resources Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, along with the Center for Climate and Security and The Cipher fleeting. It explores the requirements of the U.S. IC to fulfill the mission prescribed by President Biden, DNI Haines, and Secretary Kerry. The IC must rise to challenge, unshackled from the past, to re-imagine its role in combatting climate change.

The Authors

Calder Walton, Asst. Director, Belfer Center’s Applied History Project and Intelligence Project, Harvard University

Calder Walton is Assistant Director of the Belfer Center’s Applied History Project and Intelligence Project. Calder’s research is broadly concerned with intelligence history, grand strategy, and international relations. The

Sean strength, Masters in Public Policy Candidate, Harvard Kennedy School

Sean strength is a Masters in Public Policy 2021 candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to HKS, he managed the analyst program at Kobre & Kim LLP, where he assisted on matters involving government enforcement defense and internal investigations.

The Report

The U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Avril Haines, has stated that climate change needs to be at the center of U.S. foreign policy and national security. It is a threat multiplier that impacts every function of government and society: territorial integrity, economic well-being, social stability, and military capabilities are all impacted by climate change, directly and indirectly. However, in addressing climate change, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) is currently unsure of its mission space and hitherto has been relying on boilerplate responses to it. In an exclusive discussion, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, Secretary John Kerry, who should be a principal consumer of intelligence about climate change within the U.S. government, stated that the U.S. IC must deliver considerably more.

The increasing effects of climate change are arising at a moment when the character of intelligence itself is undergoing a dramatical change—from the collection of hidden secrets to collation of non-obvious (but knowable) data frequently hiding out in the open. This watershed in intelligence and national security requires bold, inventive, ideas for the U.S. IC to adapt and anticipate security threats derived by climate change. It must establish its mission space and alter its own architecture to ensure it is providing its customers with intelligence about them needed. Its mission will not be about spies disseminating secrets to policymakers; rather, it will require a new intelligence and national security paradigm that must reach across society, allowing the general public to consume climate intelligence and keep up policymakers to account.


The twenty-first century presents globalized threats that will require globalized solutions, the greatest of which is climate change. As the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, no country is immune from actor-less threats like novel disease outbreaks and climate change. When combined with other security threats like transnational terrorism and ubiquitous cyberattacks, it becomes clear that existing national security frameworks are insufficient. New relationships and lines of communication will need to be forged, both within the U.S. government, in the private sector, and internationally with allies and adversaries. The U.S. IC needs to determine the requirements of its customers regarding climate change and how its rare collection and analytical capabilities fit into this new mission space.

The IC has incorporated climate change into its examination and threat assessments for decades, but climate has not received the attention it requires given the extent of the threat it poses. On January 27, 2021, President Biden issued an executive order on tackling the climate crisis at home and oversea, establishing that “climate considerations shall be an basic component of United States foreign policy and national security.” The order also called for the Director of National Intelligence to prepare a National Intelligence calculate on the national and economic security impacts of climate change within 120 days.

The Climate Change, Intelligence, and Global Security conference at Harvard’s Belfer Center earlier this year, brought together senior climate experts, current and former intelligence officers, and leaders in the private sector and academia to discuss the climate threat and generate inventive ideas on role the IC will play in combatting that threat. Led by Paul Kolbe, Director of the Intelligence Project, Kristin Wood, Intelligence Project Non-Resident Fellow, and Erin Sikorsky, Deputy Director of the Center for Climate and Security, the conference facilitated an urgent opportunity for productive dialogue on the climate threat.

Climate change as a threat to international security

Policymakers and the public need to understand that climate change impacts seemingly unrelated challenges and magnifies existing threats. The direct effects of climate change are freely apparent around the world—melting glaciers, rising sea levels, thawing permafrost, longer droughts, hotter heat groups, persistent wildfires, torrential rains, and extreme storm systems. These effects create disastrous consequences for humans like crop failures, fishery collapses, water insecurity, and the inundation of coastal regions, all of which rule to mass migration and displacement. These situations rule to fragile states and regions where increased conflict over scarce resources allows malign actors thrive. In this way, climate change is a threat multiplier that touches every aspect of international security.

Professor John P. Holdren, the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, noted that the big picture on how climate change will impact the planet is clear, but the detailed effects are difficult to predict with accuracyn and confidence, in part because we do not know exactly how human societies will react. This uncertainty exacerbates the security threat posed by climate change. We know it will increase the number of displaced persons in the world, but we do not know when they will be displaced, how many there will be, or where they will go.

Climate change also impacts the effective functioning of the U.S. military: to meet traditional security threats and protect Americans at home and oversea. U.S. bases around the world function as launching pads for everything from quick tactical operations to large-extent disaster relief missions. When harsh weather damages those bases or limits their ability to function at complete capacity, America’s security is put at risk. Disasters like the flooding at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, headquarters for U.S. Strategic Command, and Hurricane Michael’s destruction of Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida show that this threat knows no geographic bounds. Their effects are costly in addition—the Air Force requested nearly $5 billion to rebuild those two bases alone.

The overall impacts of climate change on international security are unavoidable, consequential, and predictable. before the U.S. government has undertaken more extensive, and expensive, actions on the basis of proportionally less intelligence about security threats. The U.S. IC must give climate change the proportional attention it deserves.

Role of U.S. intelligence in addressing climate change

Climate change poses an existential, global, non-state security threat, making it fundamentally different from past threats. Its unheard of character will require unheard of thinking by the U.S. IC and requirements from it. Former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon stated clearly that it is not enough to just say that the U.S. IC should focus more on climate— rather, the challenge lies in calculating what its specific contribution will be, and then evaluating what changes need to occur to make that contribution happen. Answering these questions will require difficult, but necessary, upfront work. Without that work, the U.S. IC is likely to rule with its current capabilities, instead of identifying and developing capabilities needed to meet the character of the new threat we confront.

The U.S. IC must play to its strengths in carving out its climate mission. Intelligence is no longer just about stealing secrets; it is about providing policymakers with decision advantages to influence events, which is the same as the past, but with a meaningful difference that doing so now requires expert of is a great eco-space of openly-obtainable information. To accomplish its mission, the U.S. IC must leverage its analytic tradecraft to present objective assessments about climate change to policymakers. This method collecting intelligence, assessing it, removing bias, and delivering timely and applicable assessments to customers. The U.S. IC must also leverage its global relationships with partners and competitors in performing these responsibilities. These relationships lie below politics and can help elicit understanding that allows policymakers to discriminate facts on the ground from prevailing political rhetoric of the day.

The U.S. IC’s workforce and technology will need to improvement and adapt to serve the climate mission. It does not need to have the foremost climate experts, but it does need to have dialogue with them, and develop its own climate skill. Like other threats, the IC needs personnel that are concentrated on understanding this new threat and understand its place in larger risk frameworks. Predictive models are basic to understanding climate science, and the IC should invest more resources into artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities (AI/ML) that can inform them. Intelligence professionals will not need to improvement science, and scientists will not need to estimate national security; but collaborations between the IC and the federal science community are necessary and will assistance both by allowing them to clarify and meet shared objectives.

Climate change intelligence cannot be siloed. As DNI Haines promised, it must be integrated into traditional security threat assessments, and those emerging threats from other globalized challenges, bio-hazards, cyber capabilities, and weaponized information, if we want to understand how they interact and manifest around the globe. Compared to the twentieth century, when intelligence was dominated by governments, the twenty-first century offers more democratic forms of intelligence: the private sector offers major capabilities to collect and analyze intelligence. It has disrupted and transformed the character of intelligence. The IC’s advantage in this new ecosystem will come from thinking deeply about these issues and using its rare analytical and collection capabilities to clarify patterns and trends others might overlook.

The future of intelligence cooperation and climate change

Climate change is an indiscriminating challenge unlike anything humanity has encountered before. Understanding how it is different helps illustrate the need for intelligence cooperation among states, large and small, to combat it. Carol Dumaine, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, noted that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted many of the ways in which the climate threat is rare. It is non-state, non-adversarial, non-linear, border-less, and its root causes can be found in human economic activity. Unlike pandemics, however, combatting climate change will require something we have never done: decades of consistent cooperation across states with an eye towards tackling a systemic problem that will persist for centuries.

The U.S. IC needs to determine how it will work with other countries to combat the shared threat of climate change. The big first step is calculating what the security collective is trying to accomplish. One area mature for collaboration is foresight and early warning systems. During the Cold War the famous “red telephone” connected the White House and the Kremlin, enabling direct communication to avoid nuclear brinksmanship. Similar original thinking will be needed on climate change cooperation. Lt. Gen. Richard Nugee, Climate Change and Sustainability Strategy rule for the UK Ministry of Defence, emphasized that the biggest danger on climate change is not a morass of bureaucracy, but instead a without of imagination in understanding its impact and generating solutions for it.

Relying on existing partnerships, such as the Five Eyes alliance or NATO, will not be sufficient. Those agreements will play a role, but they do not include some of largest contributors to greenhouse gases or the countries that will suffer the largest initial impacts from climate change. Intelligence communities are by character competitive and adversarial, but when it comes to climate change they will need to be cooperative. The U.S. IC needs to clarify areas of cooperation already with adversaries like China and Russia. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Senior Fellow and former Director of the Intelligence Project, tasked the U.S. IC to look for a peace dividend—areas where collaboration on climate will provide multilateral benefits. already though spying will nevertheless exist, as it always had, we cannot let espionage stand in the way of climate collaboration.

Any collaboration on climate intelligence will certainly require American leadership. That method America needs to treat the climate threat with the seriousness it deserves. Climate change is siloed into a one-page length examination in the 27-page Annual Threat Assessment issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in April 2021. The six pages focusing on China and Russia make no mention of how those are contributing to climate change or working to combat it. The IC must continually reinforce that climate is a serious and central threat. We cannot wait until the impacts are painfully obvious for every individual across the globe to treat it with the seriousness it requires.

The private sector, intelligence, and climate change

The threat from climate change reinforces the fact that intelligence is no longer a domain solely for governments. Mekala Krishnan, Partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, underscored that the private sector is also seeking to take climate risk out of a sustainability silo and integrate it into all aspects of decision making affected by risk and finance. Companies are thinking about how climate interacts with physical capital, natural resources, labor supply, and food supply—the factors of production in an economy that fundamentally affect our lives and livelihoods. One of the most important factors in a country’s national security is the health of its economy. The U.S. IC needs to be working with the private sector to understand what the economic effects of climate change will be.

In many respects, the U.S. government is nevertheless one of the few parties that can provide the costs to collect data on climate change, much like space exploration and early Internet research. The private sector can original ways to extract insights from that public data. Harnessing that with government capabilities will require inventive public-private partnerships with a shared strategy to help combat climate change. The U.S. IC must develop a level of transparency on climate data that will allow the private sector to clarify where incentives for research and development exist. It will not matter how good the climate intelligence collected by the U.S. IC is if it does not get into the hands of public and private users in the right shape and form.

At the same time, the IC cannot be everywhere at once, collecting troves of climate data at meaningful cost. Richard Jenkins, CEO of Saildrone, noted that the private sector has the capability to deploy meaningful private money to develop and test new technologies that improvement climate data collection, which the government can buy at great value and incorporate into climate intelligence examination. New technology is democratizing intelligence; it will force the U.S. IC to change how it interacts with the private sector— for the better.


In a moderated discussion with Dr. Calder Walton, Secretary Kerry stated unambiguously that the U.S. IC needs to start providing policymakers with a decision advantage on climate change in order for the U.S. government to rule the world on meeting this unheard of threat. That starts with treating climate change seriously. The U.S. IC will need to determine its requirements, play to its strengths, and adapt its workforce to best serve its mission. It will need to cultivate deeper cooperation with allies and adversaries, develop new relationships with the private sector, and approach climate change with a fresh mindset to seek and find what others overlook.

When it comes to climate change, the U.S. IC should also reframe who its customers are, not just policymakers, to whom it gives secret briefings, but also the public. By publicly disseminating assessments, the U.S. IC can effectively democratize intelligence about climate change, with the public holding policymakers to explain their actions or inactions on the basis of shared intelligence.

The Cipher fleeting is proud to be continuing our coverage on Climate with a series of webcast briefings beginning in July 2021.

Read also:

The Climate and US National Security Conversation with Admiral Jim Stavridis (Ret.)

How to Integrate Climate in Future National Security Risk

Russia’s Climate Problem and Opportunity

Why the Intelligence Community Needs a Climate Change Task Force


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