What a difference an election makes. Today the House of Representatives will debate whether global warming is so serious a threat to American national security that the Director of National Intelligence, normally busy with issues like al Qaeda, Iranian nuclear research, and North Korean missiles, should be ordered to put aside other projects to create a special National Intelligence Estimate on climate change. So far, majority Democrats have pushed the proposal through the House Intelligence Committee — on a party-line vote — and there is a good chance it will become part of the final intelligence authorization bill passed by Congress.
“Climate change can have a serious impact on military operations and exacerbate global tensions,” says Democratic Rep. Sylvestre Reyes, the intelligence committee chairman, pointing to a report by a group of retired high-ranking military officers who recommend taking global warning into account in national-security strategy.
Republicans disagree. Their objection is not a denial of global warming, nor even an argument that some claims made about climate change, most notably by former Vice President Al Gore, are exaggerated. Rather, the GOP objection is that many other agencies inside the U.S. government are studying climate change, and there is no pressing need for the CIA to join in. “Why would it be in an intelligence bill?” asked committee ranking Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra in an appearance on C-SPAN Wednesday morning. “What added value does the intelligence community add to this debate?”
The question is particularly acute, Republicans say, because the intelligence agencies are already stretched by the war on terror. Citing Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, Hoekstra added, “Do we really want to start diverting resources from those threats to global warming?”
Hoekstra and other Republicans worry that Democrats want to return intelligence policy to a time in the 1990s when the Clinton administration established what was known as the DCI Environmental Center within the CIA. The Center used satellite spying resources to track environmental matters. “They took pictures of volcanoes and sea turtle nests and took air samples of air pollution, as opposed to checking for traces of biological or chemical weapons, and it was all done at the behest of Al Gore,” says one Republican knowledgeable about intelligence affairs.
Former CIA director George Tenet mentions Gore’s environmental emphasis in his new book, At the Center of the Storm. “True to his interests, [Gore] had a fascination for wonkish issues,” Tenet writes. “He asked lots of questions about the impact on national security of water shortages, disease and environmental concerns.” Tenet reveals that some inside the CIA derided Gore’s priorities as “bugs and bunnies.”
“We started allocating precious intelligence resources to environmental issues just as al Qaeda was on the upswing,” says Rep. Hoekstra. “We were becoming politically correct. My fear is that we’re going back to the same place.”
The military officers’ report points to situations like drought in Darfur and Somalia and concludes that “Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States.” While some lawmakers, mostly Democrats, have embraced the report’s conclusions, others suggest it is more than a little overdone. “Everything’s a national security issue these days,” Scott Barrett of the International Policy Program at Johns Hopkins told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a bit of a marketing ploy.”
But soon it could be more than a ploy; it could be national policy. At the very least, it is now the position of the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate. (A similar National Intelligence Estimate measure is pending in the Senate.) And it comes just in time for coming campaigns: If global warming is a national security issue, then Democrats, contrary to their long-time image, can claim to be very, very tough on national security.