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Secrets Alone Won’t Save Us: Providing a ‘Decision Advantage’ on Climate Security

When I was a CIA officer, one thing I could share with my family was a museum tour at Langley headquarters. Visitors would marvel at the cover-up devices and exclaim at stories of derring-do in the name of gathering hidden information. When we got to the Analysis Branch, however, they pretended to be interested. The printed copies of the reports weren’t as interesting as the robotic spy fish exhibit.

The theft of secrets has always captured the public imagination of the intelligence profession, for good reason. Secrets were the claim to fame of the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Prior to D-Day, it was “Wild Bill” Donovan’s placement of spies in European ports and behind enemy lines that gathered the information needed to support a successful invasion. As President Dwight Eisenhower said of the Office of Strategic Services: “If (he) had done nothing else, intelligence gathered alone before D-Day would justify its existence.

Of course, the security and intelligence landscape has changed dramatically since Eisenhower’s time. More often than not, “going behind enemy lines” means connecting to a computer, not jumping out of a plane. The risks facing the United States are more complex, involving not only a mix of state and non-state actors, but also systemic factors such as climate change, which the Chief Intelligence Officer ‘s 2021 Global Trends report identified as one of the few trends “setting the parameters” of our future world. This world is a world in which temperatures and sea levels are rising dramatically, and weather conditions are becoming more and more unpredictable and extreme. It is likely that millions of people will be displaced and forced to migrate, tensions will increase within and between states as water and food insecurity increases, and governments will find it increasingly difficult to manage aggravating risks as climatic risks intersect with other stressors. There is not a single current US national security concern that will not be affected in some way by the climate crisis.

What does a security landscape shaped by climate change mean to the way the US intelligence community does business? For some, this suggests a return to first principles. Doubling down on what my family has always found most intriguing about the CIA museum – the collection of secrets – as a way to distinguish the intelligence community from the private sector and the open source world. As Joshua Rovner argued, “the comparative advantage of secret agencies is secret information.” Of course, collecting secrets about governments’ climate policy plans and intentions can be important. Special Climate Envoy John Kerry lamented the lack of climate fundraising at a conference earlier this year. He argued that if climate change is truly an existential threat, then the US intelligence community should do as much effort to collect information on the positions of US adversaries on climate negotiations as it does to pinpoint their positions on nuclear agreements.

Secrets, however, are not enough. To achieve the goal of consistently providing a strategic advantage to the United States, the intelligence community must have the ability to put these secrets into context – analyze and communicate how they intersect with other risk information. for the national security of the United States. The trick is not to give up secrets or try to duplicate what the private sector or academia is doing, but rather to marry clandestine collection with other information from all sources. This is of course not a new concept in intelligence studies. Academics and practitioners have spilled gallons of ink debating the best ways to integrate open source information. The founder of the analyst profession in the United States, Sherman Kent, argued that integrating data and consulting with outside experts was essential to a strong profession. Most of the analysts I have known in my career prided themselves on their in-depth contextual knowledge of the regions they covered – history, academic experts, local news sources, arts and culture.

However, bringing a climate lens to intelligence isn’t as simple as bringing in just one more unclassified source. It’s different because of the type of information to integrate, the skills needed to do it, and the systemic nature of the risk. First of all, it’s hard science in addition to social science. This requires a “climate-savvy” workforce with scientific knowledge. This does not mean creating large teams within the intelligence community that do climate science. This means that intelligence officers are able to regularly understand and integrate climate models and analyzes into their work.

What does it look like in practice? It can be as simple as using references like Climate Central’s “Surging Seas” tool or regularly consulting primary sources and scientific literature. It also means leveraging more complex tools and practices. Advances in machine learning and computing power are leading to new modeling tools that can provide a wealth of relevant information to intelligence analysts. One example is the use of “ensemble assessments”, which are repeated runs of the same climate model, adjusting the starting point conditions each time. Such sets allow scientists to more clearly show a range of potential regional climate trends – important information that analysts need to incorporate into their work when assessing possible future economic, political and conflict scenarios in different parts of the world. Another example is that of “high resolution” climate models, which, thanks to advances in the power of supercomputers, can better represent atmospheric processes on a small scale. These models allow greater precision in risk assessments.

Moving forward, building on existing climate modeling approaches and tools is probably not enough for the intelligence community to truly address climate security risks. As Alice Hill, a former climate adviser to the National Security Council, recently detailed, planners across the United States are desperate for more localized climate data so they can craft better adaptation responses. Intelligence analysts need this kind of information as well, but in regions around the world. For example, although scientists believe Africa will face some of the greatest risks from climate change, accurate climate data on the continent is lacking, inhibiting useful predictive modeling of climate impacts. Without more localized and robust predictive climate models for Africa, intelligence analysts will not have the information they need to answer the kinds of questions they are sure to receive from policymakers in the years to come: the continent’s conflict zones? In which geographic areas will climate impacts and extremist groups overlap to increase security risks? Will US competitors’ infrastructure support offers to African countries withstand extreme events caused by rising temperatures?

While there are opportunities for the intelligence community to partner with the private sector to develop such capabilities, the first stop should be with US government scientists. Congress has given the intelligence community some tools to achieve this by creating the Climate Security Advisory Council, designed to link US government science and intelligence agencies, and the National Academies Climate Security Roundtable, a mechanism that enables actors in the climate science to provide information. to the intelligence community. Both meetings provide a platform for the community to use to encourage and shape the development of new modeling approaches that meet their specific needs. Moreover, intelligence agencies should use these groupings to pursue truly interdisciplinary analytical reports that marry climate science with social sciences. An example of this type of analysis can be seen in a series of reports and story maps published in recent months by the Woodwell Climate Center and the Council on Strategic Risks, detailing how climate change will shape security risks in strategic regions. of the globe.

Fully realizing this type of approach within the intelligence community – a large government bureaucracy – is not easy. I have already described the ways in which new resources, new leadership and new institutional structures can help. To his credit, the Biden administration has taken many steps to make it happen, as evidenced by the Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. Equally important, however, are the less immediately tangible changes in organizational culture and mindset. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines acknowledged these challenges in a recent interview,

Climate is an urgent crisis, but it is very difficult for various institutional reasons to integrate it into your daily work in a fully successful way i.e. it is much easier to focus on climate negotiations or on what states do in their policies.

She went on to say however that she was starting to see changes, noting that she had been amazed by,

to what extent, in addition to focusing on China and all of our top threats that we talk about in our annual threat hearings, we [in the intelligence community] came to the conclusion that … investing in science and technology and the tools that allow us to be better at what we do, our institutions, our partnerships, our resilience, our ability to integrate that expertise, is what is really important at this critical moment in our history.

Time will tell if this recognition from the leaders of the intelligence community results in long-term change. If so, maybe one day a future president will sing the praises of the director the same way Ike did of “Wild Bill” Donovan and the Office of Strategic Services. As article after article on this month’s record temperatures around the world points out, the climate will only get worse. And the United States can only navigate this hotter world with an intelligence community that collects foreign secrets, but also has the full range of information, tools, and talent it needs to analyze. these challenges.

Erin Sikorsky is Deputy Director of the Center for Climate and Security and Director of the International Military Council on Climate and Security. Previously, she was Deputy Director of the National Intelligence Council’s Strategic Futures Group in the United States, where she co-authored the quadrennial Global Trends report and led the US intelligence community’s environmental and climate security analysis.

Image: US Air Force (Photo by Master Sgt Elijaih Tiggs)


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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.

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