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Linking Climate Change, National Security
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Linking Climate Change, National Security

U.S.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro.

U.S. intelligence agencies have joined the debate over climate change and its possible effects. A classified assessment delivered to Congress earlier this month concluded that rising global temperatures would indirectly present a security threat to the United States.

This is the first the U.S. intelligence community has weighed in on the climate-change issue, and joining us now to discuss the report is NPR's intelligence correspondent, Tom Gjelten. Good morning.

TOM GJELTEN: Good morning, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Well, we've heard a lot about climate change generally, but explain the connection here with national security.

GJELTEN: Well, this would be an indirect connection, Ari. The intelligence analysts who produced this report emphasized that the United States is probably capable of handling any adverse impacts of global warming. In fact, in some ways, the United States could even benefit: longer growing seasons for farmers in the upper Midwest, for example. But what happens around the world affects us.

Take a country like Bangladesh. A big portion of the population there lives along the coastline, and an increase in the sea level could drive millions from their homes. Where would they go? Probably to India, already overcrowded, lots of political tensions.

These would be climate refugees, something the world hasn't seen before, and who knows how it could further destabilize a region. So at some point, a scenario like this does become an international problem for the U.S., as well.

SHAPIRO: But particularly people are fleeing to India, which is a nuclear superpower.

GJELTEN: Precisely.

SHAPIRO: Well, this came up at a congressional hearing yesterday. How did members of Congress respond?

GJELTEN: Guess what, Ari? In a very political way.

SHAPIRO: You don't say.

GJELTEN: You had Tom Fingar, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, trying his best to be very neutral, very nonpartisan, but Democrats and Republicans alike were determined to use that hearing and the report to their own political advantage.

Democrats liked hearing that climate change could jeopardize U.S. national security because it was a way to strengthen their argument in favor of various government programs to deal with climate change and boost alternative energy development.

Several Republicans, meanwhile, agreed that climate change would create national security problems if there actually is global warming on the way, but they questioned whether a national intelligence report had to be written to more or less state the obvious, in their words.

Much of the material that underlay this intelligence report, of course, is - it's available to anyone with access to the Internet. Listen here to what Pete Hoekstra of Michigan had to say.

Representative PETE HOEKSTRA (Republican, Michigan): I would apologize for Congress, asking you to do this work in the first place. There are a lot more pressing issues out there for the intelligence community to be focused on right now that would help keep America safe and that would actually enable the intelligence community to do what I think we're spending $40 billion a year on, and it's not speculating on open-source information.

GJELTEN: Again, that's Congressman Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

SHAPIRO: Well, can you answer Congressman Hoekstra's question for us? Why was this assigned to the intelligence committee?

GJELTEN: It was actually the initiative of a few Democrats who wanted the argument laid out. They've been pushing for this report for a long time. But it is important to say that the intelligence community does analyses like this all the time. Analysts like to know the social, economic, political, and even climatological context in which events are happening.

They like to spin out different scenarios of what might happen, and the other thing is that intelligence analysts often focus on what they call open-source materials, what Hoekstra referred to there. In fact, there's a growing feeling in the intelligence community that analysts should make more use of what's available publicly, so they don't have to employ vast resources collecting information secretly.

SHAPIRO: If the information was available publicly, why was the final report classified?

GJELTEN: That's a really good question. It's actually classified at just about the lowest level of secrecy. It's called confidential. And as I understand it, it's basically for diplomatic reasons. The intelligence agencies in that report make some really harsh comments about the competence of particular governments to deal with the climate-change challenge, and I guess they didn't want those countries named publicly.

SHAPIRO: Thanks, NPR's Tom Gjelten.

GJELTEN: Thank you.

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