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 Brief Expert and Senior Editor Kristin Wood, The Cipher Brief 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 Environment 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 Brief. 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 Power, Masters in Public Policy Candidate, Harvard Kennedy School

Sean Power 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 significantly more.

The increasing effects of climate change are arising at a moment when the nature of intelligence itself is undergoing a revolution—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, innovative, 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 hold 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 unique collection and analytical capabilities fit into this new mission space.

The IC has incorporated climate change into its analysis and threat assessments for decades, but climate has not received the attention it requires given the magnitude of the threat it poses. On January 27, 2021, President Biden issued an executive order on tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad, establishing that “climate considerations shall be an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security.” The order also called for the Director of National Intelligence to prepare a National Intelligence Estimate 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 innovative 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 readily apparent around the world—melting glaciers, rising sea levels, thawing permafrost, longer droughts, hotter heat waves, persistent wildfires, torrential rains, and catastrophic 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 lead to mass migration and displacement. These situations lead 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 precision 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 abroad. U.S. bases around the world function as launching pads for everything from quick tactical operations to large-scale disaster relief missions. When severe weather damages those bases or limits their ability to operate at full 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 as well—the Air Force requested nearly $5 billion to rebuild those two bases alone.

The overall impacts of climate change on international security are inevitable, consequential, and predictable. Previously 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 unprecedented nature will require unprecedented 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 determining 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 lead with its current capabilities, rather than identifying and developing capabilities needed to meet the nature of the new threat we face.

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 key difference that doing so now requires mastery of is a vast eco-space of openly-available information. To accomplish its mission, the U.S. IC must leverage its analytic tradecraft to present objective assessments about climate change to policymakers. This means collecting intelligence, assessing it, removing bias, and delivering timely and relevant assessments to customers. The U.S. IC must also leverage its global relationships with partners and competitors in performing these tasks. These relationships lie below politics and can help elicit understanding that allows policymakers to distinguish facts on the ground from prevailing political rhetoric of the day.

The U.S. IC’s workforce and technology will need to advance 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 expertise. Like other threats, the IC needs personnel that are devoted to understanding this new threat and understand its place in larger risk frameworks. Predictive models are critical 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 advance science, and scientists will not need to assess national security; but collaborations between the IC and the federal science community are necessary and will benefit both by allowing them to identify 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 nature of intelligence. The IC’s advantage in this new environment will come from thinking deeply about these issues and using its unique analytical and collection capabilities to identify 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 unique. It is non-state, non-adversarial, non-linear, boundary-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 determining what the security collective is trying to accomplish. One area ripe 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 innovate thinking will be needed on climate change cooperation. Lt. Gen. Richard Nugee, Climate Change and Sustainability Strategy Lead for the UK Ministry of Defence, emphasized that the biggest danger on climate change is not a morass of bureaucracy, but instead a lack 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 nature competitive and adversarial, but when it comes to climate change they will need to be cooperative. The U.S. IC needs to identify areas of cooperation even 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 yield multilateral benefits. Even though spying will still 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 means America needs to treat the climate threat with the seriousness it deserves. Climate change is siloed into a one-page length analysis 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 still one of the few parties that can afford the costs to collect data on climate change, much like space exploration and early Internet research. The private sector can innovate ways to extract insights from that public data. Harnessing that with government capabilities will require innovative 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 identify 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 significant cost. Richard Jenkins, CEO of Saildrone, noted that the private sector has the capability to deploy significant private money to develop and test new technologies that advance climate data collection, which the government can purchase at great value and incorporate into climate intelligence analysis. 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 lead the world on meeting this unprecedented 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 account for their actions or inactions on the basis of shared intelligence.

The Cipher Brief 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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