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U.S. Report Links Climate Change to Security

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now an unusual congressional committee briefing today about global climate change and how it could affect U.S. national security. Included was a warning: drought and crop failures could trigger major population movements and lead to political instability.

The predictions themselves, drawn from a recent classified assessment, generated little debate at the hearing. Members of Congress did quarrel over whether the report was necessary. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: The report was the collective work of the country's 16 intelligence agencies, from the CIA to the Energy Department's intel unit, all overseen by the National Intelligence Council.

The agencies were responding to a congressional request to assess the possible impact of global warming. Tom Fingar, the council chairman, said it was an unusual assignment for agencies more accustomed to tracking the activities of other governments.

Mr. TOM FINGAR (Director, National Intelligence Council): Climate change is an issue on which intelligence - covertly, clandestinely acquired information - is not very helpful. We can't steal Mother Nature's intentions.

GJELTEN: Fingar warned that the uncertainties surrounding climate predictions and how people will respond to them meant the agencies had only low to moderate confidence in their assessment. Still, he was willing to stand behind a bottom line.

Mr. FINGAR: We judge that global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the next 20 years.

GJELTEN: Global warming and severe climate changes, he said, could lead to crop failures, water scarcity or flooding in vulnerable areas. Countries already endangered by poverty and ineffective government could be destabilized.

The intelligence assessment warns of major population shifts, as people seek better living conditions.

Finger presented the assessment to a joint hearing of the House Intelligence Committee and the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. He tried hard to be neutral and avoided any judgment on the science underlying climate change predictions or on possible policies to counteract global warming. But it was a congressional hearing, and members from both parties were anxious to pursue their own political agendas.

Democrat Jay Inslee of Washington brought along charts to show how little the U.S. government is spending these days on alternative energy research and development.

Representative JAY INSLEE (Democrat, Washington): We're spending 55 times more money fighting a war in Iraq than we are trying to figure out a way to stop climate change and developing a clean energy future for the country.

GJELTEN: Some Republicans used the hearing to once again show skepticism about whether global warming is real. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee, questioned whether U.S. intelligence agencies should even worry about the impact of climate change.

Representative PETER 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. It was a waste of time, a waste of resources for the intelligence community to be focused on this issue versus other folks in the government.

GJELTEN: Hoekstra said the intelligence report was no more than speculation based on information readily available from open sources. But Fingar, in defending his report, says the intelligence community provides a level of analysis not found in other agencies, and he said whether the report was based on open or secret sources was irrelevant.

Mr. FINGAR: Information is information. Knowledge is knowledge, that how we get it and so forth is less important than does it inform our judgments.

GJELTEN: Though the information came from open sources, the assessment itself was classified. Fingar said the U.S. government needs to work with other countries to solve climate change problems. He highlighted a series of policy questions that would be difficult to discuss openly.

Mr. FINGAR: Which governments we consider to be too incompetent to manage the problem? Do we direct money to the most competent, or the most incompetent? There are many, many policy decisions that could be informed by this report, stigmatizing in some way the potential partners by the judgments that we make about them, and it strikes us this is the wrong way to go about it.

GJELTEN: Committee Democrats and Republicans alike were not convinced by that argument. They said they would ask the director of national intelligence to declassify the report. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.