U.S. Spies Keep an Eye on Climate Change and Health Risks

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn, The Wonk Room

Climate change and its many effects are on the CIA’s radar screen of national security concerns, not to mention on their satellite images.

Back in September 2009, the Central Intelligence Agency established a Center on Climate Change and National Security. Its charter was to provide support to policy makers on the security ramifications of climate-related conditions such as rising sea levels, shifting human populations, and competition for scarce natural resources such as water.

Another goal was to enable the sharing with scientists of environmental data gathered by CIA satellites, such as the melting of polar ice. The New York Times recently reported on declassified data that includes environmental monitoring, some of it collected when satellites were otherwise idle or passing over wilderness areas.

The spread of disease is among the top four climate change-related security concerns for U.S. intelligence officials. Others include food and water scarcity and the impact of extreme weather on transportation and communications.

Warmer average temperatures and other climate changes, such as flooding due to heavy precipitation, are predicted to make conditions more favorable for the outbreak of pests, pathogens, and diseases. For example, mosquito-borne illnesses such as West Nile Virus (now present in 44 states!) and dengue fever are no longer rare in the U.S.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program, a government research arm that has been studying climate change since 1990, indicates that respiratory diseases, allergies, asthma, and heat-related illnesses could also be exacerbated by climate change.

Some health and intelligence officials fear that the U.S. is not well prepared for a widespread outbreak of disease that could overwhelm local government resources. U.S. security could also be affected by disease outbreaks in developing countries, which could be destabilized by natural disasters or epidemics.

In an austere federal budget environment, it’s unclear whether health-related and other national security planning for climate change will undergo additional Congressional scrutiny. Many health and security specialists argue that more proactive planning is needed, and the collaboration and data sharing between agencies is essential to deal with a rapidly evolving climate.

As Congress gets to work in the coming weeks, we’ll follow the intersection of climate change, health and national security here at Planet Change.

Lisa Hayden is climate change writer for The Nature Conservancy

Photo by: Flickr user Nasa Goddard Photo and Video (Satellite image of Greenland’s Petermann Glacier similar to climate monitoring data collected by spy satellites.)

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