2023 was the hottest year on record, a distinction that capped off 12 months punctuated by extreme weather events. Already the start of 2024 has brought deadly fires to Chile and extreme flooding in California. As climate change continues to shape the strategic interests of the United States, the Department of Defense should create a community-wide center within the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) focused on climate intelligence. Doing so would help maximize future opportunities and mitigate the warfighting challenges that climate change will bring.

Despite the vast resources of the DOD and the various agencies within the Intelligence Community (IC), these bodies often take a reactive approach to managing threats. For example, DIA created the China Mission Group, a dedicated group focusing on China, 11 years after the Obama administration announced its “pivot to Asia.” 

Unlike the creation of the China Mission Group, the U.S. cannot afford to take its time in addressing the challenge posed by climate change, the impacts of which are already here and will only continue to worsen. Creating this center can allow DOD to look forward, better anticipating future threats.  

Climate Change as a Security Risk

Climate change will dramatically alter the operating environments of the Joint Force, competitors, and allies alike, as new theatres of strategic competition emerge. If Washington fails to take action to address these threats, it risks falling behind its key adversaries. 

By investing in this space, the United States can gain an advantage in how climate change will impact the fighting of war and how American adversaries will structure and outfit their troops. In the Arctic, melting sea ice will open new shipping routes and access to resources that countries will be eager to exploit. China has labeled itself as a “near-Arctic state” and signaled its desire to establish a “polar silk road.” In addition to changing the geopolitical landscape, climate change-induced natural disasters will require DOD to undertake more humanitarian missions when disaster strikes. Amid these threats, Washington needs clear and actionable intelligence on climate threats. 

Climate change will act as a “threat multiplier,” compounding already present threats and pushing fragile and conflict prone states to the brink. A 2023 report by the International Rescue Committee finds that several of the countries most at risk for a climate induced humanitarian disaster are those already embroiled in conflict, like Yemen, Somalia, and Syria. These are all nations in which the United States has a vested interest in the outcome of the conflict, and as such, Washington must derive insight into how climate change is altering these battlefields. 

Some have raised concerns that the existing climate intelligence is not enough and does not accurately characterize the nature of the threat. Indeed, the 2021 National Intelligence Estimate on Climate Change determines that the IC only has a “low to moderate confidence in assessing how climate change effects could cascade in ways that affect US national security interests.”

Investing more in climate intelligence would allow the United States to gain a strategic advantage over two of its biggest challenges: China and Russia. In its 2019 white paper, China’s People’s Liberation Army did not mention climate change, and has seemingly not kept active a dedicated group of climate experts. Similarly, Russia has not made the security and warfighting implications of climate change a strategic priority. 

Climate change intelligence will also create new opportunities for Washington and the DOD. First, sharing climate intelligence and mitigation and adaptation practices with countries most at risk can be an effective way to curry favor among states while making vulnerable countries more resilient. Effective climate intelligence can also identify opportunities for the development of new technologies and methods in the act of warfighting, such as by highlighting the need for the department to develop alternative fuel supplies, focusing on renewable energy, or spurring the creation of electric military vehicles. 

Establishing a Community-Wide Center

There are important precedents for creating a community-wide center within DIA on other non-traditional security threats. DIA already operates the National Missile and Space Intelligence Center and the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) as community-wide centers. The NCMI would provide the closest model for creating a future climate intelligence center, as it serves as an example of how the DIA can organize resources and efforts around a non-traditional threat to the U.S. military. NCMI works as the primary source of medical intelligence within the U.S. government, providing insight into health concerns that impact DOD’s operations. NCMI traces its origins to World War II when the U.S. government recognized the need to integrate medical intelligence into its planning to protect troops from disease. Some have cautioned against over-securitizing climate change, finding that doing so can divert attention away from actually tackling the causes of the climate crises and obscures other options for dealing with the crisis. The creation of this center would not take away from efforts to combat the causes of the climate crisis and mitigate its impacts, such as the Infrastructure Reduction Act, rather it would provide intelligence to help prepare the US for the impacts of climate change on the battlefield.

A new center would build on the existing work being done by the DIA’s team focused on climate and energy security and bring in staff from the services focused on climate change, such as the U.S. Air Force’s 14th Weather Squadron. It would also serve as a home for existing tools employed by the DOD, such as the Defense Climate Assessment Tool. Following a model employed by the China Mission Group, the center could partner with academic institutions and think tanks to bolster its analytic capabilities. 

Beyond this, resources would be used to examine how climate change may impact warfighting in specific theatres. For example, in Somalia, where the United States maintains a presence and conducts drone strikes, and where al-Shabab capitalizes on the disarray caused by climate change to wage war, the center might allow DIA and DOD to map out future paths of the conflict as climate change continues to alter the battlefield. 

A Path Forward

Previous versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) have started to spur action towards better integrating climate intelligence into the work of the DOD. The FY2022 National Defense Authorization Act called on the DOD to undertake a variety of climate security-related actions such as creating mission-specific assessments to understand the impact of climate change on operations and warfighting, requiring DOD to analyze climate risks to force deployments. 

A new climate center within DIA would institutionalize the efforts outlined in the 2022 NDAA and achieve four key goals critical to advancing American security for years to come. First, it will allow the Pentagon to better protect American troops from climate risks by analyzing and understanding how climate change will impact military installations. Second, it will allow the US to better anticipate and shape future battlefields, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and determine the operational constraints that troops will face when deployed in these new theaters. Third, a DIA climate center will allow the United States to best deliver on an increasing number of humanitarian missions that climate change will necessitate. This will be done in part by allowing climate intelligence to be shared with partner nations, allowing them to prepare in advance. Finally, this center will collect intelligence on how other states, including America’s adversaries, are impacted by climate change, highlighting new vulnerabilities but also areas where these states are developing new capabilities.

Above all, creating this center would fulfil DIA’s core mission of providing intelligence on foreign militaries so the United States can prevent and decisively win wars, resulting in a better-prepared military to meet one of the defining challenges of our times.

IMAGE: A civil security helicopter flies over a wildfire raging the Monts d’Arree, French Brittany, on July 20, 2022. A heatwave fuelling ferocious wildfires in Europe pushed temperatures in Britain over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first time after regional heat records tumbled in France. (Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)