WASHINGTON (CN) – Injecting the stratosphere with chemicals so that humans can alter the effects of climate change sounds like a scheme from a disaster flick. But as the Earth warms and endures the effects of rising seas, temperatures and storms, the intelligence community told Congress Wednesday that scenario is just one of many ethical climate quandaries the world will face in coming years.
Part of a broader push by House Democrats to focus on the intersection of climate change and national security, the meeting this morning marked the third of its kind by the House Intelligence Committee. It follows an assessment to the Senate in January by National Security Director Dan Coats that “global environmental and ecological degradation as well as climate change are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress and discontent through 2019 and beyond.”
In candid testimony today, Rod Schoonover, a scientist and senior analyst with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence Research, echoed Coats’ position.
“The risk from the instability – the ongoing species extinction and climate change – the earth is unequivocally undergoing a long term warming trend … global temperatures are due to increase and temperature is a fundamental control variable that effects more than just the weather and climate but a wide array of the earth’s processes,” Schoonover said.
Schoonover ticked off a few of the processes impacted by climate change that are inextricably “intertwined” to one another: a depletion of oxygen in the ocean; changes in soil quality and in permafrost; and the redistribution of animals, insects, plants, and, in turn, humans.
As conditions in some parts of the world grow hotter and drier, Schoonover said access to water will become a point of leverage or even a physical weapon. Where cities are uprooted and communities push further inland due to rising seas, tensions tend to follow. Food shortages meantime go hand in hand with the unabated flooding of farmland.
Committee Chairman Adam Schiff told the assembly today that these correlations are well studied and are increasingly pressing issues.
But as the window to act meaningfully on climate change closes a little more each year, Schoonover said the world may soon find itself unraveling far stranger conundrums the warming planet will cook up.
Ideas like cloud seeding or climate geo-engineering have been around for decades, with the first fleshed out attempts to alter the weather originating at the Institute of Rainmaking in Leningrad in 1932. The U.S. also carried out experiments to trigger precipitation during World War II and during the Vietnam War with Operation Popeye, which involved cloud seeding to lengthen the monsoon season over Vietnam and disrupt enemy troop movement.
Schoonover likened cloud seeding with other climate modifications like carbon-dioxide removal.
“That’s not very controversial from a national security standpoint, but another form of management, like solar-radiation management that is intended to disrupt the absorption of solar radiation – that could have significant impact on international boundaries, raise ethical questions,” he said. “And I have some amount of skepticism over whether a single government could even implement it on a large, sustained scale. The costs are still being figured out, and they are probably much larger than we think. The problem with geo-engineering is once you do it, once you’re reliant on it, it is very hard to quit.”
Filling jumbo jets with sulfur dioxide, a known coolant of radiation, and spraying it into the stratosphere carries risks that are still not fully understood. Understanding how pervasive the risk is becomes doubly complicated as all of this plays out in a race against time.
“There are unilateral efforts by countries and groups to deploy geo-engineering, which is still a theoretical field, but they are exploring how to moderate climate by injecting aerosols or altering the reflectivity of clouds,” said Peter Kiemel, counselor for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Security Council.
In a future where climate manipulation is de rigueur, governments will increasingly grapple with questions of authority, scientific integrity and blame-shifting in the event of a mishap.
“Countries will argue over what will work well and they could experiment without any international agreements,” Kiemel said. “This is an issue.”
Representative Denny Heck used Wednesday’s hearing to introduce the Climate Security Intelligence Act, which will establish a climate intelligence security center inside of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“We need to be able to see a sign on the door where it says this activity will be taken up here,” said Heck, a Washington Democrat. “There is no question this is an existential issue for the global community. We need to respond to this challenge.”
Jeff Ringhausen, a senior official with the Office of Naval Intelligence, warned the committee that melted Arctic sea ice has also set potential trade route wars in motion between Russia, China and the U.S.
“Nearly all of Russia’s armed forces are focused on expansion in the Arctic,” Ringhausen said.
All of Russia’s naval stations are 20 meters above sea level, others that once stood along river coastlines have been pushed further back into bedrock, meaning Russia’s naval bases are largely poised to go “unaffected” from climate change.
“They welcome it,” Ringhausen said.
An ice-free Arctic would make construction, operation and even weaponization of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline much easier for Russia too, he added.
“The pipeline in the Baltic allows Russia to manipulate gas in Europe without effecting the European trade routes. They could punish Poland, Ukraine, and others without ever punishing places like Germany,” he said.