boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Intelligence chief OK's global warming study

National security may be affected by climate change

WASHINGTON -- Stepping into the middle of a partisan debate on Capitol Hill, the nation's top intelligence official has endorsed a comprehensive study by spy agencies about the impact of global warming on national security.

In a letter written last week to the House Intelligence Committee, Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, said it was "entirely appropriate" that the intelligence community prepare an assessment of the "geopolitical and security implications of global climate change."

The question of whether the country's spy agencies, already burdened by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the global hunt for members of Al Qaeda, ought to investigate the security implications of global warming has been debated in Congress for several weeks.

A provision requiring a national intelligence estimate on climate change was in the 2008 intelligence authorization bill that the House passed Friday. The amount of the authorization is classified but it is believed to be about $48 billion, which would be the largest intelligence authorization ever considered by Congress.

Republicans had tried to defeat the provision on the national intelligence estimate, saying that intelligence resources were too precious to be used to study the impact of climate change.

"Let other federal agencies, as more than a dozen already do, cover the 'bugs and bunnies.' But let our spies be spies," Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, wrote Thursday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed article.

But intelligence officials have already recognized the importance of studying how crises caused by climate change, such as famine and rising sea levels, could affect the security of the United States. Even as Congress was debating whether to order a national intelligence estimate, intelligence agencies had planned to include a discussion of global warming in a report next year on US security challenges through 2025.

The proposed national intelligence estimate would examine political, social, economic, and agricultural risks.

In his letter to the House Intelligence Committee, McConnell said that intelligence analysts would not do primary scientific research about climate change, but would instead rely on analyses by other government agencies.

Last month, a report written by several retired generals and admirals concluded that climate changes posed a "serious threat to US national security," and could further weaken unstable governments in developing countries.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES