WASHINGTON -- One of the biggest conundrums facing lawmakers is that solutions to global warming often hurt another of their top priorities: ensuring the availability of affordable energy, for example.
But on Wednesday, as the U.S. intelligence agencies weighed in, they heard about the cost of doing nothing: It may incubate terrorism and civil conflict.
Concluding that climate change will have wide-ranging impacts on U.S. security in the coming decades, a classified report complicates an already tangled debate by providing urgent new reasons to address the problem of global warming at a time when American voters are anxious about $4-a-gallon gas. Do something to lower gas prices, and you might exacerbate warming and, potentially, terrorism. Assist in the fight against global warming and risk economic hardship.
"It does trade off," said Sarah Ladislaw, a fellow in the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The real question out there is: How well are people going to deal with the trade-offs?" The convergence of the increasing cost of fuel, global food shortages, global warming, and national security threats show how interconnected these transnational issues are, and policy makers need to be mindful of that, she said.
Addressing a congressional panel Wednesday, Thomas Fingar, chief of intelligence analysis for the director of national intelligence, said environmental degradation is likely to exacerbate mounting problems in developing countries such as poverty, social tensions and weak governments.
Those are the same issues that encourage aspiring terrorists, he said, adding such changes "could increase the pool of potential recruits" to terrorism.
Citing the agencies' first analysis of the national impacts of climate change, Mr. Fingar said extreme weather, drought, flooding and disease could lead to major migration that can inflame tensions within and between countries. That may inflame domestic tensions "in a number of key states,"
he told the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. He provided potentially grave predictions for Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Closer to home, analysts anticipate more severe storms, a rising demand for energy, and increased pressure on infrastructure in the U.S.
The report gives further credibility to the rising chorus of security experts who have been warning about the impact of climate change, said Sherri Goodman, general counsel for the Center for Naval Analysis, whose report on security and climate change prompted Congress to mandate the report.
It also gave fresh ammunition to Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill who have clashed repeatedly over the report. Last year's congressional mandate for this intelligence report sparked fierce partisan clashes, as Republicans like Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a member of the House intelligence panel, derided it for wasting intelligence resources on "bugs and bunnies."
Partisan fights over the security impacts of climate change date back at least to the Clinton administration, when then-Vice President Al Gore launched an initiative at the Central Intelligence Agency in 1997 to study the security implications of environmental degradation, but it collapsed a few years later under political pressure from congressional Republicans.
Democrats on Wednesday said this report resurrected the effort Mr. Gore started. The report "is a clarion call to action from the heart of our nation's security establishment," said Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, chairman of the energy and climate change panel. California Rep. Anna Eshoo, a member of the House intelligence committee, borrowed from the administration's rhetoric, saying "we can't wait for threats to mature before deciding how to counter them."
But Republicans said that such continued focus on climate change ignores the daily problems Americans are confronting with escalating energy costs, and used the hearing to argue for more domestic drilling and nuclear power. Clamping down on greenhouse gases, for example, could lead to higher electricity prices.
Wisconsin Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, the top Republican on the panel, lamented that Congress was talking about global warming "as opposed to the real threats of high energy prices and economic security."
While intelligence agencies don't normally tackle environmental issues, Mr. Fingar and other intelligence officials defended their involvement in the report, saying that intelligence officers were able to bring to bear their analytic experience and regional expertise
One key finding, he said, was that the level of scientific understanding of climate change is not as specific as the information normally needed for a detailed intelligence analysis, especially on the regional impacts of climate change. Mr. Fingar plans three follow-on reports.
"There are winners and losers and some of them are very big, important global players," Mr. Fingar said, adding that he would look further into the impacts on those players, but he wouldn't name specific countries beyond Russia, China, India, and the U.S.