NATIONAL SECURITY

Barrasso plans to take on CIA's climate operations

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) yesterday vowed to renew his attempts to block funding for the Central Intelligence Agency's climate change project.

"Americans have made it clear: They want Washington to cut waste and focus on priorities. Climate change monitoring won't stop a single terrorist," he told ClimateWire. "The CIA should focus on protecting our country from immediate threats against Americans," he said in a statement.

In 2009, Barrasso tried to eliminate the program by cutting off its cash flow. Legislation he tacked onto the defense spending bill, however, was defeated 38-60 in the Senate.

He maintains that the CIA's climate work is redundant, positing that the covert agency is "spying on sea lions" instead of fighting terrorists.

The CIA's Center on Climate Change and National Security has been in the spotlight for its work declassifying and sharing some 3,000 satellite images that reveal ice melts and desertification (ClimateWire, July 16, 2009). The unit has another 10,000 images that are backlogged, according to a national security specialist involved with the work.

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But in addition to that photo trove, the security unit also aims to analyze the economical and societal effects of climate change and assist policymakers in understanding the security ramifications of different energy strategies.

Its analysts whisper in the ears of policymakers about how the drive for clean energy will alter the geopolitical landscape or remind them that electric-powered cars will only make a significant dent in the nation's carbon footprint if charging stations aren't powered by coal-fired plants.

An energy analyst involved with the CIA program, who spoke on condition of anonymity at a Pew Charitable Trusts event yesterday, said he tells policymakers the increased need for rare earth metals will create new dependencies on China. The quest for lithium for batteries, he said, will lead to increased dependencies on Bolivia and Chile.

Bridging science and spywork

The CIA program was revived in 2009 after it had languished in the George W. Bush administration. In addition to its photo operations, the program has produced its first classified climate change quarterly -- a collection of articles about how global warming will affect national security.

Backers of the CIA climate efforts see the program as uniquely poised to bridge the divide between the science community and policymakers.

"As social scientists, they can turn science into what that means for national security interests," said Christine Parthemore, who directs the natural security program at the Center for a New American Security. "Science just tells us what is happening in the world, it doesn't tell you what it means. ... Our government needs these capabilities to do that," she said, noting that these issues are as important for the intelligence community to understand as global finances or demographic changes in China.

"I think that our policymakers ought to be striving to have as much information from as many well-informed sources as they can," said Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Clean Energy Program. "Efforts to chill CIA's efforts to examine this issue ... is a disservice to policymakers, themselves and the public."

Helping troops on the ground

In recent years, the defense and intelligence communities have amplified their focus on risks that climate change may pose to national security. Climate change was included in the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review for the first time in 2010, listing it as a threat that could put U.S. forces in harm's way and accelerate instability.

Extreme weather events may require military humanitarian assistance, while scrambles to compete for scarce natural resources may exacerbate conflict, increase migration and lead to more global hunger. The continual dependence on gas-guzzling generators in war zones -- without moving to more renewable energy options -- will also limit war fighter capability, the Pentagon has said.

Against that backdrop, one Marine company shipping out to Afghanistan last fall was armed with solar panels to cut down on its fuel needs. Earlier this week, the Marines reported that solar-powered gear in use in Afghanistan has cut down their energy needs by 90 percent.

"Our generators typically use more than 20 gallons of fuel a day. We are down to 2.5 gallons a day," said Staff Sgt. David Doty, of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marie Regiment, in a statement. "By saving fuel for generators, it has cut back on the number of [fuel] convoys, meaning less opportunity for one of our vehicles to hit an IED [improvised explosive device]," he said.

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