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John Kerry Adds Exclamation Point to Climate Change, Intelligence, and Global Security Conference

| Apr. 27, 2021

On Friday, April 23, the Belfer Center’s Intelligence Project and Environment and Natural Resources Program, along with the Center for Climate and Security, co-hosted a half-day conference on Climate Change, Intelligence, and Global Security. The conference featured a keynote address from Secretary John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, and came directly after President Joe Biden’s Earth Day Leaders Climate Summit.

Highlights from Secretary John Kerry's keynote.
Watch the full keynote here »

In his address to the conference, Secretary Kerry emphasized Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines’ recent remarks that climate change needs to be at the center of U.S. national security and foreign policy, and he issued a challenge to the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) to address climate change like the existential threat it presents. In short, unambiguous remarks, Kerry stated that he expects a lot more from intelligence to assess the international security threats derived from climate change.

In a moderated discussion with Calder Walton, Assistant Director for Research with the Intelligence Project, Secretary Kerry highlighted the themes discussed by panelists and attendees throughout the conference. Climate change is an unprecedented security threat that requires the U.S. IC to refocus its capabilities in order to provide policymakers with the intelligence they need to combat the threat. The security implications of climate change are direct and indirect— countless and critical.

[Playlist] Conference sessions 1–4 and the keynote.

In panels moderated by Intelligence Project Director Paul Kolbe, Project Coordinator Caitlin Chase, and Project Fellow Kristin Wood, audiences learned that climate change is a threat multiplier that will create untold numbers of refugees and migrants, disrupt food supplies, put military installations around the world at risk, and create increasingly fragile states and societies where extremists and terrorists can flourish.

John P. Holdren, the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and Co-Director of the Belfer Center’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, noted that the effects of climate change are growing and conspicuous, but that future effects are difficult to predict with precision because we don’t know exactly how human societies will react. The U.S. IC has unique collection and analytical capabilities that could be deployed to help policymakers answer these questions, but it first needs to identify its mission space (“requirements” within intelligence vernacular).

As Intelligence Project Senior Fellow Sue Gordon said, “it is not enough to say that the IC should focus on climate; the question is what the contribution will be and what capabilities will need to be developed.” The IC does not need to be the foremost experts on climate change, but a greater climate expertise is needed to succeed.

Partners in academia and the private sector also have important roles to play. Public-private cooperation can incentivize research and analysis of public data that better informs the climate threat. Within this cooperation, Erin Sikorsky, Deputy Director of the Center for Climate and Security, highlighted that the IC has the unique advantage of “marrying the seen and the unseen.” 

Secretary Kerry also stressed that intelligence is critical to negotiating successful climate agreements. Just as he and others relied on intelligence to assess Iran’s statements and commitments in negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), climate pact negotiators will look to the IC for answering questions about the intentions and capabilities of foreign states on combatting the shared climate threat. As he put it, it will be important to know president Xi’s intentions and capabilities about climate agreements. “That’s intelligence,” Kerry said.

The world has never faced a threat like climate change— posing civilizational threats— and the conference helped to explore new, imaginative ways of thinking about the role of intelligence in combatting it. The American Intelligence Community will need to define its mission, adapt its resources and workforce to serve that mission, and work with non-traditional partners in academia and the private sector in order to provide policymakers and public audiences with the intelligence they need to develop innovative solutions for the climate crisis.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Power, Sean . “John Kerry Adds Exclamation Point to Climate Change, Intelligence, and Global Security Conference.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 27, 2021.

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