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A Spy’s Guide to Climate Change

A Cape Town resident collecting water in January. Credit Joao Silva/The New York Times

The Trump administration is seeking to withdraw the United States from the international accord reached in Paris in 2015 to fight climate change. It is trying to rescind regulations on the issue. It has even scrubbed mentions of global warming from government websites. Yet its attempt to suppress the facts has not entirely succeeded, with federal agencies continuing to issue warnings, including in a major climate report published last year.

The latest climate alarm came this week in a Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community. Here is what the document, issued by Daniel R. Coats, the director of national intelligence, said about climate change and other environmental problems, with my annotations:

A real problem

The impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent — and possibly upheaval — through 2018.

Only six weeks into the year, this is already coming true. Cape Town, the second-largest city in South Africa, is so low on water after an extended drought that it may be forced to shut off the taps in early April. Water scarcity is a factor in the violent conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and in both countries, control of water supplies is being used as a weapon of war.

Social disruptions

The past 115 years have been the warmest period in the history of modern civilization, and the past few years have been the warmest years on record. Extreme weather events in a warmer world have the potential for greater impacts and can compound with other drivers to raise the risk of humanitarian disasters, conflict, water and food shortages, population migration, labor shortfalls, price shocks, and power outages. Research has not identified indicators of tipping points in climate-linked Earth systems, suggesting a possibility of abrupt climate change.

After running through an accurate summary of the warming trend and the risk it poses, the document appears — though the language is ambiguous — to suggest the possibility of sudden climate change of the sort that might cause global upheaval. Most scientists say that over the next few decades, at least, the likely prospect is a gradual worsening of climate-related problems. But beyond a few decades, they are less willing to rule out catastrophes like the disappearance of polar sea ice, which could potentially cause profound climatic disruption.

Threats to political stability

Worsening air pollution from forest burning, agricultural waste incineration, urbanization, and rapid industrialization — with increasing public awareness — might drive protests against authorities, such as those recently in China, India, and Iran.

The document does not explicitly mention the burning of fossil fuels, but that is a main cause of the poor air quality the plagues many cities in the developing world, and has even caused deteriorating air quality in places like London. Burning coal and oil not only causes climate change, it throws particles into the air that can cause asthma, heart attacks and other health problems. The World Health Organization estimates that three million people die prematurely every year because of outdoor air pollution, and over four million more because of indoor exposure to dirty fuels used for heating and cooking.

Critical systems at risk

Accelerating biodiversity and species loss — driven by pollution, warming, unsustainable fishing, and acidifying oceans — will jeopardize vital ecosystems that support critical human systems. Recent estimates suggest that the current extinction rate is 100 to 1,000 times the natural extinction rate.

As the document implies, scientists are not entirely sure how much the rate of extinction has sped up because of human activities, but they do think it has accelerated. Some of them fear that we have entered the early stages of what will become the sixth mass extinction of organisms in Earth’s history.

Conflicts between nations

Water scarcity, compounded by gaps in cooperative management agreements for nearly half of the world’s international river basins, and new unilateral dam development are likely to heighten tension between countries.

The biggest thing missing from this document is any explicit attribution of the cause of global climate disruption. Scientists have largely ruled out any natural explanation, concluding that the human release of greenhouse gases explains basically all the warming that has occurred since the 19th century. The two great culprits are the burning of fossil fuels and the chopping down of forests.

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