U.S. spy agencies wimp out on science of climate change, but still say it’s a security threat

U.S. national security is being threatened by improvements in artificial intelligence (AI) and genome editing, as well as the impacts of climate change, overfishing, and biodiversity loss, concludes the latest edition of an annual report released today by the U.S. intelligence community. But the report tries to avoid the increasingly politicized fight over climate science—without denying the existence of global warming.

Dropping off the threat list from last year’s report are worries about gains in analyzing big data by other nations, as well as improvements in virtual reality. But new this year are concerns about the slowing pace of advances in the U.S. semiconductor industry and China’s continued efforts to grow their own computer chip capabilities. 

The 2017 Worldwide Threat Assessment, delivered to Congress today by Daniel Coats, U.S. director of national intelligence, is a 32-page rundown of global and regional threats that the nation’s spy agencies believe demand attention from policymakers. Along with familiar warnings about terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and cyberattacks, the report flags a number of science-related issues.

On climate change, the intelligence agencies go out of their way to state that “we assess national security Implications of climate change but do not adjudicate the science of climate change.” That’s a big change from last year’s blunt assertion that “human activities, such as the generation of greenhouse gas emissions and land use, have contributed to extreme weather events including more frequent and severe tropical cyclones, heavy rainfall, droughts, and heat waves.”

We assess national security Implications of climate change but do not adjudicate the science of climate change.

2017 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community

Still, this year’s report notes that 2017 “is likely to be among the hottest years on record,” and that global warming “is projected to fuel more intense and frequent extreme weather events that will be distributed unequally in time and geography. Countries with large populations in coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to tropical weather events and storm surges, especially in Asia and Africa.”

The report also devotes a special section to four “emerging and disruptive technologies” that could pose challenges to U.S. interests. They are:

  • AI. “Although the United States leads AI research globally, foreign state research in AI is growing,” the report notes. “The implications of our adversaries' abilities to use AI are potentially profound and broad. They include an increased vulnerability to cyber attack, difficulty in ascertaining attribution, facilitation of advances in foreign weapon and intelligence systems, the risk of accidents and related liability issues, and unemployment.”
  • Genome editing. “[T]he fast pace of development and broad range of applications are likely to challenge governments and scientific communities alike to develop regulatory and ethical frameworks or norms to govern the responsible application of the technology,” the report states.
  • Internet of Things. Smart devices that communicate with each other—including phones, cars and even electric grids—will bring benefits, the analysis notes. But the technology has also “introduced vulnerabilities into both the infrastructure that they support and on which they rely, as well as the processes they guide … in the future, state and non-state actors will likely use [Internet of Things] devices to support intelligence operations or domestic security or to access or attack targeted computer networks.”
  • Next-generation semiconductors. By the mid-2020s, industry experts worry that U.S. firms will no longer be able to improve the speed and capabilities of computer chips, “potentially eroding U.S. national security advantages” in this field. At the same time, “China is increasing its efforts to improve its domestic technological and production capabilities through mergers and acquisitions.”

The first three items on the new list—AI, genome editing, and the Internet of Things—also made last year’s report.

The report also flags wildlife trafficking and poaching, illegal fishing, and biodiversity loss as potential threats to international stability. “Africa increasingly acknowledges the links among poaching, wildlife trafficking, instability, corruption, crime, and challenges to the rule of law,” the report states. And “global fisheries face an existential threat in the decades ahead from surging worldwide demand, declining ocean health, and continued illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.” Illegal fishing “can also heighten tensions within and between countries and encourage piracy and frequently Involves forced labor, a form of human trafficking.”

Missing from this year’s report are warnings that advances in “foreign data science” and augmented and virtual reality could reshape the security landscape. For example, the 2016 edition noted that “foreign countries are openly purchasing access to published U.S. research through aggregated publication indices, and they are collecting social media and patent data to develop their own indices.” This year, that concern is missing, although the new report makes numerous mentions of cyber espionage and attacks.