WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. officials warned Wednesday that climate change is an increasing threat to national security, a message at odds with a broader Trump administration effort to downplay the threat from global warming.
Military and intelligence officials outlined a range of long-term threats arising from climate change, including food and water shortages that can produce political turmoil and land disputes as well as melting ice in the Arctic that Russia and other adversaries could exploit for commercial gain.
The top officer at U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command warned lawmakers about growing Russian and Chinese interest in the Arctic.
"Climate change effects could undermine important international systems on which the U.S. is critically dependent such as trade routes, food and energy supplies, the global economy, and domestic stability abroad," Rod Schoonover, a senior State Department analyst focusing on global issues, told members of the House Intelligence Committee. "Most countries, if not all, are already unable to fully respond to the risks posed by climate-linked hazards under present conditions.
The assessments laid bare the disconnect between senior officials who regard climate change as a long-term, global threat and the views of President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly broken from that message and even belittled his own government's views.
"I believe that there's a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways," Trump said in an interview on "Good Morning Britain" that aired on Wednesday. "Don't forget it used to be called global warming. That wasn't working. Then it was called climate change. Now it's actually called extreme weather, because with extreme weather, you can't miss."
The politics of climate change were present in an otherwise science-heavy hearing, with one Republican congressman, Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, asking whether public discourse on the topic was truly helped "when you hear warnings for emotional claims that turn out not to be true."
New business opportunities in the Arctic also invite new strategic competition, U.S. defense officials say.
Peter Kiemel, counselor to the National Intelligence Council at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, replied that he and the other witnesses were attempting to separate the national security implications of climate change from the mere emotional concerns.
One particular issue Kiemel singled out was the gradual thawing of the Arctic, which he said can create increased opportunities for mining, fishing and shipping for Russia by making the path between Asia and North America more navigable.
“As a result, the Arctic is emerging as a new domain of strategic competition,” Kiemel said. “Russia, China and others are dramatically increasing their activities and investments in the region.”
Jeff Ringhausen, senior naval intelligence manager for Russia and Eurasia at the Office of Naval Intelligence, was more cautious in his assessment, but still conceded a potential threat to U.S. allies posed by a changing Arctic environment.
He said Russia was working to modernize infrastructure on its northern coast and on some of its Arctic islands, with the goal of establishing itself as an economic force. Though Moscow believes there's substantial economic potential in the Arctic, U.S. officials aren't so confident, Ringhausen said.
The Trump administration warned China and Russia on Monday that the U.S. won’t stand for aggressive moves in the Arctic region, which is rapidly opening up to development and commerce as temperatures warm and sea ice melts.
"Naval intelligence assesses that this economic potential exists, but that the Russian government appears overly optimistic regarding its development in the near and medium term," he said.
He said that while Arctic shipping is likely to increase as a result of thawing, the region will probably account for only a small portion of overall global shipping.
The more direct threat is to U.S. allies in the Arctic rather than to the U.S. itself, he said.