A Cold War in a Warmer World: Canada’s Intelligence Sector Responds to Climate Change

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Our planet is changing. Our journalism too. This story is part of a CBC News initiative called Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.


Since its inception during the Cold War, Canada’s spy agency has dealt with three main threats: terrorism, espionage, and foreign interference in domestic politics and business.

Now the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is pointing the finger at a new disruptive player on the ground: climate change.

CSIS says it is trying to figure out how climate change will disrupt national security. He even publicly acknowledged this effort, which intelligence agencies rarely do.

“This is something that will absolutely have a profound impact on Canadians and will have an impact on our national security. I think it’s important that we’re in this space, ”said Tricia Geddes, deputy director of policy at CSIS. an intelligence conference last month.

“I obviously think this is another one of those big changes that’s obviously been happening for a long time, that we’re looking out for, and I think there will be a significant contribution from the service.”

Vincent Rigby, who until recently was national security adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said climate change is a cumulative threat. A single mudslide does not constitute a national security crisis, but floods and landslides that are increasing in severity over time due to global warming could threaten the security of the entire country.

“[Extreme weather events are] not only becoming more widespread, but the impact is enough, enough, quite damaging and enough, enough, quite severe. This is starting to have national security implications, ”he said.

“It’s a threat to our economy. It’s a threat to our social fabric to some extent, and it’s a threat to the way we deploy our resources.”

Climate change is also likely to lead to geopolitical instability and massive migration.

This fall, the U.S. government warned that tens of millions of people would likely be displaced by 2050 due to climate change – around 143 million people in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America alone.

The vulnerabilities of our society are clearly exposed to more extreme weather conditions, and we are not prepared for them.– Prof. Simon Dalby

“Over time you’ll see more and more disagreements, bigger conflicts, potentially over water resources, for example,” said Rigby, now a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“We are already seeing this in countries like Ethiopia and Egypt, which have disagreements. But it could get worse, I think, as we move into the future.”

Arctic concerns

There are dangers in the Arctic too, he said, with geopolitical rivals seeking to control the region’s resources as the ice recedes. Russia’s reactivation of its northern Cold War-era bases, coupled with China’s clear interest in the region, could create the conditions for a major power confrontation.

In March 2020, the Russians deployed three ultra-quiet nuclear submarines to simultaneously pierce arctic ice in one location – a demonstration that put the defense community on edge.

“You will have more competition for minerals, oil and gas, fishing. Countries like China are increasingly interested in the region. Russia obviously sees opportunities as well,” Rigby said.

“As this competition potentially intensifies, countries will want to protect their perceived rights and interests.”

Geddes said the spy agency needs to invest in understanding all of these, among other things, by recruiting its own climate experts.

Three Russian nuclear submarines crossed several meters of arctic ice at the same time in March 2020. (Russian Ministry of Defense)

“These are important pieces of the puzzle that we have to put together so that we can understand where these threats are going to emanate from,” she said.

“This is something the service needs to continue to invest in … by anticipating the next threat, and then properly understanding that environment.”

The Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s electronic spy agency, said it also has a role to play in dealing with “ever-changing intelligence requirements.”

“We continue to provide the Government of Canada with the most comprehensive information available on Canada’s intelligence priorities, directly promoting Canada’s safety, security and prosperity,” said spokesperson Evan Koronewski.

“As climate change continues to have a global impact, our intelligence and strategic knowledge will continue to be valued by government partners and high-level decision-makers. “

Simon Dalby is Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies the intersection of climate change, environmental security and geopolitics. He said Canada’s national security strategy is badly in need of an update to take into account climate change.

“The vulnerabilities of our society are clearly exposed to more extreme weather conditions, and we are not prepared for it,” he said.

“We’re in a situation where we need to rethink quite radically, looking both at our vulnerabilities in terms of climate change, but also by thinking long and hard about the kind of economy we’re building that doesn’t make us more vulnerable.”

Canada ‘quarrels’, says prof

Earlier this month, the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) think tank released a report calling on Ottawa to rethink its approach to national security in order to deal with emerging threats.

He recommends that the federal government create a new Cabinet Committee on National Security, chaired by the Prime Minister, which would have input from the ministries of Public Safety, Defense and Global Affairs.

“This is the kind of long-term planning that we clearly need to do rather than just rushing around whenever there’s an emergency because we just keep getting caught unprepared,” said Dalby, quoted in the CIGI report.

In the south, the US director of national intelligence released a climate change assessment in October which concluded that it “will increasingly exacerbate the risks to US national security interests as the physical impacts increase and geopolitical tensions rise over how to meet the challenge ”.

Military personnel arrive in Princeton, British Columbia on Wednesday, November 24, 2021 to help deal with the consequences of extreme flooding. The increasing severity of flooding across the country could have implications for national security. (Maggie MacPherson / CBC)

The warning was part of a series of documents released by the United States National Security Council and the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense. It was the first time that US federal security agencies had come together to warn policymakers of the security implications of climate change.

Rigby said the Canadian intelligence community must “step up [its] game “on assessing the danger of climate change, both in the short and long term.

“When we think of our intelligence agencies, we often think of ghosts working in the shadows and people in trench coats looking around the corners of buildings and things like that,” he said. “The point is, modern intelligence is essentially analysis and assessment, using open sources and looking at major trends on the horizon, from a long distance.

“I’m not sure we’re doing enough in Canada right now.”


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