The CIA Has Joined the Vast Climate Change Conspiracy.

Read this article in the New York Times.*

Here’s the gist of what it’s talking about in this effort to piggy back on national technical intelligence gathering tools (satellites, remote sensing, etc.):

The nation’s top scientists and spies are collaborating on an effort to use the federal government’s intelligence assets — including spy satellites and other classified sensors — to assess the hidden complexities of environmental change. They seek insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests….In the last year, as part of the effort, the collaborators have scrutinized images of Arctic sea ice from reconnaissance satellites in an effort to distinguish things like summer melts from climate trends, and they have had images of the ice pack declassified to speed the scientific analysis.

The investigators tout the access to data that can be acquired in no other way; they note its economic significance (ice forecasts, aids to oil and gas exploration; and the article also notes that the CIA itself has perceived a national security concern in the prospect of climate change.

And with that, here’s the gist of what I want to talk about:

In October, days after the C.I.A. opened a small unit to assess the security implications of climate change, Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, said the agency should be fighting terrorists, “not spying on sea lions.”


The program resurrects a scientific group that from 1992 to 2001 advised the federal government on environmental surveillance. Known as Medea, for Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis, the group sought to discover if intelligence archives and assets could shed light on issues of environmental stewardship.

It is unclear why Medea died in the early days of the Bush administration, but President George W. Bush developed a reputation for opposing many kinds of environmental initiatives. Officials said the new body was taking on the same mandate and activities, as well as the name.

Perhaps the problem is that the scientific opportunity was and is immense.  Among the most difficult elements of the climate system to study is the cryosphere — the ice covered portions of the earth’s surface.

Understanding ice dynamics, especially those of sea and polar pack ice, is an essential component in coming to grips with a whole range of important issues in climate change:  the rate at which it is occurirng, the sensitivity of the climate system to various forcings, the risk of rapid alteration in parts or the whole of the global climate system.  (See as one example among a ton of such research, this paper picked up at random through the magic of teh google.)

If therefore, your political advantage rests (a) with a denial of the usefulness of expertise, of verifiable knowledge combined with the training and skill needed to interpret the data and (b) with economic interests for whom the reality of climate change is costly, what should one do but shut down a cash and risk-free program that would help us grasp the predicament of the planet.  Better a joke about sea lions than inconvenient truths.

And by the way: for all those who say Obama is no different from the guy, consider this:

The Obama administration has said little about the effort publicly but has backed it internally, officials said. In November, the scientists met with Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director.

“Director Panetta believes it is crucial to examine the potential national security implications of phenomena such as desertification, rising sea levels and population shifts,” Paula Weiss, an agency spokeswoman, said.

Elections matter.  They matter in this country now more than ever.  And if you care about science — and I don’t mean just funding levels, but rather the ideal of science, the notion that living a good life includes notion that it is better to know what’s going on than to dream of sugar plum fairies — then the difference between the two parties in their approach to science is existential.

None of this “they’re all alike…I’ll vote for Nader” sh*t, in other words.  We have work to do this and every year.

*I dump on the MSM with reasonable regularity.  I’m working on one of my several thousand word screeds about the Times’ own David Brooks right now.  But it’s important to remember how big media institutions matter — and encourage them to do more of what the informal media can’t.  This is an example.  The article turned on a reporter’s ability to access both very high level science sources (Ralph Cicerone is a seriously good get, for those of you without scorecards handy) and with at least some kind of hook into the intelligence community.  That takes institutional support to develop sources and an understanding of your beat.  So kudos to reporter Bill Broad, one of the Times’ long lasting good ones, and to the great grey lady formerly of 43rd St. herself.

That kind of knowledge/access can be acquired from an independent base — but it’s very hard and it is what the big media at its best distinguishes itself by achieving.  If only places like the Times, and even the Post, long since returned to its roots as the house organ/gossip rag for DC, understood that the one real unique asset they have is reporting other people can’t do because they lack the scale and institutional memory to do so.  That’s a barrier to entry no amount of internet servers can bridge.  Go there, my friends.  We need you to do so, and you can make money there.

Image: Caspar David Friedrich, “Wreck in the Ice Pack” 1798.

Explore posts in the same categories: Bush follies, climate, Climate follies, Credit Where Credit is Due, Obama, Republican knavery, Science Policy, Who needs science?

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6 Comments on “The CIA Has Joined the Vast Climate Change Conspiracy.”

  1. Jim Bales Says:


    You picked a beautiful example to illustrate a critical point you make–“If only places like the Times, and even the Post, … understood that the one real unique asset they have is reporting other people can’t do because they lack the scale and institutional memory to do so.”

    The open question is how an institution such as the Times can make sufficient revenue to stay in business and maintain its “unique asset”. (Note that I didn’t say ‘turn a profit’, for I suspect that there is some merit in not-for-profit institutions providing the detailed reporting we need as a society.)

    And Bill Broad’s skills and contacts represent a major asset for any institution that has him on its payroll!


    PS, I’m up to Chapter 16 of “Newton and the Counterfeiter,” and I want you to know that it is entirely your fault that I didn’t get enough sleep last night!

  2. […] The CIA Has Joined the Vast Climate Change Conspiracy. […]

  3. Lichanos Says:

    The CIA used to be a major employer of geography grads, but that discipline went into precipitous decline in the USA, revived recently with the techie cachet of GoogleEarth and GIS, my field. Still, the CIA doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in me…

    I think you overestimage the importance of this. Sure GWB was a no-nothin’, ‘specially about the “tree huggin” issues, and Obama does make a tremendous differenc there. Yes, tone and leadership are important. Better to think than not to…

    But…engineers have been warning of security issues related to water scarcity since I was a student for chrissakes, and who listened to them? Of course, you would expect an “intelligence” agency to consider important environmental trends rather than to ignore them, but the important word here is “trend.” Some are obvious and important: water availability, arable soil, are two of the most important. Mineral resources, etc.

    Do you really expect the CIA to make much useful analysis of impacts of climate change that are based on computer models with large uncertainty values?

    Sorry if this is a re-post.

    • Tom Says:

      You are commenting slightly off my point. That is, it is not this particular program that is the difference between George and Barack, but the underlying approach to governing that made one man block this kind of work and the other to make it happen.

      That’s what’s at stake — whether the tools of analytical thought will be deployed to govern, or whether one gives office for those who seek to use power for ends selected by other means.

  4. lichanos Says:

    Well, your second paragraph is certainly an important point, and I agree that this is a major difference between BO and GB. In 1980, I did not vote because I thought, “Heck, Carter is a conservative! There’s no difference.” I was young and stupid. I learned my lesson.

    So, I agree with your point, but I thought that the CIA program was a poor choice of evidence to support it. That’s why I was picking on you. GWB might have thought, “Everything with the word “Environment” in it goes!” Or he might have thought, “Aren’t we already doing this…somewhere?”

    Okay, maybe I give him way too much credit, but still…

  5. sfguy Says:

    Of course elections matter. But third party candidates have historically been one way of getting a major party to shift positions. Likewise, the threat of a significant portion of “the base” staying home because they’re demoralized by their party’s actions ought to be another.

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