New National Intelligence Estimate on Climate Change Underplays the Role of Food Security

The integrity of food systems is deeply intertwined with climate change effects, and disruptions to food systems pose considerable challenges to political stability, social cohesion, and economic prosperity. Some, but not all, of the connections are addressed in the unclassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the national security implications of climate change released by the U.S. intelligence community (IC) on October 21, 2021.

The previous administration’s lack of commitment to—and withdrawal from—significant climate agreements, as well as its overt suppression of peer-reviewed climate science, have undercut U.S. standing on these issues. By tasking the IC to assess the security threats posed by climate change in the first week of its term, the Biden administration looked to restore confidence among its allies—and the public—of the seriousness with which the United States considers the issue.

Q1: What is an NIE?

A1: An NIE is the most authoritative statement from the U.S. IC on any given national security topic, a status drawn from its extensive review and approval process. NIEs are drafted by the National Intelligence Council and are reviewed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and the rest of the IC. The NIE must be approved by the National Intelligence Board, which is comprised of the director of national intelligence and the heads of all 17 intelligence agencies. In addition, the scientific content of this NIE was reviewed by members of federal science agencies for accuracy.

Q2: Why is this NIE important?

A2: This NIE is the first such assessment on the national security implications of climate change in over a decade, the first to be requested by the president, and the first to be released to the public. Although the IC produced a National Intelligence Assessment on the subject in 2008—a now-defunct type of report that goes through an equally arduous review and approval process as an NIE—that document remains classified. The findings of that report, however, were presented to Congress by National Intelligence Council chair Thomas Fingar that year.

Historically, NIEs have had considerable influence on policymaking within the United States and serve as cues to other governments about how seriously the IC considers a particular issue. The NIE, both in its content and the considerable resources that the IC puts behind its production, makes clear that the administration considers the consequences arising from climate change to be serious.

Q3: What does the report say about food security?

A3: The NIE notes adverse impacts on food security as a driver of instability abroad, but mentions of food insecurity are usually packaged together with risks to other systems. For example, the report assesses that decreases in energy, food, and water security will “exacerbate poverty, tribal or ethnic intercommunal tensions, and dissatisfaction with governments, increasing the risk of social, economic, and political instability.”

Source: National Intelligence Council, Climate Change and International Responses Increasing Challenges to US National Security Through 2040 (Washington, DC: National Intelligence Council, 2021),

The NIE assesses 11 countries, concentrated in South and East Asia and the Caribbean, as highly vulnerable to climate impacts on energy, food, and water security. According to the NIE, the IC selected these countries according to their vulnerability to the physical manifestations of climate change and because they are the least likely to have the financial resources or governance capacity to adequately adapt to these stresses. The report cites possible fallout ranging from social, political, and economic instability to violent conflict within these countries. Climate-driven economic and social stress are also noted as increasing incentives for migration.

Q4: What does the NIE miss about climate change and national security relevant to food security?

A4: Although the NIE mentions food insecurity, it says little about the risk that climate change poses to global food security and the cascading impacts that food insecurity can have on political stability.

In several places the NIE infers or explicitly mentions the suppressing effect of climate change on some crop yields, primarily in the form of droughts or excessive rain. However, climatic events and shifting weather patterns also drive large-scale crop damages from agricultural pests and plant diseases. The desert locust infestation at the beginning of 2020 was the worst outbreak in a quarter century and due, at least in part, to climate change. One year later, the Food and Agriculture Organization released a report stating that about 9 percent of all crop and livestock production losses in 2008–2018 were linked to pests, diseases, and infestations. Pest and plant diseases remain a blind spot for the national security community, and the security implications of climate change cannot be fully understood without robust consideration of these biotic stressors.

The NIE also fails to acknowledge that the effects of climate change are propagated through other factors beyond yields. During her testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Global Human Rights, Caitlin Welsh challenged the idea that climate-related events only suppress yields and contribute to violent conflicts. Instead, she argued that climate change affects food security for all Africans through a multitude of pathways with important implications for U.S. foreign policy, development programming, and national security.

The NIE also omits a mention of how the global food supply chain is increasingly vulnerable to climate hazards, such as through extreme weather, droughts, or disease. Beyond livestock and crop production, threats to aquaculture and marine fisheries are also critical considerations when assessing global impacts. Though a table in the report mentions that disappearance of the coral reefs will “eliminate an ecosystem that serves 500 million people, impacting economic and food security,” this statement is not reflected in any of the key findings of the report.

However, these shortcomings likely do not represent an unappreciation of food security as a component of national security. After all, the IC itself has previously warned of the threat that global food insecurity poses to U.S. national security interests, such as in its 2015 unclassified Intelligence Community Assessment on Global Food Security. But in this NIE, the IC opted primarily to focus on the geopolitical dimensions of national security. As a result, the report doesn’t directly address other important dimensions of national security, such as impacts on agriculture, health, economics, infrastructure, and ecosystems that support human life. This curious, self-imposed constraint means that threats to global food security are missing, and the NIE may only partially fulfill the president’s request to assess the national security impacts of climate change.

Q5: What can be done to bolster national security through food security?

A5: The release of the NIE may serve to reinforce the president’s commitment to an evidence-based approach to addressing climate change, but the administration must also recognize that climate risks extend beyond extreme weather events like droughts and floods. As the Biden administration is in the process of reconfiguring the U.S. national security doctrine, a critical piece of that shift must be greater attention and understanding of the climate-food insecurity-instability nexus that increasingly threatens U.S. development and peacekeeping investments in fragile states. Tangible policy shifts are required to heed the warning of the IC. Currently, the Biden administration has two existing mechanisms through which research can turn into action:

Global Food Security Strategy

In mid-October, the U.S. government published the refreshed Global Food Security Strategy (GFSS) for 2022-2026. The GFSS provides the foundation for Feed the Future, a whole-of-government approach to global hunger and food security, which initially focused on agricultural production and market systems. After the severe droughts in the Horn of Africa—often cited as a primary driver of the existing conflict in the region—Feed the Future adopted an additional focus on resiliency in development programming in fragile contexts. Today’s strategy takes a more comprehensive approach and now integrates the mounting challenges of Covid-19, conflict, inequity, and climate change.

The refresh of the GFSS comes at a time where interagency coordination on climate change is paramount. The Feed the Future initiative provides an opportunity for the administration to recognize that priorities on climate are tied to food security outcomes. For example, during a White House briefing on October 20, 2021, Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) shared that the U.S. Global Water Strategy is not yet finalized. Where water scarcity threatens agricultural livelihoods, disputes over shared waters will likely follow—exacerbating conflicts and further marginalizing the most vulnerable. Harmonizing U.S. government strategies across disciplines—especially considering the impact of climate change on food and water security—can effectively codify the integration of climate change threats into the U.S. national security strategy.

Agriculture Innovation Mission (AIM) for Climate

The Biden administration announced AIM for Climate during the Leaders Summit on Climate on April 23, 2021. AIM is a joint initiative with the United States and United Arab Emirates that seeks to address the climate crisis by accelerating investment in, and support for, climate-smart agriculture and food system innovations. Target areas for research and development are as specific as enhancing digital tools and as broad as inclusive, equitable, and sustainable food systems.

Farming is already a risky business for farmers and investors, especially when compounded by climate change. AIM for Climate should develop a risk-based investment strategy that carefully identifies and practically addresses the complex array of root problems that are destabilizing agricultural livelihoods and giving rise to increases in outmigration. The NIE supports the notion that stable farmer livelihoods are a matter of national security, and adaptation must therefore be a strategic focus. At the same time, AIM for Climate should also seek to rapidly develop and scale mitigation solutions across the value chain, from breeding more drought-tolerant seed varieties to expanding consumer access to climate-friendly vegetables and fruits. The consequences of a failure to invest in both adaptation and mitigation within the agriculture sector are likely to manifest as instability, conflict, and intensifying waves of climate refugees—in the near term and, increasingly, in the years to come.

The NIE is an important articulation of how climate change poses geopolitical risks to national security and how instability is affected by threats to food security. Now is the time for the U.S. government to implement strategies to navigate an increasingly unfamiliar security landscape heavily shaped by climate change.

Eilish Zembilci is the program manager for the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Rod Schoonover is the head of the Ecological Security Program at the Council on Strategic Risks, and senior associate (non-resident) for the CSIS Global Food Security Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Rod Schoonover
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Global Food and Water Security Program
Eilish Zembilci
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Global Food and Water Security Program