CIA Shuts Down Climate Research Program

Amid spotlight on security threat from climate change, intelligence community ends scientific collaboration.

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Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
May 21, 2015, 2:46 p.m.

The Central Intelligence Agency is shutting down a research program that offered classified data to scientists to examine the link between climate change and global security threats.

A CIA spokesman confirmed that the agency had ended its MEDEA program, a 1990s-era intelligence program restarted in 2010 under President Obama. The collaboration gave scientists access to intelligence assets like satellite data to study climate change and inform on how its impacts could inflame conflicts.

CIA spokesman Ryan Whaylen said “these projects have been completed and CIA will employ these research results and engage external experts as it continues to evaluate the national security implications of climate change.”

The news was first reported by Mother Jones.

The announcement comes just days after President Obama said climate change was a “serious threat to global security” in a commencement address to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Climate change, Obama said, “will impact how our military defends our country. So we need to act, and we need to act now.”

Under MEDEA, which stands for Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis, gave a group of scientists security clearance and access to previously collected data for study. The program itself was kept largely under wraps and was not largely cited, but scientists quoted in reports about the program say the data was often more high quality than what they could get through other sources.

In a 1996 speech, Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch said the environmental data collected by the intelligence community could be used to predict instability in other nations by, say, measuring crop output in North Korea or the effects of an oil spill in Russia. Deutch also said that CIA assets had been used to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency respond to a wildfire in Alaska, because the existing satellites were able to track its impact faster than civilian planes.

A CIA spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the data would continue to be made available to scientists or other agencies.

The program was started in the 1990s, but was shut down in the early days of the George W. Bush administration. It was restarted in 2010 under the direction of Leon Panetta, backed by former Vice President Al Gore.

The research effort, as with most environmental work, has drawn the ire of congressional Republicans. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming has particularly been critical of the intelligence agency’s environmental work, saying in 2010 that “should be focused on monitoring terrorists in caves, not polar bears on icebergs.”

And generally, Republicans have been scornful of the defense community’s work on climate change, saying that the administration is ignoring the threat of terrorism and global instability in favor of environmental goals. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma released a lengthy statement this week calling Obama’s Coast Guard Academy speech a “severe disconnect from reality,” and mentioning ISIS, North Korea, and Syria among the threats he said the military should be focused on.

The CIA in 2012 also shut down its Center on Climate Change and National Security, a group of security specialists who studied existing climate data to game out how changes could impact security threats. That left MEDEA as the agency’s primary climate change program.

The Defense Department has been active in climate change, as studies have linked extreme weather to instability across the globe. In February, the White House listed climate change among its global concerns in its National Security Strategy. An October, 2014 Defense report identified climate change as a “threat multiplier” that would make existing conflicts worse and outlined ways it was incorporating climate into its training and operations.

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