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Identifying -- and Ignoring – US National Security Warnings About Pandemic Diseases, Climate Changes, and other Threats

Peter H. Gleick

· Climate change,Security,CommunicatingScience,General Interest

On March 19th, President Trump said “Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion. Nobody has ever seen anything like this before.” This was a dangerous, ignorant, misleading lie. Warnings about precisely these threats go back many years, through many previous administrations. Here is a brief history.

What’s the value of having advanced warning of global threats to the nation’s health, safety, and security if our elected officials fail to act on them? - Peter Gleick

In 2016, the Obama administration’s National Security Council summarized lessons learned from the earlier Ebola outbreak, saying “It is sobering to note the odds are increasing that the United States will be called upon again in the not too distant future to respond to another health crisis that threatens global security.” Obama’s health officials ran an exercise in January 2017 for incoming Trump officials on the threat of pandemics. In 2019, Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services conducted a pandemic simulation eerily similar to the COVID19 pattern, which (in a draft report that was never released by the Trump administration) highlighted precisely the severe flaws and vulnerabilities of the US that have come to light in the current crisis.

Even worse, these warnings are not new. The US national security establishment, including the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and senior military and defense leaders have been warning about the threat of pandemics, and other non-traditional security threats like climate change, for many years.

Below are a few examples of the explicit warnings presented to the government of the United States by national defense, security, and intelligence agencies as early as 2009. These warnings prompted previous presidents to develop and put in place comprehensive plans for early warning and action against emerging pathogens, including programs at the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes for Health – programs that Trump tried to eliminate or cut. The blindness of the current administration to these health threats is similar to the dismissal and ignorance about similar warnings about climate change and other non-traditional security threats that have been on the radar of the defense community for decades. That issue is covered in a separate assessment posted here.

In August 2009, the National Intelligence Strategy of the United States noted:

“The issues and trends that will shape the future security environment—economic instability, state failure, the ebb and flow of democratization, emergence of regional powers, changing demographics and social forces, climate change, access to space, pandemic disease, and the spread of disruptive technologies, to name just a few—will test the Intelligence Community’s ability to provide strategic warning and avoid surprise.”

The May 2010 National Security Strategy released by the White House said:

“…we must focus American engagement on strengthening international institutions and galvanizing the collective action that can serve common interests such as combating violent extremism; stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and securing nuclear materials; achieving balanced and sustainable economic growth; and forging cooperative solutions to the threat of climate change, armed conflict, and pandemic disease...

A global effort to combat climate change must draw upon national actions to reduce emis­sions and a commitment to mitigate their impact. Efforts to prevent conflicts and keep the peace in their aftermath can stop insecurity from spreading…

Dependence upon fossil fuels constrains our options and pollutes our environment. Climate change and pandemic disease threaten the security of regions and the health and safety of the American people…

In 2010, the US Quadrennial Defense Review, mandated by law to address long-term priorities for the US Defense Department, stated:

“Other powerful trends are likely to add complexity to the security environment. Rising demand for resources, rapid urbanization of littoral regions, the effects of climate change, the emergence of new strains of disease, and profound cultural and demographic tensions in several regions are just some of the trends whose complex interplay may spark or exacerbate future conflicts.”

In 2014, the US Department of Defense “Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap” stated:

“Among the future trends that will impact our national security is climate change. Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.

In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier” because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.”

In June 2014, the National Intelligence Strategy of the United States, from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence stated:

“Many governments will face challenges to meet even the basic needs of their people as they confront demographic change, resource constraints, effects of climate change, and risks of global infectious disease outbreaks. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence. The risk of conflict and mass atrocities may increase.”

The December 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States said:

“Naturally emerging outbreaks of viruses such as Ebola and SARS, as well as the deliberate 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, demonstrated the impact of biological threats on national security by taking lives, generating economic losses, and contributing to a loss of confidence in government institutions…At home, we will strengthen our emergency response and unified coordination systems to rapidly characterize outbreaks, implement public health containment measures to limit the spread of disease, and provide surge medical care—including life-saving treatments.”

In February 2018, Daniel Coats, Director of National Intelligence said on the record:

The increase in frequency and diversity of reported disease outbreaks—such as dengue and Zika—probably will continue through 2018, including the potential for a severe global health emergency that could lead to major economic and societal disruptions, strain governmental and international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support. A novel strain of a virulent microbe that is easily transmissible between humans continues to be a major threat, with pathogens such as H5N1 and H7N9 influenza and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus having pandemic potential if they were to acquire efficient human-to-human transmissibility.”

In January 2019 the US National Intelligence Strategy from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence stated

“Increasing migration and urbanization of populations are also further straining the capacities of governments around the world and are likely to result in further fracturing of societies, potentially creating breeding grounds for radicalization. Pressure points include growing influxes of migrants, refugees, and internally displaced persons fleeing conflict zones; areas of intense economic or other resource scarcity; and areas threatened by climate changes, infectious disease outbreaks, or transnational criminal organizations.”

Given the serious and long-standing attention given by US intelligence agencies to understanding and warning about threats to the United States – from pandemics to climate change – it seems appropriate to ask what’s the value of having advanced warning of global threats to the nation’s health, safety, and security if our elected officials fail to act on them?