War, Pestilence, Gloom, & Doom — That’s The GOOD News In Latest US Threat Assessment

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Every 4 years, the US intelligence community, consisting of 18 spy agencies and tens of thousands of workers, prepares a Global Trends report for the new president and members of Congress. In 2008, it warned specifically about the danger of a global pandemic originating in East Asia. According to the New York Times, the Global Trends 2040 report released last week by the National Intelligence Council, says the Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II,” with medical, political and security implications that will reverberate for years.

Image credit: Director of National Intelligence

By law, the creators of the Global Trends report are prohibited from making recommendations. Their mission is to gather the evidence and present it to our elected officials so they can decide what actions to take based up the report’s threat assessments. That thought should scare the bejezus out of anyone who understands how the electoral process in the United States works. Here is the Foreword to the report:

In the coming year, the United States and its allies will face a diverse array of threats that are playing out amidst the global disruption resulting from the COVID- 19 pandemic and against the backdrop of great power competition, the disruptive effects of ecological degradation and a changing climate, an increasing number of empowered non-state actors, and rapidly evolving technology.

The complexity the threats, their intersections, and the potential for cascading events in an increasingly interconnected and mobile world create new challenges for the IC [intelligence community]. Ecological and climate changes, for example, are connected to public health risks, humanitarian concerns, social and political instability, and geopolitical rivalry.

The 2021 Annual Threat Assessment highlights some of those connections as it provides the IC’s baseline assessments of the most pressing threats to US national interests, while emphasizing the United States’ key adversaries and competitors. It is not an exhaustive assessment of all global challenges and notably excludes assessments of US adversaries’ vulnerabilities. It accounts for functional concerns, such as weapons of mass destruction and technology, primarily in the sections on threat actors, such as China and Russia. Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang have demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and its allies, despite the pandemic.

China increasingly is a near-peer competitor, challenging the United States in multiple arenas especially economically, militarily, and technologically — and is pushing to change global norms. Russia is pushing back against Washington where it can globally, employing techniques up to and including the use of force. Iran will remain a regional menace with broader malign influence activities, and North Korea will be a disruptive player on the regional and world stages. Major adversaries and competitors are enhancing and exercising their military, cyber, and other capabilities, raising the risks to US and allied forces, weakening our conventional deterrence, and worsening the longstanding threat from weapons of mass destruction.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to strain governments and societies, fueling humanitarian and economic crises, political unrest, and geopolitical competition as countries, such as China and Russia, seek advantage through such avenues as “ vaccine diplomacy.” No country has been completely spared, and even when a vaccine is widely distributed globally, the economic and political aftershocks will be felt for years. Countries with high debts or that depend on oil exports, tourism, or remittances face particularly challenging recoveries, while others will turn inward or be distracted by other challenges.

Ecological degradation and a changing climate will continue to fuel disease outbreaks, threaten food and water security, and exacerbate political instability and humanitarian crises. Although much of the effect of a changing climate on US security will play out indirectly in a broader political and economic context, warmer weather can generate direct, immediate impacts — for example, through more intense storms, flooding, and permafrost melting.

This year we will see increasing potential for surges in migration by Central American populations, which are reeling from the economic fallout of the COVID- 19 pandemic and extreme weather, including multiple hurricanes in 2020 and several years of recurring droughts and storms. The scourge of illicit drugs and transnational organized crime will continue to take its toll on American lives, prosperity, and safety. Major narcotics trafficking groups have adapted to the pandemic’s challenges to maintain their deadly trade, as have other transnational criminal organizations.

Emerging and disruptive technologies, as well as the proliferation and permeation of technology in all aspects of our lives, pose unique challenges. Cyber capabilities, to illustrate, are demonstrably intertwined with threats to our infrastructure and to the foreign malign influence threats against our democracy.

ISIS, al-Qa’ida, and Iran and its militant allies continue to plot terrorist attacks against US persons and interests, including to varying degrees in the United States. Despite leadership losses, terrorist groups have shown great resiliency and are taking advantage of ungoverned areas to rebuild. Regional conflicts continue to fuel humanitarian crises, undermine stability, and threaten US persons and interests.

Some have direct implications for US security. For example, the fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria has direct bearing on US forces, while tensions between nuclear armed India and Pakistan remain a concern for the world. The iterative violence between Israel and Iran, the activity of foreign powers in Libya, and conflicts in other areas including Africa, Asia, and the Middle East the potential to escalate or spread.

Clean Tech & Global Politics

Well, that is quite a list, and I know some of you are wondering, “So what does this have to do with clean technology?” Before you invest a lot of energy creating a comment that blasts me for departing from our main mission here at CleanTechnica, allow me to say this. All the feel-good stories we do about falling battery prices, more renewable energy technology, and the latest advances in self-driving systems won’t amount to a pisshole in the snow unless we as human beings learn to get along with each other and work together to preserve our leaky little lifeboat bobbing along at the edge of the galactic sea.

The New York Times highlights these statements from this year’s report:

  • “Large segments of the global population are becoming wary of institutions and governments that they see as unwilling or unable to address their needs. People are gravitating to familiar and like-minded groups for community and security, including ethnic, religious, and cultural identities as well as groupings around interests and causes, such as environmentalism.”

  • “At the same time that populations are increasingly empowered and demanding more, governments are coming under greater pressure from new challenges and more limited resources. This widening gap portends more political volatility, erosion of democracy, and expanding roles for alternative providers of governance.”

  • “Accelerating shifts in military power, demographics, economic growth, environmental conditions, and technology, as well as hardening divisions over governance models, are likely to further ratchet up competition between China and a Western coalition led by the United States.”

  • “At the state level, the relationships between societies and their governments in every region are likely to face persistent strains and tensions because of a growing mismatch between what publics need and expect and what governments can and will deliver.”

Section headings within the report contain words like “Competitive Coexistence,” “Separate Silos,” “Tragedy and Mobilization.” One especially disturbing one is entitled “A World Adrift,” which says “the international system is directionless, chaotic, and volatile as international rules and institutions are largely ignored by major powers like China, regional players and non-state actors.”

These are not hopeful signs that we are learning to live together or that the internet — the technology we once thought would bring us all together and concentrate our collective mental powers for the benefit all of humanity — is not just a faster, more efficient way of driving wedges between us. In the final analysis, it may be what seals our doom.

Is There Any Hope?

Yes, some. One section of the Global Trends 2040 report is entitled “Renaissance of Democracies,” in which the United States and its allies are leading a world of resurgent democracies and everybody is getting happier. The New York Times suggests “Its apparent purpose is to show that people could, in principle, turn things around. But nothing in the report suggests it is likely.” When you see lunatics storming the Capitol and leaders like Matt Gaetz, Ted Cruz, John Borrasso, Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, Lindsay Graham, and Rand Paul proudly leading the charge of the anti-democratic, white supremacist lunatic fringe, it is hard to generate much optimism.

“When a large body of intelligence specialists with access to an extraordinary array of privileged information invest considerable resources into figuring out where the world is headed, and then turn on a bright, flashing red light, there is good reason to take heed,” warns the New York Times.

Maria Langan-Riekhof, director of the National Intelligence Council’s Strategic Futures Group, which contributed to the Global Trends 2040 report says, “We have the great benefit of drawing on both the broad and deep expertise that exists across the intelligence community. There are 18 intelligence agencies that we can reach out to, as well as other federal partners. We are not narrowly looking at just one issue or one domain. We’re trying to look across all those issues and asking how are they developing over time and what do they mean in aggregate.”

“The warnings are clear,” the New York Times says. “The real question is whether we — the government, global institutions, our societies — are capable of heeding them at a time when states and societies are turning inward and political discourse has become poisonous. Mathew Burrows, who edited the Global Trends report that warned of a pandemic in 2008, believes that the initiative to take the future seriously has to come from the executive branch. “You have to have a driving force to compel agencies to engage in longer-term planning,” he said. Leon Fuerth, a deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration, writes that the government needs to create mechanisms to anticipate the frequency and complexity of crises in today’s world, “to be anticipatory rather than reactionary.”

One of the most powerful forces dividing us today is the internet and the boost it gives to social media. Rather than networking millions of minds together to address the challenges that confront us all, it trivializes everything with likes and smiley faces, segregating us into smaller and smaller splinter groups that exist for no other reason than to share opinions and enforce divisions among us.

The Futility Of Military Power

The US has just now — after 20 years and $3 trillion — admitted the futility of trying to force other countries to bend to its will. One would think Korea and Vietnam would have burned that lesson indelibly into our national consciousness but apparently it’s a lesson that needs to be relearned every generation or so. We have shown we can pummel weak nations like Panama and Grenada, but when it comes to opposing Russia or China, we are prisoners of our own narrative. Perhaps it is time to explore other avenues and put some of the money we pour blindly into national defense into making the transition to a low or zero carbon society.

Once the Earth becomes too hot to sustain human life, no one will care how many nuclear tipped missiles or squadrons of specially trained commandos we had at our disposal. Such supposed indicia of an advanced society will simply be reminders of how we failed to look down the road and make intelligent plans for the future.

If humans insist on fighting each other rather than learning collaboration skills, our civilization is doomed no matter what the levelized cost of electricity is or how many factories Elon Musk builds around the world. Our salvation will be through cooperation. The odds of such cooperation taking place are poor and declining with every passing day. The issue, Tucker Carlson, is not “white replacement,” it is human extinction.

Our approach to the future suggests that many of us can’t wait for the end times. If we continue doing what we have always done, our time on Earth will soon be over. Perhaps after our planet has had a few million years to heal itself from the ravages of human habitation, a new species — smarter, wiser, and focused on collaboration rather than competition — will arise to take our place. The Earth doesn’t much care whether we survive or not. The decisions we make in the next decade or two will likely determine the fate of humanity. If you could get odds on such things in Las Vegas, few people would bet on humans figuring out how to live together in time to avoid the final existential calamity in the limited time we have available.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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