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Climate change threatens Canadian security, prosperity, warns stark spy agency brief

Canada’s spy service warns that climate change poses a profound, ongoing threat to national security and prosperity, including the possible loss of parts of British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces to rising sea levels.

A newly released analysis by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) also foresees an increase in ideologically motivated violent extremism from people who want to speed up climate change solutions and those more interested in preserving their current way of life.

The brief was prepared in April 2021 but only recently disclosed to The Canadian Press in response to an Access to Information request filed in October of that year.

CSIS spells out several concerns presented by global warming, ranging from looming dangers to Arctic, coastal and border security to serious pressures on food and water supplies.

The spy service says its preliminary examination determines that climate change “presents a complex, long-term threat to Canada’s safety, security and prosperity outcomes.”

“There will be no single moment where this threat will crystallize and reveal itself, for it is already underway and will incrementally build across decades to come.”

Competition in Arctic likely to intensify

A senior CSIS official flagged the service’s interest in tracking the fallout from climate shifts at a security conference in November 2021, saying the agency must continue to anticipate “the next threat” in order to support other government players.

“It’s not surprising that security agencies are starting to pay more attention to this because clearly climate change is starting to bite,” said Simon Dalby, a professor emeritus at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies climate effects, environmental security and geopolitics.

The CSIS brief is a more sophisticated framing of climate change as a security issue “than we see in most other federal government policies and documents,” said Will Greaves, a political scientist at the University of Victoria.

“It’s refreshing to see it coming from such a pointy security organ of the Canadian state.”

A man rides a snowmobile over icy terrain.
A Canadian part-time military volunteer drives over the frozen sea past an abandoned landing craft off Cornwallis Island, Nunavut on April 9, 2006. CSIS says climate change could increase competition in the Arctic. (David Ljunggren/Reuters)

The brief says the Arctic’s receding ice coverage will allow for routine navigation of the Northwest Passage and extraction of oil and mineral deposits in the region might become more economically viable.

“Great power competition for Arctic access, influence and control will likely intensify. There will be an escalating risk from significant Russian military activity and a growing China presence in this vital region.”

Rising waters could cause irretrievable loss of infrastructure and even whole communities along coastlines, CSIS warns. “For example, modelling shows the potential loss of significant parts of British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces to rising sea levels and flooding.”

Taking steps to lessen the severity of flood and weather risks may be impractical, and buying insurance or rebuilding after a calamity will simply be too expensive in some cases, the brief says.

Variety of developing threats

Anticipating such problems by making bridges and other infrastructure more robust is preferable to responding after a catastrophic event, Dalby said in an interview.

There is a role for the state in ensuring essential services such as communication and transportation networks continue to function, but it’s not always clear who should be acting, he added. “Is this a security issue? Or is it something that is better dealt with by Transport Canada and Environment Canada or some other agencies?”

CSIS also anticipates higher risk of animal-borne diseases, loss of arable land and shrinking freshwater resources.

A Canadian Security Intelligence Service sign in pictured on a sunny day.
Lack of arable land, competition over freshwater and the possibility of more frequent and dangerous animal-borne disease competition are all possible threats arising from climate change, CSIS says. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Human migration might grow to unprecedented volume due to newly uninhabitable territory, extreme weather events, drought and food shortages, and human conflict zones, CSIS says.

“Canada will likely be seen as a desirable place for future immigration flows, not only due to its stable economy and fundamental rights and freedoms, but also its significant freshwater and agricultural endowments and vast territory that offer options for mass relocation.”

The shift toward renewable or more efficient energy sources will have national economic implications against a broader backdrop of global dynamics, CSIS predicts.

“As climate change becomes an increasingly important geopolitical and policy issue, the range of polarizing narratives regarding both government solutions and the pace of their implementation is dramatically increasing,” the brief says.

In turn, that could fuel the potential for ideologically motivated extremist activity “across the traditional left-right ideological spectrum.”

Greaves agrees with the assessment, saying CSIS might be underplaying “the depths of that social cleavage in Canada.”

In the current highly polarized partisan political context, that gap is likely to grow, with groups on both sides of the spectrum “embracing either disruptive or potentially violent tactics,” he said.

Overall, climate change will undermine global critical infrastructure, threaten health and safety, create new scarcity and spark global competition, and might open the door to regional or international conflicts, the CSIS brief says.

“Put simply, climate change compounds all other known human security issues and serves as an accelerant towards negative security outcomes. No country will be immune from climate change or associated risks.”

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