Climate change could be avenue for adversaries to harm Canada, spy service warns

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Published December 16, 2023 at 10:23 am

Canada’s spy service warns that dramatic shifts caused by climate change and the ensuing fractious upheaval around the world could leave Canada vulnerable, imperilling its food and water supplies, energy security and Arctic sovereignty.

Global warming will threaten security as countries and other actors seek to either bolster their economic positions or exploit their adversaries’ climate change-related weaknesses, says a newly released Canadian Security Intelligence Service analysis.

“Climate change will almost certainly heighten competition between nations, contribute to instability, strain capabilities and become the source of international tensions,” the CSIS analysis says.

The Canadian Press used the Access to Information Act to obtain the assessment and other intelligence analyses produced this year that flag not only the threats from a changing climate but the resulting disruptions as players jockey for advantage.

The documents spell out an array of risks, ranging from foreign interference in Canada’s move to a low-carbon economy to the rise of “electric terrorism” in the form of extremist violence linked to the green energy transition and even attempts to manipulate the climate through geoengineering.

Different countries are at different levels of risk, said Tom Deligiannis, a lecturer in the department of global studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“So those countries that have a lot of capacity, power resources and the willingness to use economic or other forms of coercion might seek to take advantage of the changing climate context,” he said in an interview.

“I don’t think it’s a particularly big risk for Canada. I think it’s much more a worry for small, more vulnerable developing states.”

A stark 2021 CSIS report, released earlier this year, warned that climate change poses a profound, ongoing threat to national security and prosperity. The newly obtained analysis fleshes out the service’s concerns, assessing how foreign actions might adversely affect Canada.

CSIS divides countries, non-state actors and individuals into four categories: leaders, spoilers, enablers and free riders.

Leaders guide global efforts at fighting climate change, often at their own expense, by seeking to reduce fossil fuel consumption, according to the spy service. Spoilers try to undermine leaders’ efforts, protecting their own interests and even engaging in malicious activity.

Enablers, meanwhile, support the efforts of leaders, spoilers or both to achieve their own goals, while free riders simply benefit from the consequences of others’ activity.

“Hostile actors could target certain sectors to leverage climate change, thereby causing additional, disproportionate harm to Canada,” the CSIS analysis says.

For instance, Canadian food output could decline due to changes in weather patterns, CSIS says. At the same time, some countries might try to acquire large amounts of agricultural land and fertilizer to secure their own food supplies at the expense of Canada and its allies.

Spoilers may seek to steal agricultural research and technologies that help grow drought-resistant crops, the analysis says. In addition, water sources could become less reliable for crops or municipal drinking supplies.

Canada’s energy security could be undermined if foreign sources become unreliable as fossil fuel producers seek to secure their markets, CSIS warns.

“Canada could encounter difficulty sourcing foreign components for solar and wind power that are not produced domestically.”

Canada might also face competition with spoilers over clean energy technologies and needed critical minerals, while spoilers and enablers could target Canadian new energy technology research “for their benefit, at Canada’s expense.”

In Canada’s North, permafrost thaw will harm Arctic infrastructure, making the region less habitable, CSIS predicts. In turn, other countries could challenge Canada’s Arctic sovereignty as melting sea ice opens the region to more maritime travel.

There could also be greater competition for newly accessible natural resources in the North, the analysis says.

“These vulnerable sectors describe only some of the challenges that Canada and its allies will encounter as the climate changes.”

It would be prudent for the federal government to ponder and plan for such possibilities, suggested Deligiannis. “I think it’s useful for them to have an appreciation of some of these very complicated, interactive risks that climate change is having for Canada.”

A May analytical brief by CSIS says China wants to be seen as a climate leader, embracing renewable energy, phasing out polluting sources and protecting the environment at its own expense.

However, the spy service says, China’s actions make it a spoiler, harming climate for its own gain on a significant, globally disruptive scale.

China prioritizes carbon energy despite climate change commitments it has made, and its commanding renewable energy supply chains threaten Canadian and allied energy transition, CSIS adds.

China dominates the renewable energy sector, from reserves of key minerals to the manufacture of solar cells and batteries, “yet most renewables are manufactured with heavily polluting energy sources and are bound for foreign markets.”

CSIS adds that China “has weaponized supply chains in the past,” and Canada is already reliant upon its renewable energy technology.

The mining of critical minerals needed for green energy sources is seen as a way of helping save the planet, said Gabrielle Daoust, an assistant professor at the University of Northern British Columbia.

However, she said in an interview, such projects pose difficult political and moral questions, given that Indigenous and racialized communities affected by mining for crucial minerals are ones “already most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and who are disproportionately affected by the expansion of extractive development as part of the response to climate change.”

A March intelligence brief from the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre cites electric terrorism — extremist violence linked to the extraction of critical minerals — as an emerging threat.

The centre, which includes members from across the intelligence community, says intensified global competition to control reserves of lithium and cobalt — two non-renewable critical minerals essential to powering green energy — is likely to spur such dangers.

“Canada will not be immune to extremist violence linked to green energy transition,” the centre’s brief says.

“Globally, certain countries, regions and industries stand to gain from transition, while others will see their livelihoods threatened, revenues decline and economies contract. Disparities are likely to manifest as increased instances of violence.”

International competition for lithium and cobalt reserves could provoke “insurgency or cross-border conflicts” affecting Canadian interests abroad, particularly where Canadian companies are competitive in international markets, the centre says.

Canada has its own cobalt reserves and production, as well as less developed lithium reserves, the brief notes.

The centre foresees the potential for extremist violence by opponents of fossil fuel projects and those who resist the green energy transition.

Deligiannis and Daoust expressed concern about painting opponents of oil and gas pipelines as extremists, noting environmental activists are already wary of targeting and surveillance by state security agencies.

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