Hot and Cold
A new Pentagon report suggests that, when it comes to global
warming, the president doesnt know his ass from a hole
unrelenting cold of winter has finally given way to a near-balmy
meltdown. But what if global warming means our January weather
lasts until May? Research over the last several years has
suggested that global warming could trigger a new ice age,
perhaps dropping the temperature 5 to 10 degrees within a
It’s happened twice in the last 13,000 years. And according
to a report commissioned by the Pentagon, there’s the possibility
it could happen again. Soon. Like, by 2010. (The report, “An
Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United
States National Security” can be found at the Global Business
Network’s Web site, www.gbn.com.)
The report takes a worst-case scenario for global warming
and imagines its impact. Greenland’s melting ice sheets and
an increase in fresh-water runoff from torrential rains flood
the North Atlantic Ocean with fresh water. This causes the
thermohaline circulation system, which includes the Gulf Stream,
No more warm water flowing along North America’s eastern seaboard
to Great Britain. Europe begins to look a lot like Siberia.
The northeastern United States looks like it did in January,
but for a whole lot longer. Meanwhile, other parts of the
globe turn hot and dry. Or endure torrential rainfalls. Or
a mix of both. Storms intensify.
inadequate preparation,” the report says, “the result could
be a significant drop in the human-carrying capacity of the
Earth’s environment.” Floods, droughts, famine, energy shortages
and mass migrations of people from distressed regions of the
globe could “potentially de-stabilize the geo-political environment,
leading to skirmishes, battles and even war due to resource
In other words, global warming represents a potential threat
to U.S. national security. The message is a direct contradiction
to that of the current occupants of the White House, who,
when it comes to global warming, have taken a page from George
Sr.’s campaign songbook: “Don’t worry, be happy.”
assert that the benefits from technological innovation will
be able to outpace the negative effects of climate change,”
the report says. But this line of thinking may represent a
“dangerous act of self-deception” as weather-related disasters
grow in number, having a direct and significant impact on
food supply, living conditions and access to clean water and
has been technological progress that has increased carrying
capacity over time,” the report continues. “Over centuries
we have learned how to produce more food, energy and access
more water. But will the potential of new technologies be
sufficient when a crisis like the one outlined in this scenario
The report’s answer, in a nutshell, is no. War, famine and
disease would fix the problem. Death would re-balance the
planet’s ability to support human life.
Right-wing critics have scoffed at the attention the report
has generated ever since its authors, presumably finding little
response from the White House, gave a copy to Fortune
magazine, which published a story in the Feb. 9 issue under
the headline “The Pentagon’s Weather Nightmare.” Since then,
major papers have been sluggish in their coverage, but left-leaning
publications and environmental groups have embraced it as
reason to sound the doomsday alarm.
The critics have a point. The report doesn’t predict these
cataclysmic events. It simply offers a dire what-if scenario.
And that scenario is extreme, the authors acknowledge. Leading
climate-change scientists say that the events described in
the report are more likely to occur in a few regions, rather
than on a planetary scale, and that the magnitude of change
could be considerably smaller than the 5- to 10-degree drop
used in the report.
To be sure, more scientists are concerned about gradual warming
and ways to mitigate the long-term impact, even as most people
get lulled into a sense of complacency. The March 2004 issue
of Scientific American carries an article by James
Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies,
suggesting that small forces, when maintained long enough,
can cause major changes to climate.
In “Defusing the Global Warming Time Bomb,” Hansen notes that
because the oceans have such large capacity to absorb heat,
it takes about a century for the planet to achieve a new balance
at a higher temperature. In the meantime, humans are left
with the impression that not much is changing, when in fact
little time remains for halting or reversing the growth in
air pollutants and carbon-dioxide emissions.
Sea-level changes, in particular, are one of his primary concerns.
One need only look south to Manhattan to imagine the impact
of a modest one-meter rise in sea level.
But the Pentagon report is unique in at least two important
aspects. The first is that it comes from the Pentagon. The
second is that its authors, Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall,
aren’t typical of the scientists who have been warning about
global warming for more than a decade. Hansen, for instance,
first testified before congressional committees in the 1980s.
Schwartz heads up the Global Business Network (GBN), a scenario-planning
firm that looks at the impact of technological, social, political,
economic, and environmental change on the business environment.
He’s the former head of scenario planning at the oil company
Royal Dutch/Shell in London and currently invests in two companies
developing hydrogen power technologies. Randall is a senior
practitioner at GBN and a former senior research fellow at
Wharton, one of the nation’s top business schools.
The two fall squarely into the hydrogen camp. An article they
co-wrote in the April 2003 issue of Wired magazine
declares “How Hydrogen Can Save America.”
In that piece, Schwartz and Randall state that “the cost of
oil dependence has never been so clear. What had long been
largely an environmental issue has suddenly become a deadly
serious strategic concern. Oil is an indulgence we can no
longer afford, not just because it will run out or turn the
planet into a sauna, but because it inexorably leads to global
They advocate achieving energy independence through “an Apollo-scale
effort” to develop hydrogen technology. “We put a man on the
moon in a decade; we can achieve energy independence just
as fast,” they write.
Strong words from two forward-looking businessmen.
Granted, Schwarz and Randall have invested in hydrogen technology,
meaning that they have a stake in the outcome and as a result,
hardly qualify as objective analysts. Viewed another way,
though, they’ve simply backed up their ideas with cold, hard
And that perhaps is the most important aspect of the Pentagon
report. For years now, the Bush administration has spent a
great deal of energy (pardon the pun) casting doubt on the
science behind conclusions that human activity is causing
Now the naysayers are being attacked on two new fronts as
business and military interests enter the debate.
Even in the worst case, the United States would fare pretty
well, with the resources and technology necessary to respond
to the crisis, the Pentagon report said. But that would be
relative to the rest of the world. A large portion of our
resources would go toward feeding Americans, protecting interests
abroad and holding back a massive flood of refugees from other
parts of the globe. There would be plenty of crisis to go
If anything, the report makes clear that the rules governing
the planet are far greater than any technological response
that we puny inhabitants can muster. We need the earth, as
we know it, far more than it needs us. And that means the
challenge of global warming must be met head-on right now.