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Running Hot and Cold
A new Pentagon report suggests that, when it comes to global warming, the president doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the
ozone

By William Kanapaux

The 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 decade.

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, to collapse.

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.

“With 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 constraints.”

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.”

“Optimists 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 energy.

“It 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 hits?”

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 conflict.”

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 cash.

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 global warming.

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 around.

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.


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