Climate Change Alert
Patrick Doherty spent a decade in the field of international conflict resolution, working in the Middle East, Africa, Southeastern Europe and the Caucasus.
First Paul O�Neill, now Andrew Marshall. Marshall has just blown the lid off another Bush administration can of worms�namely, its unwillingness to acknowledge and address the massive threat posed by global climate change.
Marshall is the founding director of the Pentagon�s Office of Net Assessment, a quiet but powerful think tank within the Pentagon. In 2001, Marshall was tapped by George W. Bush to lead the Pentagon�s military review that largely defined the scope of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld�s �transformation� agenda. Marshall, whose ONA has served every president since Nixon, introduced the term "revolution in military affairs."
In an article published Jan. 26 in Fortune magazine, Marshall released the findings of an unclassified report�written by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall of the Global Business Network�entitled "An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security."
Global Warming Happens
Until now, the debate over climate change in the United States has focused on whether global warming exists and if so, whether it can be attributed to human activity. In their report, Schwartz and Randall close that debate and raise the stakes. They write that "the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] documents the threat of gradual climate change," deftly allowing Marshall to implicitly acknowledge that the IPCC findings have sufficiently established what the report calls "the scientifically proven link between CO2 and climate change" as well as the international consensus around climate change itself. But, while fully recognizing the reality of global warming, the report argues that the gradualist view "may be a dangerous act of self-deception." The real threat to national security is from global warming triggering an "abrupt climate change event."
Abrupt climate change is an increasingly probable and, the authors show, a historically precedented event in which global atmospheric warming triggers a rapid modification in global oceanic patterns. The report focuses on the threat receiving the most concern from researchers, which occurs when atmospheric warming releases enough fresh water into the North Atlantic to shut down the "thermohaline conveyor"�currents including the Gulf Stream�that move warm water north from the tropics. That, in turn would send much of the Northern Hemisphere into a deep freeze, disrupting energy, agriculture and fresh water supplies around the world.
This is no abstract hypothetical scenario. The Fortune article cites a presentation made by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute director Robert Gagosian who, at last year's World Economic Forum at Davos, "urged policymakers to consider the implications of possible abrupt climate change within two decades."
Thankfully, Marshall did just that. The ONA-commissioned report, using the well-established scenario-planning techniques developed at Shell's planning unit, generated a plausible future scenario in which the thermohaline conveyor collapses in 2010. What follows that oceanic shut-down sounds apocalyptic and yet the authors contend, is quite plausible.
By 2020, average rainfall in Europe drops 30 percent; "megadroughts" affect Southern China and Northern Europe; massive boatlifts of people from the Caribbean attempt to enter the United States and Mexico; China is unable to feed its population due to the combination of droughts and violent monsoons and flooding; Eastern European countries invade a weakened Russia to seek minerals and energy; nuclear India, Pakistan, and China go to war over water, land, and refugees. In all 400 million people could be forced to migrate from uninhabitable regions. In the United States, the East Coast population areas experience severe shortages of freshwater; flooding creates an inland sea in California's Central Valley and disrupts freshwater supplies for Southern California; and energy disruptions are commonplace due to storms, ice and conflict. The authors make the point clear: this is not a prediction, this is a plausible scenario given what we know now.
While the content of this release raises the alarm, Marshall is sending multiple messages. The timing of the Fortune article, for instance. For a man of Marshall's long legacy of discretion to directly challenge the current administration's line on global warming at the beginning of a presidential election year speaks volumes. That he chose to do so by releasing a report by respected business consultants in Fortune magazine seems to say he wants the business world, Bush's most important constituency, to understand clearly that the status quo is untenable.
This extraordinary act by a senior Defense Department official implies high-level recognition that the Bush administration's resistance to the near global consensus on climate change�a consensus that includes the vast majority of the scientific community, many corporations including General Motors, Alcoa, IBM, DuPont, Johnson & Johnson, and all the remaining governments of the OECD�is a threat to national security itself. Indeed, last month in the journal Science, the United Kingdom's Chief Scientific Advisor declared that "climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today�more serious even than the threat of terrorism." Perhaps inoculating itself from future criticism the report states, "Many scientists would regard this scenario as extreme. . . But history tells us that sometimes the extreme cases do occur, there is evidence that it might be [occurring] and it is DOD's job to consider such scenarios."
And that resistance has been staunch. In the battle over climate change, according to a report from the group Environment2004, the Bush administration has both misrepresented the science and misled the public. According to The New York Times, the Bush administration acted to distort and omit EPA findings on global warming. The group notes that the administration has dismissed the findings of the International Panel on Climate Change set up by the first President Bush and the findings of a panel of the National Academy of Sciences that Bush himself requested. They document how administration has tried to mislead the public by substituting the absolute indicator of total emissions with emissions per unit of GDP, which can go down while total U.S. emissions continue to rise�and then asking emitters (unsuccessfully) to voluntarily commit to reducing emission intensity. And they highlight how the administration has stalled the debate by calling for a research agenda which The New York Times described as a "redundant examination of issues that had largely been settled, bereft of vision, executable goals and timetables�in short, little more than a cover-up for inaction."
It's The Emissions, Stupid
Ultimately, "Abrupt Climate Change" is a report for the Department of Defense. But not entirely. While DoD is primarily concerned with predicting the arrival of and managing the security nightmare caused by abrupt climate change, the report also calls for prevention measures which can only happen through a transformation of the U.S. economy.
"It's important to understand human impacts on the environment�both what's done to accelerate and decelerate (or perhaps even reverse) the tendency toward climate change. Alternative fuels, greenhouse gas emission controls and conservation efforts are worthwhile endeavors."
Only a month ago, Democrats' best chances in the 2004 general elections relied heavily on the undesirable combination of continued failure in Iraq and sustained economic underperformance. That began to change two weeks ago, when the Institute for America's Future brought together coalition of labor and environmental groups called the Apollo Alliance and issued a report describing the core of a new economic engine based on shifting America from suburban sprawl and fossil fuels towards smart growth and renewable energy. (See Democrats' Moon Shot )
Democrats now have a powerful opportunity to reframe the 2004 elections and focus their agenda around an integrated agenda of triage and transformation. Terrorism is still a real threat and Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine and HIV/AIDS must be stabilized and resolved. The larger threat of abrupt climate change, however, means we must comprehensively transform our emissions-ridden economy. Apollo is a good start, but now Marshall's warnings make it clear that America has no time to waste on low emissions reduction targets and wasteful subsidies, much less Bush's stalling and deception. Global emissions markets are the best answer. Research has shown that emissions trading is the leading pathway to eliminating emissions, energy independence and reducing agricultural subsidies that impoverish the developing world-all of which will reduce conditions that fuel terrorism and the medium-term threat of abrupt climate change while building a booming new economic engine for America and the world.
Marshall's sense of patriotic responsibility may just save the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world and usher in a new era of prosperity, sustainability and peace�but only if Democrats reframe the 2004 elections starting now.
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Published: Feb 02 2004
International Panel on Climate Change Summary for Policy Makers
Fortune.com "Climate Collapse: the Pentagon�s Weather Nightmare�
Environment 2004: Bush�s Record on Global Warming
The Pentagon's Weather Nightmare
The climate could change radically, and fast. That would be the mother of all national security issues.
By David Stipp
Global warming may be bad news for future generations, but let's face it, most of us spend as little time worrying about it as we did about al Qaeda before 9/11. Like the terrorists, though, the seemingly remote climate risk may hit home sooner and harder than we ever imagined. In fact, the prospect has become so real that the Pentagon's strategic planners are grappling with it.
The threat that has riveted their attention is this: Global warming, rather than causing gradual, centuries-spanning change, may be pushing the climate to a tipping point. Growing evidence suggests the ocean-atmosphere system that controls the world's climate can lurch from one state to another in less than a decade�like a canoe that's gradually tilted until suddenly it flips over. Scientists don't know how close the system is to a critical threshold. But abrupt climate change may well occur in the not-too-distant future. If it does, the need to rapidly adapt may overwhelm many societies�thereby upsetting the geopolitical balance of power.
Though triggered by warming, such change would probably cause cooling in the Northern Hemisphere, leading to longer, harsher winters in much of the U.S. and Europe. Worse, it would cause massive droughts, turning farmland to dust bowls and forests to ashes. Picture last fall's California wildfires as a regular thing. Or imagine similar disasters destabilizing nuclear powers such as Pakistan or Russia�it's easy to see why the Pentagon has become interested in abrupt climate change.
Climate researchers began getting seriously concerned about it a decade ago, after studying temperature indicators embedded in ancient layers of Arctic ice. The data show that a number of dramatic shifts in average temperature took place in the past with shocking speed�in some cases, just a few years.
The case for angst was buttressed by a theory regarded as the most likely explanation for the abrupt changes. The eastern U.S. and northern Europe, it seems, are warmed by a huge Atlantic Ocean current that flows north from the tropics�that's why Britain, at Labrador's latitude, is relatively temperate. Pumping out warm, moist air, this "great conveyor" current gets cooler and denser as it moves north. That causes the current to sink in the North Atlantic, where it heads south again in the ocean depths. The sinking process draws more water from the south, keeping the roughly circular current on the go.
But when the climate warms, according to the theory, fresh water from melting Arctic glaciers flows into the North Atlantic, lowering the current's salinity�and its density and tendency to sink. A warmer climate also increases rainfall and runoff into the current, further lowering its saltiness. As a result, the conveyor loses its main motive force and can rapidly collapse, turning off the huge heat pump and altering the climate over much of the Northern Hemisphere.
Scientists aren't sure what caused the warming that triggered such collapses in the remote past. (Clearly it wasn't humans and their factories.) But the data from Arctic ice and other sources suggest the atmospheric changes that preceded earlier collapses were dismayingly similar to today's global warming. As the Ice Age began drawing to a close about 13,000 years ago, for example, temperatures in Greenland rose to levels near those of recent decades. Then they abruptly plunged as the conveyor apparently shut down, ushering in the "Younger Dryas" period, a 1,300-year reversion to ice-age conditions. (A dryas is an Arctic flower that flourished in Europe at the time.)
Though Mother Nature caused past abrupt climate changes, the one that may be shaping up today probably has more to do with us. In 2001 an international panel of climate experts concluded that there is increasingly strong evidence that most of the global warming observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities�mainly the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which release heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Indicators of the warming include shrinking Arctic ice, melting alpine glaciers, and markedly earlier springs at northerly latitudes. A few years ago such changes seemed signs of possible trouble for our kids or grandkids. Today they seem portents of a cataclysm that may not conveniently wait until we're history.
Accordingly, the spotlight in climate research is shifting from gradual to rapid change. In 2002 the National Academy of Sciences issued a report concluding that human activities could trigger abrupt change. Last year the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, included a session at which Robert Gagosian, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, urged policymakers to consider the implications of possible abrupt climate change within two decades.
Such jeremiads are beginning to reverberate more widely. Billionaire Gary Comer, founder of Lands' End, has adopted abrupt climate change as a philanthropic cause. Hollywood has also discovered the issue�next summer 20th Century Fox is expected to release The Day After Tomorrow, a big-budget disaster movie starring Dennis Quaid as a scientist trying to save the world from an ice age precipitated by global warming.
Fox's flick will doubtless be apocalyptically edifying. But what would abrupt climate change really be like?
From the Feb. 9, 2004 Issue
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