Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.


Expand Messages
  • raskrcktt
    http://www.fortune.com/fortune/technology/articles/0,15114,582584,00. html CLIMATE COLLAPSE The Pentagon s Weather Nightmare The climate could change
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 10, 2004

      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
      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?
      Scientists generally refuse to say much about that, citing a data
      deficit. But recently, renowned Department of Defense planner Andrew
      Marshall sponsored a groundbreaking effort to come to grips with the
      question. A Pentagon legend, Marshall, 82, is known as the Defense
      Department's "Yoda"—a balding, bespectacled sage whose
      pronouncements on looming risks have long had an outsized influence
      on defense policy. Since 1973 he has headed a secretive think tank
      whose role is to envision future threats to national security. The
      Department of Defense's push on ballistic-missile defense is known
      as his brainchild. Three years ago Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
      picked him to lead a sweeping review on military "transformation,"
      the shift toward nimble forces and smart weapons.
      When scientists' work on abrupt climate change popped onto his radar
      screen, Marshall tapped another eminent visionary, Peter Schwartz,
      to write a report on the national-security implications of the
      threat. Schwartz formerly headed planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group
      and has since consulted with organizations ranging from the CIA to
      DreamWorks—he helped create futuristic scenarios for Steven
      Spielberg's film Minority Report. Schwartz and co-author Doug
      Randall at the Monitor Group's Global Business Network, a scenario-
      planning think tank in Emeryville, Calif., contacted top climate
      experts and pushed them to talk about what-ifs that they usually shy
      away from—at least in public.
      The result is an unclassified report, completed late last year, that
      the Pentagon has agreed to share with FORTUNE. It doesn't pretend to
      be a forecast. Rather, it sketches a dramatic but plausible scenario
      to help planners think about coping strategies. Here is an abridged
      A total shutdown of the ocean conveyor might lead to a big chill
      like the Younger Dryas, when icebergs appeared as far south as the
      coast of Portugal. Or the conveyor might only temporarily slow down,
      potentially causing an era like the "Little Ice Age," a time of hard
      winters, violent storms, and droughts between 1300 and 1850. That
      period's weather extremes caused horrific famines, but it was mild
      compared with the Younger Dryas.
      For planning purposes, it makes sense to focus on a midrange case of
      abrupt change. A century of cold, dry, windy weather across the
      Northern Hemisphere that suddenly came on 8,200 years ago fits the
      bill—its severity fell between that of the Younger Dryas and the
      Little Ice Age. The event is thought to have been triggered by a
      conveyor collapse after a time of rising temperatures not unlike
      today's global warming. Suppose it recurred, beginning in 2010. Here
      are some of the things that might happen by 2020:
      At first the changes are easily mistaken for normal weather
      variation—allowing skeptics to dismiss them as a "blip" of little
      importance and leaving policymakers and the public paralyzed with
      uncertainty. But by 2020 there is little doubt that something
      drastic is happening. The average temperature has fallen by up to
      five degrees Fahrenheit in some regions of North America and Asia
      and up to six degrees in parts of Europe. (By comparison, the
      average temperature over the North Atlantic during the last ice age
      was ten to 15 degrees lower than it is today.) Massive droughts have
      begun in key agricultural regions. The average annual rainfall has
      dropped by nearly 30% in northern Europe, and its climate has become
      more like Siberia's.
      Violent storms are increasingly common as the conveyor becomes
      wobbly on its way to collapse. A particularly severe storm causes
      the ocean to break through levees in the Netherlands, making coastal
      cities such as the Hague unlivable. In California the delta island
      levees in the Sacramento River area are breached, disrupting the
      aqueduct system transporting water from north to south.
      Megadroughts afflict the U.S., especially in the southern states,
      along with winds that are 15% stronger on average than they are now,
      causing widespread dust storms and soil loss. The U.S. is better
      positioned to cope than most nations, however, thanks to its diverse
      growing climates, wealth, technology, and abundant resources. That
      has a downside, though: It magnifies the haves-vs.-have-nots gap and
      fosters bellicose finger-pointing at America.
      Turning inward, the U.S. effectively seeks to build a fortress
      around itself to preserve resources. Borders are strengthened to
      hold back starving immigrants from Mexico, South America, and the
      Caribbean islands—waves of boat people pose especially grim
      problems. Tension between the U.S. and Mexico rises as the U.S.
      reneges on a 1944 treaty that guarantees water flow from the
      Colorado River into Mexico. America is forced to meet its rising
      energy demand with options that are costly both economically and
      politically, including nuclear power and onerous Middle Eastern
      contracts. Yet it survives without catastrophic losses.
      Europe, hardest hit by its temperature drop, struggles to deal with
      immigrants from Scandinavia seeking warmer climes to the south.
      Southern Europe is beleaguered by refugees from hard-hit countries
      in Africa and elsewhere. But Western Europe's wealth helps buffer it
      from catastrophe.
      Australia's size and resources help it cope, as does its location—
      the conveyor shutdown mainly affects the Northern Hemisphere. Japan
      has fewer resources but is able to draw on its social cohesion to
      cope—its government is able to induce population-wide behavior
      changes to conserve resources.
      China's huge population and food demand make it particularly
      vulnerable. It is hit by increasingly unpredictable monsoon rains,
      which cause devastating floods in drought-denuded areas. Other parts
      of Asia and East Africa are similarly stressed. Much of Bangladesh
      becomes nearly uninhabitable because of a rising sea level, which
      contaminates inland water supplies. Countries whose diversity
      already produces conflict, such as India and Indonesia, are hard-
      pressed to maintain internal order while coping with the unfolding
      As the decade progresses, pressures to act become irresistible—
      history shows that whenever humans have faced a choice between
      starving or raiding, they raid. Imagine Eastern European countries,
      struggling to feed their populations, invading Russia—which is
      weakened by a population that is already in decline—for access to
      its minerals and energy supplies. Or picture Japan eyeing nearby
      Russian oil and gas reserves to power desalination plants and energy-
      intensive farming. Envision nuclear-armed Pakistan, India, and China
      skirmishing at their borders over refugees, access to shared rivers,
      and arable land. Or Spain and Portugal fighting over fishing rights—
      fisheries are disrupted around the world as water temperatures
      change, causing fish to migrate to new habitats.
      Growing tensions engender novel alliances. Canada joins fortress
      America in a North American bloc. (Alternatively, Canada may seek to
      keep its abundant hydropower for itself, straining its ties with the
      energy-hungry U.S.) North and South Korea align to create a
      technically savvy, nuclear-armed entity. Europe forms a truly
      unified bloc to curb its immigration problems and protect against
      aggressors. Russia, threatened by impoverished neighbors in dire
      straits, may join the European bloc.
      Nuclear arms proliferation is inevitable. Oil supplies are stretched
      thin as climate cooling drives up demand. Many countries seek to
      shore up their energy supplies with nuclear energy, accelerating
      nuclear proliferation. Japan, South Korea, and Germany develop
      nuclear-weapons capabilities, as do Iran, Egypt, and North Korea.
      Israel, China, India, and Pakistan also are poised to use the bomb.
      The changes relentlessly hammer the world's "carrying capacity"—the
      natural resources, social organizations, and economic networks that
      support the population. Technological progress and market forces,
      which have long helped boost Earth's carrying capacity, can do
      little to offset the crisis—it is too widespread and unfolds too
      As the planet's carrying capacity shrinks, an ancient pattern
      reemerges: the eruption of desperate, all-out wars over food, water,
      and energy supplies. As Harvard archeologist Steven LeBlanc has
      noted, wars over resources were the norm until about three centuries
      ago. When such conflicts broke out, 25% of a population's adult
      males usually died. As abrupt climate change hits home, warfare may
      again come to define human life.
      Over the past decade, data have accumulated suggesting that the
      plausibility of abrupt climate change is higher than most of the
      scientific community, and perhaps all of the political community,
      are prepared to accept. In light of such findings, we should be
      asking when abrupt change will happen, what the impacts will be, and
      how we can prepare—not whether it will really happen. In fact, the
      climate record suggests that abrupt change is inevitable at some
      point, regardless of human activity. Among other things, we should:
      • Speed research on the forces that can trigger abrupt climate
      change, how it unfolds, and how we'll know it's occurring.
      • Sponsor studies on the scenarios that might play out, including
      ecological, social, economic, and political fallout on key food-
      producing regions.
      • Identify "no regrets" strategies to ensure reliable access to food
      and water and to ensure our national security.
      • Form teams to prepare responses to possible massive migration, and
      food and water shortages.
      • Explore ways to offset abrupt cooling—today it appears easier to
      warm than to cool the climate via human activities, so there may
      be "geo-engineering" options available to prevent a catastrophic
      temperature drop.
      In sum, the risk of abrupt climate change remains uncertain, and it
      is quite possibly small. But given its dire consequences, it should
      be elevated beyond a scientific debate. Action now matters, because
      we may be able to reduce its likelihood of happening, and we can
      certainly be better prepared if it does. It is time to recognize it
      as a national security concern.
      The Pentagon's reaction to this sobering report isn't known—in
      keeping with his reputation for reticence, Andy Marshall declined to
      be interviewed. But the fact that he's concerned may signal a sea
      change in the debate about global warming. At least some federal
      thought leaders may be starting to perceive climate change less as a
      political annoyance and more as an issue demanding action.
      If so, the case for acting now to address climate change, long a
      hard sell in Washington, may be gaining influential support, if only
      behind the scenes. Policymakers may even be emboldened to take steps
      such as tightening fuel-economy standards for new passenger
      vehicles, a measure that would simultaneously lower emissions of
      greenhouse gases, reduce America's perilous reliance on OPEC oil,
      cut its trade deficit, and put money in consumers' pockets. Oh, yes—
      and give the Pentagon's fretful Yoda a little less to worry about.
      Feedback: dstipp@...
      From the Feb. 9, 2004 Issue
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.