of the World as We
Know It - Pentagon Style
Facing A World Of Fire
countries, massive famine, shattered economies -- even nuclear war-- as a
result of climate change. More doom and gloom from eco-radicals? Nope,
this is the Pentagon speaking By Stephen Hume Vancouver Sun 2-29-4
in Australia was brutal. Scorching temperatures approached 50 degrees and
upwards of 35 deaths were blamed on the heat. Some places recorded the
lowest rainfall in the country's history.
Under they were calling it The Big Dry, a record-breaking drought that
began in 2002 and slapped wool production back to what it was 55 years
ago, squeezed agricultural output by 20 per cent and pushed its desiccated
fingers into the very marrow of that nation's economy.
this week when The Big Dry finally broke, Australia went from fire to
flood in the blink of an eye. Newspapers reported that the equivalent of
600,000 swimming pools of rain had been dumped on the parched landscape in
less than a day.
sudden reversal of fortunes played eerily like the trailer for a
theoretical horror show being contemplated by -- of all people -- starchy
generals in the air-conditioned offices of the Pentagon.
the orders of Andrew Marshall, one of the U.S. government's most
influential defence advisers (he was the man responsible for a sweeping
strategic review of the military under top hawk Defence Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld), two respected senior consultants prepared a study of the
threat to national security posed by climate change.
that's climate change, not rogue states or the axis of evil.
the Unthinkable starts by hypothesizing an abrupt climate change when
oceanic heat transfer mechanisms are disrupted by global warming.
follows is a hair-raising sequence of drowned or frozen countries, famine,
vast population movements, shattered economies and wars -- possibly
nuclear wars -- among survivors scrabbling for control of dwindling food
and water resources.
while the study deliberately avoids the most optimistic outcomes --
presumably for shock value in an administration that has been
sleep-walking towards the precipice -- it doesn't present the worst case,
the report wasn't classified, it wasn't ballyhooed. Now a recent flurry of
mainstream media interest has some wondering if the study isn't a bit
more prescient than those who commissioned it are now letting on.
this wild oscillation in Aussie weather echoes similar patterns in
Europe and North America where drought and a ferocious summer of forest fires
were also followed by torrential rains.
summer's heat wave in Europe is thought to have killed almost 30,000
people, more than 10 times the number who died at the World Trade Center,
perhaps even more than death toll for the war in Iraq. Indeed, the German
insurance company Munich Re reports a seven-fold increase in world-wide
deaths from natural disasters in 2003.
British Columbians who watched in horrified awe as last year's firestorms
vapourized whole residential districts and turned tens of thousands into environmental
refugees were not alone. In recent years, similar fires have raged
through Florida, California, Australia, Alberta and Southeast Asia.
the southeastern United States, 2003 was the wettest year ever recorded.
The Midwest set a record for tornadoes. New Mexico posted the hottest year
in history, yet this month the governor there was forced to declare a
state of emergency because of blizzard conditions.
at mid-week, Canada's Maritimes were still digging out from a monster dump
of snow that forced two provinces to declare emergencies.
argue that these events are merely dramatic coincidences which receive
more emphasis than they should because our communications technologies can
flash images around the world at the speed of light.
remain convinced that climate change is a bogeyman advanced by
environmentalists to further their political agenda, further promoted by a
mass media with no conscience and an appetite for sensation.
climate skeptics often argue that the economic costs of attempting to
mitigate the effects of global warming by curbing greenhouse gas emissions
are simply too onerous to contemplate.
argue that the cost of failing to act now might be even more exorbitant.
Munich Re reports that total insured losses in 2003 jumped 40 per cent
over 2002, for a total of $16 billion US in payouts. All economic losses
attributed to natural disasters totalled $65 billion US.
things could get a lot worse. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
for example, estimates that the total cost of dealing with inundation and
erosion caused by a rise in sea level could top $880 billion for that
country alone. It is, says the EPA, a conservative estimate.
and ideological debate aside, however, a clear consensus has emerged among
leading scientists. The U.S. National Research Council says global warming
is underway and could trigger climate changes so sudden that people,
ecosystems and nation states may not be able to cope.
June the U.S. National Academy of Sciences told Congress that global
warming is a real problem and getting worse. The Union of Concerned
Scientists says the same thing. So does British Petroleum.
in Canada, the University of Victoria's world-class climate modeller
Andrew Weaver told the Victoria Times Colonist there's no doubt that
climate change is underway. "It's real, it's here, it ain't going
the south. at the National Center of Atmospheric Research in Colorado,
renowned climatologist Jerry Mahlman told the New York Times last December
that the science supporting climate projections is strong.
who deny there's a real problem or who claim that warming is just a
natural cycle, Mahlman compares to the confusionists who kept trying to
cast doubt on the science linking cancer to smoking.
the consensus among serious climatologists is that climate change is here
and extreme weather events increasingly look less like coincidence and
more like pieces in a complicated jigsaw puzzle from which we can only
just begin to assemble a troubling picture of the future.
Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, part of the National
Environmental Satellite Data and Information Services of the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told a U.S. senate committee in
2001 that the frequency of prolonged droughts and extreme precipitation
events was most likely caused by global warming.
told the senators to expect more heavy weather and significant changes in
ocean conditions, including a sea level rise of up to a metre. Perhaps
most important, he warned that the world is entering a period of growing
as the rate and magnitude of climate change increases," he said, "the
risk of exceeding a safe level of greenhouse gases also increases. This
includes the possibility of surprises. As greenhouse gases continue to
increase there is an ever increasing, but still very small, chance that
the climate could respond in an unpredictable fashion."
are these extreme events a chimera? Or are they real portents of a world
tipping from a long equilibrium in which climatic stability nurtured the rise
of civilization? Is this extreme weather a signal that we are heading into
a phase of climate instability which has the potential to threaten
civilization's ability to endure?
Pentagon study not only assumes that climate change is upon us but
sketches a potentially nightmarish scenario in which planetary warming
triggers a sudden cooling in the northern hemisphere.
authors are not exactly eco-radicals. Peter Schwartz is a Central
Intelligence Agency consultant and former head of planning at Royal
Dutch/Shell Group. Doug Randall is from the California-based Global
clearly constructed a disturbing scenario in an effort to move the
discussion out of the rarefied air of the scholarly journals and onto the
boardroom tables of an administration inclined to pooh-pooh the whole
notion of climate change as an issue.
Press later reported the authors acknowledge that their scenario is a
dramatization and not intended to be a scientific prediction. They even
concede that some of the experts consulted felt it expressed an extreme point
the scenario was patterned on actual perturbations in climate that are
believed to have happened 8,200 and 700 years ago. What's happened twice
may happen a third time. For that reason alone, climate change deserves to
be moved to a much more prominent position on the planning agenda.
Pentagon report warns that, based on the past evidence, Western Europe, an
agricultural breadbasket that now feeds about 450 million people, is at
risk of rapidly finding itself adjusting to a climate much closer to that of
Siberia or Canada's sub-Arctic. Yet this hypothesis is not quite so new as
some media suggest.
told the Senate committee in 2001 that among the possibilities to be
considered were substantial increases in hurricane activity, melting of
the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and a concomitant sea level
said changes in the North Atlantic circulation patterns that now
distribute heat could trigger large regional climate anomalies.
of the best models of what he's described are from the past. About 12,700
years ago, as the last Ice Age ended, there was an abrupt climate change.
Temperatures in the North Atlantic region suddenly fell by an average of
five degrees. The cold spell lasted 1,300 years, not long in geological
time but about 16 of our lifetimes.
suspect that as fresh water from melting ice poured into the North
Atlantic, it reduced the salt levels in the sea, disrupting the huge, slow
current known as the Ocean Conveyor.
mechanism is driven by the tendency of cold, dense, salty water to sink
into the deeps. As it sinks, it draws in warm, salty water from the
southern oceans -- the Gulf Stream, for example -- which surrenders heat
to the atmosphere. Prevailing winds carry that warm, moist air across
Europe's land mass, bringing rain and moderating winter temperatures.
the North Atlantic becomes less salty because of a flood of fresh water from
melting ice and increased precipitation, scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institution theorize that it would lose its density, cease to sink and the
Ocean Conveyor could slow or even stop completely.
scientific team comprised of Woods Hole research specialist Ruth Curry,
Bob Dickson of the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture
Science in the United Kingdom and Igor Yashayaev of the Bedford Institute
of Oceanography in Dartmouth, N.S., reported apparent precursors to just
such an event in the science journal Nature in 2002.
found that over the past 40 years, water has steadily been getting less
salty in the same North Atlantic regions where cold, salty water now
sinks. The concern is that if too much fresh water enters these regions,
reducing the density, the Ocean Conveyor could abruptly stop. Winters in
western Europe would promptly take on much greater severity --
England with winters like Labrador, for example.
fast is abruptly? Studies of fossil evidence, ice cores and computer
models suggest it could happen over a period as short as two decades -- or
less -- rapidly establishing dramatically altered climate patterns.
is the prospect of such developments that lends weight to Britain's top scientist,
Sir David King, who warned Canadians last November that global warming is
a far greater threat than global terrorism.
told the National Research Council in Ottawa that the phenomenon, which he
linked directly to the burning of fossil fuels and the increased
production of greenhouse gases, "means a massive economic and
remarks echoed those by Robert Gagosian, head of the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution, who earlier last year told the World Economic
Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that "worrisome" data gathered
in the North Atlantic and from ice cores taken from ancient glaciers in
Greenland and Antarctica suggests that "ignoring or downplaying
abrupt climate change could prove costly."
of the scenarios developed at Woods Hole involves precisely the kind of
rapid onset of cooling in the northern hemisphere as was analysed by the
Pentagon in planning for its strategic responses to sudden climate change.
in the conservative American business magazine Fortune and the liberal
British Sunday newspaper, The Observer, both say the research commissioned
by the Pentagon advises that climate change of the kind the analysts
foresee has profound implications for food security and subsequently for
global political and economic stability.
who have seen the report and interviewed its authors say the time frame
for changes assumed by the Pentagon analysts is not, as optimists often argue,
a century of incremental warming with expansion of arable lands and more
temperate northern climates.
the military planners warn that in the near future we might have only a
few years to prepare for a sudden period of intense cold, vast social
upheaval as billions of people are dislocated, rising military tensions
between have and have-not states, and possibly even nuclear wars fought
over access to food resources and water.
Observer says the Pentagon study postulates that as early as 2007 rising
sea levels caused by melting Arctic ice and glaciers could combine with a
growing prevalence of super storms in the North Atlantic to overwhelm
dikes and seawalls protecting low-lying coastal regions.
areas of the Netherlands could be reclaimed by the sea and rendered
unihabitable. Low-lying river deltas like the Fraser, Columbia, Sacramento
and St. Lawrence or coastal marshlands like those in Florida, Louisiana
and the Texas Gulf Coast could be inundated by combinations of higher
tides and storm surges like the one that killed at least 300,000 people in
the Ganges delta in 1970.
2020, the Pentagon study says, Europe might experience a drop in average
temperature of six degrees with the Mediterranean region struggling to
cope with mass migrations from an Africa stricken by a mega-drought and a
Scandinavia returning to the glacial deep freeze of the last Ice Age.
India and Myanmar might have to cope with up to 170 million people
displaced from a flooded Bangladesh.
vulnerable would be China, which has huge food demands for a population
expected to reach almost 1.4 billion over the next 15 years. Much of its
agricultural capacity is in low-lying coastal regions and river valleys
already threatened by periodic flooding. The Pentagon planners suggest
that an expansion into Russian territory might prove irresistible.
foresee rapid proliferation of atomic weapons with the nuclear club
expanding to include Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Germany, Egypt,
Israel and Iran along with the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China,
India and Pakistan.
if the Pentagon report's scenario proves considerably more mundane,
there's little doubt that climate change triggered by global warming has
already begun to exact economic costs that will only increase.
Big Dry reduced Australia's over-all economic growth in gross domestic product
in the last fiscal year by more than half a percentage point. And if a
recent Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization study
is right, the worst drought in the history of Oz is just a taste of what's
to come. It predicts a 50-per-cent increase in the number of scorching
summer days by 2030.
in B.C., former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon's report on the dreadful fire
season just past sounds a similar warning. Our summer of fire wasn't a
freak event, he said.
measures and forecasts suggest we're early on in a dry cycle and as long
as the conditions persist, we're in danger," Filmon was reported
say the world will end in fire; some say in ice," wrote poet Robert
Frost. Who'd have thought we'd be faced with the possibility of both? Yet
if warnings of blistering drought and Ice Age conditions seem
contradictory, they also fall neatly into the patterns of instability
and extreme predicted by many climate scientists.
the age of the SUV, at a time when federal and provincial politicians
contemplate coal-burning thermal generating stations while balking at
investments in clean public transit, we might all do well to ask -- as the
authors of the Pentagon report have done -- that they move the policy
debate beyond lip service and denial and begin dealing with this issue
intelligently, strategically and forcefully.
Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice cores, abrupt climate change and our future, by
Richard B. Alley, Princeton University Press, 2000.
Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850, by Brian Fagan, Basic
Quiet Limit of the World: A Journey to the North Pole to Investigate
Global Warming by Wayne Grady, Macfarlane, Walter and Ross, 1997.
Heat is On: The High Stakes Battle over Earth's Threatened Climate by Ross
Gelbspan, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company Inc., 1997.
Since AD 1500, ed. Raymond S. Bradley and Philip D. Jones, Routledge,
with fact box "FURTHER READING", which has been appended to the
end of the story.
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