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02-02-04, 07:36 AM

For the Record: Security Impact of Rapid Climate Change

Editor’s Note: For nearly a quarter-century, the debate over potential negative impacts from global climate change has involved scientists and a smaller handful of politicians who have made it an issue of concern. However, Pentagon planner Andrew Marshall, who heads up the DoD Office of Net Assessment and has been an “out of the box” theoretician for the department since 1973, last year ordered up a long-range forecast of how a rapid onset of global warming could affect the security of the United States and its allies.

The study, written by analysts Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, provides a dire scenario of potential catastrophic impacts from global warming on the natural resources, political and economic systems and day-to-day life not only of the United States but the entire world. This is an abridged version originally published by Fortune magazine with the Pentagon’s permission.

– Ed Offley

Scenario of Rapid Global Warming

A total shutdown of the [Gulf Stream current] might lead to a big chill like the “Younger Dryas,” [a 1,300-year ice age that occurred 13,000 years ago] when icebergs appeared as far south as the coast of Portugal. Or the [current] 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 percent in northern Europe, and its climate has become more like Siberia’s.

Violent storms are increasingly common as the [Gulf Stream current] 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.

Mega-droughts afflict the U.S., especially in the southern states, along with winds that are 15 percent 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 changes.

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 fast.

As the planet’s carrying capacity shrinks, an ancient pattern re-emerges: 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 percent 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.