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Crossing the Red Line

Imagining the Unthinkable: An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security

a report by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall
22 pp., www.ems.org/climate/pentagon_climatechange.pdf


In October of last year, two consultants on energy, one of them the former head of planning for Royal Dutch/Shell, produced a report for the Pentagon that they titled “Imagining the Unthinkable.” The twenty-two-page document outlined one possible sequence of events that could result from the greenhouse effect. First, melting Arctic ice, less dense than saltwater, would flood the Atlantic with cool freshwater. By 2010 it would slow down or shut off the local branch of the relatively warm circulatory system that we know as the Gulf Stream. As a result, while the rest of the globe continues to grow warmer, western Europe and eastern North America would turn sharply colder and the relatively dry interior of Europe soon would have a climate comparable to present-day Siberia.

These developments would lead to shortfalls in grain harvest that are felt around the world. Before long, wars would threaten to erupt over “desperate need for natural resources” rather than “over ideology, religion, or national honor.” Every time “there is a choice between starving and raiding, humans raid,” the authors write. And so, as the number of human beings outweighs the greatly reduced carrying capacity of the planet, “deaths from war as well as starvation and disease” will over time have to “re-balance” our population.

The report is not novel—such visions of rapid and violent climate change have become common in recent years as our understanding of the wild weather swings in the climatic temperature record has grown. Nor is it extremely unlikely—a series of recent papers in Nature have noted just the sort of freshening of Atlantic waters that could set off this particular sequence. To focus on the report’s more lurid predictions, however, would be to miss the real point, which is the mere fact of its existence. In an administration that has refused to even acknowledge global warming as a serious human problem—an administration whose Environmental Protection Agency removed the section on climate change from its annual report to avoid offending the White House—the report’s calm and straightforward acceptance of the basic laws of physics and chemistry seems remarkable. “There is substantial evidence to indicate that significant global warming will occur during the twenty-first century,” the summary begins. “Alternative fuels, greenhouse gas emission controls, and conservation efforts are worthwhile endeavors,” it concludes, before adding a list of other, more exotic, responses that will likely have more direct appeal to the Pentagon (“explore geo-engineering options that control the climate”).

Though the Pentagon officially played down the report (a spokesman promised it would not be passed along to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld), its internal think tank, the Office of Net Assessments, made no attempt to hide it from public view. In fact, someone made sure to pass it along to Fortune magazine, which published a long account of its contents. It suggests that even some in official Republican Washington have begun to notice how out of step the US has become on this issue—after all, every other government in the industrialized world (not to mention virtually all of organized science) has declared that climate is changing swiftly and dangerously. In those capitals, “alternative fuels, greenhouse gas emission controls, and conservation efforts” are not just “worthwhile endeavors” but cornerstones of national policy.

If the Pentagon wished, it could envision similarly disastrous consequences of global warming. The Antarctic shelf could collapse. Water shortages could result from increased evaporation. Millions of refugees could flee from low-lying lands. The interiors of continents could turn into deserts, while mosquito-borne diseases could rapidly spread. In view of the scale of the issues, it is worth surveying recent proposals to hasten the transition away from fossil fuels. It is not, on the whole, an encouraging picture.

Two of the books under review, Bush Versus the Environment and Strategic Ignorance, include climate and energy policy as one example of many in a catalog of administration environmental follies. But it must be said that criticizing Bush’s policies on the environment is depressingly easy to do. For more than three years now, day after day and week after week, a small circle of political appointees at the EPA, the Forest Service, the Interior Department, and the Department of Agriculture have proceeded methodically to wreck the system of environmental oversight that dates back to the Nixon administration. Apart from their silence on global warming, they have overturned rule after regulation, largely ceased enforcement actions concerning pollution of the atmosphere and water, and reined in inspectors. Their work is not inspired by a grand ideological vision—it’s not like Bush’s foreign policy, say, with its idea of America dominating the world. Instead it’s institutionalized corruption: a steady payback to the logging, mining, corporate farming, fossil fuel, and other industries that contributed heavily to put Bush in power.

The scale of this assault on the environment is so large as to be numbing. With a hundred battles occurring simultaneously and without a majority in either chamber of Congress to hold hearings or issue subpoenas, the environmental movement has been almost paralyzed. In Congress and the administration, loss has followed loss in such steady succession that even the most conventional environmentalists, usually bipartisan to a fault and reluctant to jump into electoral politics, now find themselves with a single goal: defeating Bush in November.

Some of the recent books are designed to serve as ammunition for that battle. Robert Devine’s Bush Versus the Environment is full of reports of the harm the administration is causing to woods, coalfields, and tundra. But it is Carl Pope’s volume, written with the editor of Sierra magazine, Paul Rauber, that makes the strongest case. Pope has spent most of his life in environmental politics—the politically shrewd executive director of the Sierra Club since 1992, he’s clearly fed up with polite dissent. He has written a splendidly fierce book, especially so in its account of the public relations effort to limit the political damage from Bush’s anti-environmental policy. The archfiend in this account is Frank Luntz, the veteran Republican pollster whose surveys showed that most Americans wanted no part of the President’s plans for the environment. In response, Luntz suggested the words and images that might most effectively hide the truth. The bill that turned the national forests back to loggers in the name of protecting against wildfire, for instance, was called the “Healthy Forests Initiative,” though, as Pope suggests, “Horizontal Forests” would be more accurate. (Others have suggested “No Tree Left Behind.”) The bill to permit continued high levels of mercury and sulfur pollution was styled “Clear Skies.”

Luntz told Bush to stop using the phrase “global warming” (in a leaked memo, he stressed that “while ‘global warming’ has catastrophic connotations attached to it, ‘climate change’ sounds a more controllable and less emotional challenge”) and to emphasize the (false) statement that there is no consensus among scientists on the issue. “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly,” Luntz wrote. “The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed.”

Bush has evaded energy and climate issues, but Bill Clinton and Al Gore weren’t conspicuously better. That’s because dealing with global warming is not a matter of simply paying a relatively small price to clean the air or water. It will demand nothing less than the overhaul of the entire global economy, which is currently based on the very fossil fuels whose combustion we can no longer afford, but whose replacement remains technologically, economically, and politically more challenging than perhaps any transition in modern human history.

There are those who think this shift won’t be terribly hard—many people harbor the hopeful belief that only the political power of the big oil interests prevents the swift transition to a world of solar and wind power and, especially, the widespread use of electrochemical devices called hydrogen fuel cells to produce energy. Hydrogen fuel cells seem promising because they can produce electricity and heat from the chemical energy contained in hydrogen, an abundant element. In most near-term plans, the hydrogen would come from hydrocarbon fuels, most likely natural gas, which would mean continued release of greenhouse gases. Over the longer term, we might be able to build enough renewable energy capacity—solar and wind in particular—to “electrolyze” water, stripping away its hydrogen in a truly renewable fashion.

Among the true believers in this future is the business-friendly energy and environment editor of The Economist, Vijay Vaitheeswaran, whose Power to the People splits its cover between a picture of spinning windmills and another of a field of sunflowers. He argues that market forces (particularly electricity deregulation), new environmental laws, and most of all a wave of technological innovation will soon combine to produce an energy revolution “bigger than the Internet.” In newsmagazine tradition, Vaitheeswaran writes with fervor about every development he comes across. Some academics, he writes,

are working on a…radical concept called biolysis that involves manipulating the metabolism of algae and other life-forms to release large quantities of hydrogen when they decay.

This accounts for the title of a subsection of his book, “Pond Scum to Petro-Hydrogen.” His reporting is at its most emotional when he visits “Plant 1, the top-secret bunker from which Ballard [the leading hydrogen fuel-cell manufacturer] intends to conquer the world.” In so doing, “I became the first journalist ever to penetrate this Fort Knox of the fuel-cell world,” and there he witnessed “dramatic breakthroughs,” “visionaries” hard at work, and long lines of “brilliant physicists and electrochemists.”

For all his gush, however, some of his conclusions are sound: we need, he writes, a carbon tax that would encourage investment in new low-polluting technologies. Those technologies won’t include the excessively expensive option of nuclear power; instead, eventually we will live in a world of “micropower” where small-scale power plants use first natural gas and then renewable sources like wind and sun to turn hydrogen into plentiful and cheap energy. This proposal mirrors the European consensus that has emerged in recent years; the fact that it is being espoused in the US by a member of Europe’s business establishment should make it more palatable to Americans. As he titles his epilogue, “The Future’s a Gas.”

Indeed, you could say that even the President has signed on to parts of this program. Not the carbon tax, certainly, but in his most visible bid for an environmental accomplishment of some kind, the President committed more than a billion dollars to the future search for a hydrogen-powered vehicle, something he (doubtless with his pollster Luntz’s help) dubbed the FreedomCar. Bush said:

With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.

Vaitheeswaran is, as ever, enthusiastic. But many observers believed the President signed on to hydrogen as a cheap way to avoid any current changes. Forget increasing automobile efficiency right now; instead, promise something shiny far enough in the future (2018 or so, to go by his “child born today” theme) that it won’t affect today’s taxpayers (or fossil fuel interests). So the question becomes: How realistic is the promise of a near-term hydrogen future?

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