Facing a world of fire and ice
2004 02 28
by Stephen Hume
Frozen 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!
January 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.
Down 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.
Yet 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.
This 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.
On 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.
Yes, that's climate change, not rogue states or the axis of evil.
Imagining the Unthinkable starts by hypothesizing an abrupt climate change when oceanic heat transfer mechanisms are disrupted by global warming.
What 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.
And 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, either.
Although 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.
Certainly, 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.
Last 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.
So 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.
In 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.
Meanwhile, at mid-week, Canada's Maritimes were still digging out from a monster dump of snow that forced two provinces to declare emergencies.
Some 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.
Some 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.
The 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.
Others 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.
And 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.
Economic 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.
Last 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.
Here 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 away."
To 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.
Those 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.
So, 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.
Thomas 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.
He 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 climate uncertainty.
"Clearly, 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."
So, 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?
The 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.
Its 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 Business Network.
They 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.
Associated 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 of view.
Nevertheless, 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.
The 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.
Karl 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 rise.
He said changes in the North Atlantic circulation patterns that now distribute heat could trigger large regional climate anomalies.
Some 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.
Scientists 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.
This 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.
If 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.
A 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.
They 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.
How 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.
It 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.
King 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 political destabilization."
King's 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."
One 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.
Reports 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.
Those 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.
Instead, 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.
The 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.
Large 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.
By 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.
Particularly 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.
They 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.
Even 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.
The 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.
Here 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.
"Many 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 saying Friday.
"Some 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.
In 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.
The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice cores, abrupt climate change and our future, by Richard B. Alley, Princeton University Press, 2000.
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850, by Brian Fagan, Basic Books, 2000.
The Quiet Limit of the World: A Journey to the North Pole to Investigate Global Warming by Wayne Grady, Macfarlane, Walter and Ross, 1997.
The Heat is On: The High Stakes Battle over Earth's Threatened Climate by Ross Gelbspan, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company Inc., 1997.
Climate Since AD 1500, ed. Raymond S. Bradley and Philip D. Jones, Routledge, 1992.
Ran with fact box "FURTHER READING", which has been appended to the end of the story.
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