SETH BORENSTEIN / KRT
Global warming has caused the Columbia Glacier to retreat 7 miles in the last 20 years, leaving calves of ice in Prince William Sound.
Dramatic climate change could become global security nightmare
By Seth Borenstein
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON – A dramatic climate change could suddenly become a global security nightmare, warns a worst-case scenario assembled by professional futurists at the behest of the Pentagon.
In a report released to Knight Ridder on Monday, they write that while a drastic climate change is unlikely, it “would challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately.” The “plausible” consequences include famine in Europe and nuclear showdowns over who controls what’s left of the world’s water, the futurists concluded.
The report, commissioned by the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment, its internal think-tank, reflects the Pentagon’s policy of planning for the worst, said author and long-time Pentagon consultant Peter Schwartz.
Schwartz said in a Knight Ridder interview that while the climate change envisioned is drastic, it’s as worthy of advance planning as several other “high impact scenarios” that came true, such as planning in 1983 for the end of the Soviet Union or in 1995 for the possibility that terrorists might crash planes into the World Trade Center.
While the Bush administration generally has not considered global warming much of an immediate threat, “I did not write an impossible scenario,” Schwartz said. It could play out, he said, in the next five to 15 years.
Unlike most climate change studies, which examine global warming over more than a century, the Pentagon study is based on an “abrupt climate change” that scientists say has happened in the past and could happen again soon.
In a climate scenario that Schwartz and fellow futurist Doug Randall call “The Weather Report: 2010-2020,” average annual temperatures drop by 5 degrees Fahrenheit in North America and Asia and by 6 degrees in Europe, while temperatures rise by 4 degrees in the southern hemisphere.
The sudden combination of cooling and warming would occur if there were major changes in the ocean’s temperature, current and salinity. One of the driving forces of climate is a kind of global ocean conveyor belt that transfers ocean warmth and cooling throughout the world based on how salty the water is.
In the past, sudden melting of glaciers flooded oceans with fresh water and shut down the conveyor belt, which depends on the sinking of salt water to pull warm water from the tropics to higher latitudes. This last happened 8,200 years ago. A 2002 National Academy of Sciences report warned that if it happens again, it would “increase the possibility of large, abrupt, and unwelcome regional or global climatic events.”
The Pentagon-commissioned report, “imagining the unthinkable,” as its writers’ put it, sketches what could happen next:
“Imagine eastern European countries, struggling to feed their populations with a falling supply of food, water and energy, eyeing Russia, whose population is already in decline, for access to its grains, minerals and energy supply. Or, picture Japan, suffering from flooding along its coastal cities and contamination of its fresh water supply, eyeing Russia’s Sakhalin Island oil and gas reserves as an energy source. … Envision Pakistan, India, and China – all armed with nuclear weapons -skirmishing at their borders over refugees, access to shared rivers, and arable land.”
Military showdowns could be fast and furious, the report speculates: In 2015, conflict in Europe over supplies of food and water leads to strained relations. In 2022, France and Germany battle over the Rhine River’s water. The U.S. Defense Department seals off America’s borders to stanch floods of refugees from Mexico and the Caribbean. In 2025, as energy costs increase in nations struggling to cope with warmer and colder weather, the United States and China square off over access to Saudi Arabian oil.
America would weather the climate changes best, albeit with declining agricultural fertility, according to the report. Europe would be hit hard with food shortages and streams of people leaving. China would be hurt by colder winters and hotter summers triggering widespread famine.
The futurists’ grim study began a year ago when Andrew Marshall, the director of the Office of Net Assessment – the Pentagon’s chief think-tanker – started taking the National Academy of Sciences report seriously.
Schwartz, the chairman of Global Business Networks of Emeryville, Calif., said Marshall challenged him: “Suppose the abrupt guys are right? What would happen?”
Schwartz had previously done futuristic scenarios for the Pentagon, Royal Dutch Shell and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
“The Defense Department continuously looks ahead to ensure that we are prepared in the future for any contingency,” Marshall said in a prepared statement issued Monday.
Investigating consequences of climate change is worth looking into, said F. Sherwood Rowland, a Nobel Prize-winning earth sciences professor at the University of California-Irvine.
“Pentagon people are not known as wild environmentalists,” Rowland said.
Randall, the study’s co-author, said the exploration didn’t reflect a change in the Bush administration’s view of climate change.
“It’s an unlikely event, and the Pentagon often thinks the unthinkable and that’s all this was,” said Randall.
For the study “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security,” go here.
For information on the mechanics of abrupt climate change, go to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Web site.
For the National Academies of Sciences’ 2002 study Abrupt Climate Changes: Inevitable Surprises, go to their website.
For Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall at Global Business Networks, go to the GBN Web site .