Facing A World Of Fire And Ice
By Stephen Hume
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 defense advisers (he was the man responsible for a sweeping strategic review of the military under top hawk
Defense 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
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 vaporized 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
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 totaled $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
Here in Canada,
the University of Victoria's
world-class climate modeler 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 meter. 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
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 analyzed 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
Large areas of the Netherlands could be reclaimed by the sea and rendered uninhabitable. 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.