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Something Really Dangerous


by Tom Engelhardt



Our newspapers and TV news have been full of reports lately on how the Bush administration "cherry-picked" intelligence to shore up the various claims it was making as it prepared for a long-desired, long-planned invasion of Iraq. As it turns out, though, that wasn't all it was cherry-picking. This week a group of 60 eminent scientists, 20 Nobel laureates among them, issued a statement (New York Times, 2/19/04) through the Union of Concerned Scientists on the way this administration has cherry-picked its science as well to support its various industry backers and cash cows (all stark raving mad).


In the most recent Nation magazine, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who some months back wrote the single best account I've seen of the Bush assault on the environment, penned a hair-raising new report on Bush science in the raw, included below, in which he concluded:


"Today, flat-earthers within the Bush Administration--aided by right-wing allies who have produced assorted hired guns and conservative think tanks to further their goals--are engaged in a campaign to suppress science that is arguably unmatched in the Western world since the Inquisition. Sometimes, rather than suppress good science, they simply order up their own. Meanwhile, the Bush White House is purging, censoring and blacklisting scientists and engineers whose work threatens the profits of the Administration's corporate paymasters or challenges the ideological underpinnings of their radical anti-environmental agenda. Indeed, so extreme is this campaign that more than sixty scientists, including Nobel laureates and medical experts, released a statement on February 18 that accuses the Bush Administration of deliberately distorting scientific fact 'for partisan political ends.'"


On no subject, perhaps, has this administration gone further in flattening the earth and then threatening to push the rest of us off of it than in the way it's protected the worst global warmers on the planet, the people who want us to use all their oil all the time. On global warming Kennedy comments:


"The Bush Administration's first instinct when it comes to science has been to suppress, discredit or alter facts it doesn't like. Probably the best-known case is global warming. Over the past two years the Administration has done this to a dozen major government studies on global warming, as well as to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its own efforts to stall action to control industrial emissions. The list also includes major long-term studies by the federal government's National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences, and by scientific teams at the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, and a 2002 collaborative report by scientists at all three of those agencies."


But, as it happens, not quite every part of the government has denied the reality of global warming. While Washington fiddled, the Pentagon, it turns out, burned -- with a passion to war-game a global-warming planet.


This is really quite a story. After all, we have an administration in which the Pentagon has regularly taken over tasks that would once have been delegated to the State Department, the CIA, or other agencies of government. In the context of the "war" on terrorism, the Pentagon, like the Blob of 1950s sci-fi movie fame, has eaten everything in sight. It's moved to become not just the last superpower's global gendarme, but its global diplomat, global spy, and through its own advanced research arm DARPA, global scientist.


Of course, when the Pentagon takes over tasks meant for others, it quite naturally does them the military way and with war-making on the brain. For the last two years improving relations with other countries has largely meant improving military-to-military relations, getting new basing rights, increasing military aid programs, bolstering foreign military forces, supporting military-to-military exchange programs and the like. In the process, the Pentagon's budget has soared and will only continue to do so. These days, if the Pentagon takes something seriously, it matters in a way that nothing else matters. Even in the wake of the Iraqi disaster, this remains the case.


Engaged in a post-Cold-War global arms-race-of-one, the Pentagon is the sole part of our government determinedly focused on planning for the distant future rather than making hay while the sun shines now. We're talking, of course, about people (or their predecessors) who, from the 1950s on, spent remarkable amounts of time, in Herman Kahn's phrase, "thinking the unthinkable." They are all-stars at war-gaming the nuclear destruction of the Earth or, more modestly, the deaths of hundreds of millions of us humans in various first, second, and third-strike scenarios.


By the way, for those of you who think all this has ended, wake up and smell the fumes. In a post-Cold-War world where paths to nuclear abolition were never considered, nuclear-armed nations abound. Putin's Russia only recently conducted large-scale nuclear games with its aging nuclear arsenal. Based on possible first-strike scenarios, they actually test-fired ICBMs from submarines in two tests that went disastrously amiss (which may almost be more frightening than tests that go well).


In the meantime, as Bruce Blair, an exceedingly sober (and sobering) expert on our own nuclear war-fighting capabilities, recently wrote at the Center for Defense Information website, the United States, like the Soviet Union, remains on a nuclear hair-trigger alert. Though any president on taking office inherits the "nuclear football," it turns out, according to Blair, that the military never quite gives our Great Quarterback in the White House the low-down on the real play-calling signals. As Blair puts it (Keeping Presidents in the Nuclear Dark):


"What is misleading about the [nuclear] briefing [the president gets on taking office] is that the president's supporting command system is not actually geared to withhold retaliation in the event of enemy missile attack, real or apparent. It is so greased for the rapid release of U.S. missiles forces by the thousands upon the receipt of attack indications from early warning satellites and ground radar that the president's options are not all created equal. The bias in favor of launch on electronic warning is so powerful that it would take enormously more presidential will to withhold an attack than to authorize it... Military nuclear commanders designed the hardware and procedures of emergency decision-making to ensure that no president would actually deliberately opt to ride out a Soviet nuclear attack, even though U.S. nuclear policy endorsed second-strike retaliation -- assured destruction -- as the essential element of U.S. deterrent strategy."


Anyway, setting our hair-trigger nuclear situation aside, it turns out that "thinking the unthinkable" is a phrase no less applicable to the present moment than it was to the Cold War one. For Bush's strategists, "global warming" has been a phenomenon not to be thought about. Since arrival, this White House has been intent on unthinking the unthinkable on the subject. (To do anything more, after all, they would have to hurt the interests of crucial corporate sectors supporting their Energy 'R Us administration.) And yet the one government agency planning for the distant future -- bombers, missiles, and "enhanced" soldiers for 2030, 2040, 2050 -- turns out to be more than willing to take global warming not only seriously but to its most serious extremes. Remember, as the Pentagon has noticed, there's "war" -- and so a role for them -- in global warming.


Sunday, 2/22/04, the British Observer released a global warming story with explosive claims. Headlined "Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us," its not atypical second paragraph goes like this:


"A secret report, suppressed by US defence chiefs and obtained by The Observer, warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a 'Siberian' climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world."


This is indeed scary stuff and the news made its way around the web with a speed only countered in this country by its almost complete absence from the world of print or television. Given that this is scary stuff, perhaps the Observer can be forgiven a dose of hype; but as far as I can tell, their "secret, suppressed" report is the same "unclassified" document, completed late last year, that the Pentagon "agreed to share" with the American business magazine Fortune a few weeks back ("Climate Collapse, The Pentagon's Weather Nightmare," 2/9/04), largely to a resounding silence in the rest of our media. (By the way, I'd love to know what -- or rather who -- that "agreed to share" really stands in for.)


According to Fortune's David Stipp, the cast of characters behind this Pentagon report is worth the price of admission in itself, starting with Andrew Marshall, the man who commissioned it. He's runs a secretive think tank in the bowels of the Pentagon aimed at future security threats, is known inside the five-sided building as "Yoda," and was the guru for Donald Rumsfeld's attempted "transformation" or "revolution" in the military. He, in turn, tapped Peter Schwartz, former head of planning at the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, who, according to Stipp, "has since consulted with organizations ranging from the CIA to DreamWorks -- he helped create futuristic scenarios for Steven Spielberg's film Minority Report." (You remember those final underwater scenes, don't you?)


As Stipp reports:


"The threat that has riveted their attention is this: Global warming, rather than causing gradual, centuries-spanning change, may be pushing the climate to a tipping point. Growing evidence suggests the ocean-atmosphere system that controls the world's climate can lurch from one state to another in less than a decade -- like a canoe that's gradually tilted until suddenly it flips over."


There is a certain counterintuitive quality to the idea that a "global warming" world might tip the Northern hemisphere into a new ice age, but the science behind it, while recent, is quite compelling. It seems that what stands between our present temperate northern climate and an ice age is the Gulf Stream which reaches far north in the Atlantic. In the past, the Gulf Stream has, in fact, been "shut off" with disastrous and icy results. In this case, melting ice in great quantities might tip that canoe, possibly soon. If you want to grasp the scientific thinking behind this, you might consider checking out an adaptation of part of Thom Hartmann's new book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight at the Common Dreams website. He says in part:


"In quick summary, if enough cold, fresh water coming from the melting polar ice caps and the melting glaciers of Greenland flows into the northern Atlantic, it will shut down the Gulf Stream, which keeps Europe and northeastern North America warm. The worst-case scenario would be a full-blown return of the last ice age -- in a period as short as 2 to 3 years from its onset -- and the mid-case scenario would be a period like the "little ice age" of a few centuries ago that disrupted worldwide weather patterns leading to extremely harsh winters, droughts, worldwide desertification, crop failures, and wars around the world."


The Pentagon took this science quite seriously and, thanks to a former oil man who consults on futuristic disaster films and teams of people who have undoubtedly been creating sci-fi scenarios in the Pentagon for a long time (after all, that's really what war-gaming is), they conjured up a future that only the Pentagon could love, a world in which war is the norm and security everything. Here are just a few of the gory details from the report as filtered through Fortune:


"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. Megadroughts afflict the U.S... 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...


"History shows that whenever humans have faced a choice between starving or raiding, they raid. ... 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."


And so on. If you want to get a little, bare-bones summary of the report, check out the Observer sidebar ("Key Findings of the Pentagon," 2/22/04). ("Deaths from war and famine run into the millions until the planet's population is reduced by such an extent the Earth can cope... Rich areas like the US and Europe would become 'virtual fortresses' to prevent millions of migrants from entering after being forced from land drowned by sea-level rise or no longer able to grow crops.")


The fact that via the Observer this story can be "broken" for a second time several weeks after the Fortune piece and still hardly penetrate our major newspapers tells us much that we need to know about how far denial on the subject of global warming and our role in it extends beyond the Bush administration. And, of course, if the only governmental body to seriously attend to the phenomenon turns out to be the Pentagon, you can expect "solutions" involving more of what we've already witnessed these last two years: "homeland security" and global war with a passion or, as the report evidently puts it with a certain delicacy, solutions that involve identifying "'no regrets' strategies to ensure reliable access to food and water and to ensure our national security."


Once you turn your military into spies, diplomats, scientists, and environmentalists, then diplomacy, spying, science, and environmentalism are going to be about war and war-making. You can't expect the Pentagon to put itself out of business. So not surprisingly, the same people who brought you Iraq now bring you a future that would put the philosopher Hobbes's all-against-all world to shame. Given the cast of characters involved in the scriptwriting, no one should be shocked if the Pentagon's "unthinkable" turns out to be a cross between a Hollywood mega-disaster film -- one of which, thanks to 20th Century Fox, is poised to come out this summer with "scientist" Dennis Quaid saving the planet from an ice-age disaster brought on by global warming -- and a Malthus, armed to the teeth and nuclearized.


Back when Fortune first released news of this Pentagon study, Religion professor Ira Chernus wrote a piece at the Common Dreams website that put this into perspective. He said in part (Pentagon Goes Crazy for Massive Climate Change):


"The Pentagon report does say we should 'explore ways to offset abrupt cooling.' But that is only a minor theme. Mostly it urges us to take care of Number One and keep the U.S. Number One, through an era of death and suffering beyond our wildest imaginings... Fear not, though. The strategy works. The U.S. survives, the report concludes, 'without catastrophic losses.' Well, naturally. What did you think? After all, we are the US of A.


"It may seem crazy to deny reality with so much at stake. But the fantasy of security is irresistible,.. [Yet] climate change is so dangerous precisely because there are no borders in nature... When you take the global view that nature insists on, the idea of any one nation planning a 'no regrets' strategy, or even worrying about 'national security,' is just plain crazy. Especially when we have years of advance warning to plan for global cooperation.


"Nature is telling us loud and clear that we must change radically, from a world of competition to a world of cooperation. Only that radical shift in thinking will give us a chance to survive. If we can tear ourselves away from outdated nationalistic fantasies and get real, nature is giving us a chance to learn new ways to cooperate around the world... To do anything else would be crazy."


Of course, if the Pentagon is anywhere near right, then those mad dreamers of our last half century who wanted to beat a path to the abolition of nuclear weapons will someday be considered the only sane people on a mad planet, while those who fought -- and still fight -- so hard to preserve such weaponry will be seen in another light entirely. Consider the Pentagon scenario -- all those future madmen waving nuclear weapons and fighting desperate resource wars -- in the context, for instance, of the Bush administration's own nuclear plans. As Glen Millar wrote today in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (2/23/04):


"The Bush administration favors a nuclear free-for-all, confident that it will be able to intimidate or destroy all adversaries with a varied arsenal of increasingly sophisticated weapons. Numerous international arms-control treaties, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, have been abandoned or ignored by the United States."


Someday, the Bush administration's years in office may be seen as a genuine "reign of terror" in a very different sense than we now use the word "terror." The White House's success, you might say, is that it managed to inflate relatively small, if quite dangerous, groups of associated jihadis and angry fanatics into a vast bogeyman of an Enemy; an enemy large enough to launch World War IV against. Osama bin Laden's henchmen, of course, lent the hand of all hands in this task. His "legions" -- a mere 19 men, mostly Saudis, armed with whatever makeshift weapons they could smuggle onto four airplanes -- created their own disaster movie for the rest of us (and don't believe for a second that some of them hadn't watched such movies either).


Their stroke of genius was to carry-out a double assault in New York, timed to the TV schedule and endlessly magnified by TVs around the world, whose images looked more horrifying, more world-ending than those of any disaster film. The crumbling of two of the largest buildings on Earth and the slaughter of almost 3,000 people gave them a look of power that was deceptive indeed. This allowed Bush's men to mobilize us around the lesser of the terrors in our world, to heighten our fear of small groups of fanatics while keeping us in genuine ignorance of, or in a state of denial about, its larger terrors, the sorts that could really make lives unlivable and lands uninhabitable for our children and their children -- all of this in the name of a New Rome (though that label has now gone out the window) and of a kind of eat-the-Earth present-ism gone mad.


There's a bumper sticker worth remembering here: Nature bats last. Perhaps the saddest thing, though, is that in its last licks it's likely initially to go to bat among peoples who contributed least to global warming, who burn next to no fossil fuels but live at the peripheries of the industrialized world on the low-lying atolls and islands of the Pacific or in our formerly icy, now melting northlands.


Recently, Agnès Sinai wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique ("The world's fragile islands," 2/04):


"Some 600 idyllic islands in the South Pacific make up Micronesia; perhaps not so idyllic any more, as in recent years half of the 150,000 inhabitants have had their houses damaged or destroyed by storms more frequent and violent than before. Sea levels rose in the region through the second half of the 20th century, and this, linked with exceptionally high tides and unpredictable rain, exacerbated the intensity of the storms. As coastal erosion increases, salt creeps into the water table and ruins plantations, while rising temperatures nurture parasites that attack copra plants.


"Joseph Komo, a member of the official Micronesian delegation to the ninth United Nations conference on climate change in Milan last December, says: 'We are the first people to die as a direct result of climate change.'"


In the Maldive Islands, Sinai tells us, islanders are already preparing for the worst by building an "an artificial island: Hulhumale... 2 metres above sea level, 20 minutes from the archipelago's overcrowded capital, Malé; it should eventually be home to 100,000 people." There's another irony for you. Only on the Maldives is a government seriously preparing for the sort of disaster the Pentagon envisions.


Oh, and if the Pentagon's right, and the United States suffers least in its giant fortress state; if our children or grandchildren still have holidays in 2050, and the money to take them, let me offer a suggestion. Once they've made it past those boat people, and the small countries waving their large weapons, and the dust bowls, and future ice bowls, perhaps they'll want to spend a few days down Australia way. (The Pentagon thinks that continent too has a good chance of making it through a global-warming world in half-decent shape). There, they can check out "coral reef theme parks."


After all, as Kathy Marks of the British Independent tells us (2/23/04), writing about the Great Barrier Reef, considered one of the world's natural wonders and one of Australia's great tourist attractions:


"One of the bleakest prognoses on the future of the Great Barrier Reef predicts that warmer oceans will kill 95 per cent of its coral by 2050. A report by Queensland's Centre for Marine Studies (CMS) said the reef -- the world's largest chain of coral -- will not survive as the Pacific Ocean warms steadily in the coming decades. The authors warned that, even if the most optimistic forecasts prove true, tourists will be able to see coral only in distant reef 'theme parks.'"


[This article first appeared on, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]