Futurists see world coming to awful stew
By Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER
In a dire look at a hypothetical hothouse world, consultants for the Pentagon see nations warring over water, food and whom to blame for greenhouse warming. (Hint: It's you and your sport utility vehicle.)
"Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life," two Emeryville-based futurists concluded in a report late last year for the Defense Department's Office of Net Assessment.
Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall were drafted for an unclassified, worst-case look at climate change. But the echo chamber of Internet news and opinion transformed their thought exercise into a top military secret or the ultimate comeuppance for a fossil-fueled executive or a Bush conspiracy to hide the WMDs of the natural world.
As if the report itself wasn't fantastic enough.
Curtain openers for a doomsday climate come as early as next year, it suggested. Storms swamp South Pacific islands, then later topple levees in the Netherlands and Northern California. The Hague becomes Atlantis, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a salty, inland sea unpalatable to Southern Californians.
But worse is to come: Melting of Greenland's ice sheet and freshwater runoff from North America dilute the salinity that is thought to drive North Atlantic currents, shutting down warm water and air for Europe.
By 2020, "Europe's climate is more like Siberia's," suggest Schwartz and Crandall, scenario writers for Global Business Network.
"Envision Pakistan, India and China -- all armed with nuclear weapons -- skirmishing at their borders over refugees, access to shared rivers and aerable land," Schwartz and Crandall wrote.
"Once again," they conclude, "warfare would define human life."
Richer, high-tech nations would weather climate change better than less-advanced, developing countries. The United States would fortress itself against refugees and angry have-nots, who will resent its wealth, its consumption and its emissions of greenhouse gases.
That's enough, the report suggests, to bump climate change from the realm of esoteric science to a "U.S. national security concern."
Left-wing bloggers and conspiracy-minded environmentalists seized on news of the report as a sign that President Bush still is hiding the real threat to America and that Mother Nature must be a Democrat.
"The leak promises to draw angry attention to U.S. environmental and military policies," the Arab news outlet Al-Jazeera reported on its Web site.
In fact, GBN's report bears as much resemblance to probable reality as does the London Observer in describing it as "a secret report" predicting that climate change "could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy." According to unnamed experts quoted by the newspaper, the report concludes that climate change is a "threat to global stability (that) vastly eclipses that of terrorism."
"We were imagining the unthinkable, a worst-case scenario," GBN's Randall said Monday by phone.
The Pentagon's unofficial futurist, Andrew Marshall, commissioned the report. He heads the internal DOD think tank that is responsible for scoping long-range trends and threats. Scenario-based projections are a staple of business and military planning.
The Defense Department released the report last month to a business magazine writer.
"There's nothing secret about it, there's nothing Pentagon about it and there's no prediction in it," Randall said.
It's full of predictions, actually, but all start from a premise of abrupt climate change that is highly uncertain and outside the consensus of mainstream scientists.
Climate is inherently complex, and many climate scientists are dismayed that the Bush administration has sought refuge in that uncertainty rather than grappling with greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning. Yet climate models in general show gradual warming, not abrupt change on a global scale.
GBN's report warns that its scenario is "not the most likely," "not implausible" and "extreme."
"We were playing a little bit with where science ends and speculation begins," Randall said.
Yet most of the report's recommendations are a study in moderation. It calls for improving climate-prediction models, deciding which countries are most vulnerable to climate change, exercising teams for dealing with water or food shortages and identifying "no-regrets" strategies, such as more robust water supplies.
"This report was done not to scare people but to make people think more broadly about the possible consequences of climate change," said Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security.
"It may not be a likely scenario, but it's certainly a plausible one. As somebody who buys insurance against really bad things happening, it's something I really think we should pay attention to."
At the same time, it might be a mistake to think the Bush administration will embrace predictions of climate change from the Pentagon more than it has from the EPA, the United Nations, the National Academy of Sciences and the world's major scientific societies.
"If in this case the messenger makes the message more palatable, that would be a good thing," Gleick said. "But this administration has ignored a lot of different messengers in the past, and this one may not be a lot different."