Feeling the Heat

Even the Pentagon is sounding the alarm on climate change. When will Bush get it?

Tue Feb. 24, 2004 4:00 AM EST

The Bush administration -- infamously, ludicrously -- remains a holdout on climate change. Blithely ignoring the near-universal scientific consensus that global warming is real, dangerous, and largely the product of human activity, the White House proceeds as if it didn't even exist.

The past few weeks have brought reason to hope this might change. First came a leaked report out of the Pentagon assessing the potential implications of climate change on U.S. national security. (Conclusion: not good.) Then came a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, endorsed by a Who's Who of Nobel prize-winners and big-name scientists, that charged the Bush administration with junking science it doesn't like and cherry-picking the findings most congenial to its (business-friendly) designs -- on climate change as on other topics. One can only hope that the first of these reports will scare -- and the second, shame -- the administration into taking responsible action on climate change.

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In a nice irony, it emerges that the Pentagon report, completed in October 2003, was suppressed by the administration, and came to light only after being leaked to Fortune magazine in early February.

(Note: Fortune ran a feature on the report on Feb. 9; the London Observer seems to have gotten a copy of its own much later and doesn't credit Fortune with having broken the story. Tut, tut.)

The Pentagon report (PDF) doesn't make happy reading. Its authors were asked to "imagine the unthinkable -- to push the boundaries of current research on climate change" to understand the implications for national security. The scenario they come up with, though "not the most likely, is plausible," and "would challenge the United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately."

Working from a “mid-range” scenario, the authors found that by 2020 a dramatic cooling, by 5 to 6 degrees Farenheit, in the Northern Hemisphere would cause harsher winters, “mega-droughts,” flooding and violent storms, all on an apocalyptic scale, driving “waves of boat people” to from country to country; wars over basic resources such as oil, food, and water would become common; deaths from war and famine would 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. Concludes the report: "Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life. Once again, warfare would define human life."

Climate change "should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern," say the authors, Peter Schwartz, CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network.

The content of the report is dramatic enough, but its provenance is interesting, too. It was commissioned by Andrew Marshall, whom the Observer calls "a Pentagon legend who heads a secretive think-tank dedicated to weighing risks to national security called the Office of Net Assessment. Dubbed 'Yoda' by Pentagon insiders who respect his vast experience, he is credited with being behind the Department of Defence's push on ballistic-missile defence." Translation: this guy is on Bush's side -- and even he is freaking out.

The timing is interesting, too. Journalist Patrick Doherty, writing for Tompaine.com, notes that the report was released at the beginning of an election year, suggesting that someone at ONA wants climate change to be a campaign issue in 2004. In addition, Doherty suggests that the ONA report was given to a highly reputable business publication whose target audience are members of the business world; some of Bush’s most important constituents. Doherty goes so far as to call the release an:

extraordinary act by a senior Defense Department official imply[ing] high-level recognition that the Bush administration's resistance to the near global consensus on climate change is a threat to national security itself.

Says the Observer, "The findings will prove humiliating to the Bush administration, which has repeatedly denied that climate change even exists. Experts said that they will also make unsettling reading for a President who has insisted national defence is a priority."

Co-author Doug Randall told the Observer that the potential ramifications of rapid climate change would create global chaos.

"This is depressing stuff ... It is a national security threat that is unique because there is no enemy to point your guns at and we have no control over the threat. We don't know exactly where we are in the process. It could start tomorrow and we would not know for another five years ... The consequences for some nations of the climate change are unbelievable. It seems obvious that cutting the use of fossil fuels would be worthwhile."

Well, that has seemed "obvious" for quite some time, but it hasn't nudged the White House into doing anything about it. Senior climatologists hope the report will prove "the catalyst in forcing Bush to accept climate change as a real and happening phenomenon," notes the Observer.

Certainly the national security argument is likely to hold more weight with the administration than mere science, which the White House has consistently ignored.

The report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, entitled "Scientific Integrity in Policy Making" notes a "well-established pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration political appointees across numerous federal agencies.”

According to Russel Train, head of the EPA under Presidents Nixon and Ford, who is cited in the UCS report, “science relies on freedom of inquiry and objectivity -- this administration has obstructed that freedom and distorted that objectivity in ways that were unheard of in any previous administration.”

In a section devoted to the misuse of climate change information, the UCS report claims that the administration, "blatantly tampered with the integrity of scientific analysis at a federal agency.” Specifically, scientists where critical of the administration’s handling of the climate change section in the EPA’s "2003 Draft Report on the Environment." According to the UCS report, changes demanded by the White House were considered so misleading, EPA officials at the time chose to delete the section entirely rather than:

compromise their credibility by misrepresenting the scientific consensus. Doing otherwise, as one current, high ranking EPA official put it, would 'poorly represent the science and ultimately undermine the credibility of the EPA and the White House.'

Will climate change emerge as an issue in the presidential elections? It's hard to imagine, though the Pentagon report shortens the odds a little. John Kerry is known to accept climate change as a real problem, and according to the Observer, "scientists disillusioned with Bush's stance are threatening to make sure Kerry uses the Pentagon report in his campaign."

It's possible that Bush will feel more pressure from his own side on this. Bob Watson, chief scientist for the World Bank and former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says the Pentagon will be more difficult to ignore than, say, a bunch of Nobel Prize-winning scientists.

"Can Bush ignore the Pentagon? It's going be hard to blow off this sort of document. Its hugely embarrassing. After all, Bush's single highest priority is national defence. The Pentagon is no wacko, liberal group, generally speaking it is conservative. If climate change is a threat to national security and the economy, then he has to act. There are two groups the Bush Administration tend to listen to, the oil lobby and the Pentagon."

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