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2004-02-25 17:23:37

Climate Change Could Cause Global Woe

A new report ordered by the Pentagon warns that a sudden change in climate could become a violent global battle for control of scarce resources.

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.

'NOT IMPOSSIBLE'

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.

JUST ONE SCENARIO

In a climate scenario that Schwartz and fellow futurist Doug Randall call The Weather Report: 2010-2020, average annual temperatures drop by five degrees Fahrenheit in North America and Asia and by six degrees in Europe, while temperatures rise by four 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, the 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."

WHAT COULD HAPPEN

The Pentagon-commissioned report 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 food and water supplies 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 staunch 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.

COVERING THE BASES

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.

By Seth Borenstein
From The Miami Herald and wire service sources.  

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