|This article was originally published in the US journal Fortune and re-published by the Supporting Facts website.|
The Pentagon's weather nightmare
By David Stipp
January 26 2004
Global warming may be
bad news for future generations, but let's face it, most of us spend as
little time worrying about it as we did about al Qaeda before 9/11. Like
the terrorists, though, the seemingly remote climate risk may hit home
sooner and harder than we ever imagined. In fact, the prospect has
become so real that the Pentagon's strategic planners are grappling with
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. Scientists don't know how close the system is to a critical threshold. But abrupt climate change may well occur in the not-too-distant future. If it does, the need to rapidly adapt may overwhelm many societies—thereby upsetting the geopolitical balance of power.
Though triggered by warming, such change would probably cause cooling in the Northern Hemisphere, leading to longer, harsher winters in much of the U.S. and Europe. Worse, it would cause massive droughts, turning farmland to dust bowls and forests to ashes. Picture last fall's California wildfires as a regular thing. Or imagine similar disasters destabilizing nuclear powers such as Pakistan or Russia—it's easy to see why the Pentagon has become interested in abrupt climate change.
Climate researchers began getting seriously concerned about it a decade ago, after studying temperature indicators embedded in ancient layers of Arctic ice. The data show that a number of dramatic shifts in average temperature took place in the past with shocking speed—in some cases, just a few years.
The case for angst was buttressed by a theory regarded as the most likely explanation for the abrupt changes. The eastern U.S. and northern Europe, it seems, are warmed by a huge Atlantic Ocean current that flows north from the tropics—that's why Britain, at Labrador's latitude, is relatively temperate. Pumping out warm, moist air, this "great conveyor" current gets cooler and denser as it moves north. That causes the current to sink in the North Atlantic, where it heads south again in the ocean depths. The sinking process draws more water from the south, keeping the roughly circular current on the go.
But when the climate warms, according to the theory, fresh water from melting Arctic glaciers flows into the North Atlantic, lowering the current's salinity—and its density and tendency to sink. A warmer climate also increases rainfall and runoff into the current, further lowering its saltiness. As a result, the conveyor loses its main motive force and can rapidly collapse, turning off the huge heat pump and altering the climate over much of the Northern Hemisphere.
Scientists aren't sure what caused the warming that triggered such collapses in the remote past. (Clearly it wasn't humans and their factories.) But the data from Arctic ice and other sources suggest the atmospheric changes that preceded earlier collapses were dismayingly similar to today's global warming. As the Ice Age began drawing to a close about 13,000 years ago, for example, temperatures in Greenland rose to levels near those of recent decades. Then they abruptly plunged as the conveyor apparently shut down, ushering in the "Younger Dryas" period, a 1,300-year reversion to ice-age conditions. (A dryas is an Arctic flower that flourished in Europe at the time.)
Though Mother Nature caused past abrupt climate changes, the one that may be shaping up today probably has more to do with us. In 2001 an international panel of climate experts concluded that there is increasingly strong evidence that most of the global warming observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities—mainly the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which release heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Indicators of the warming include shrinking Arctic ice, melting alpine glaciers, and markedly earlier springs at northerly latitudes. A few years ago such changes seemed signs of possible trouble for our kids or grandkids. Today they seem portents of a cataclysm that may not conveniently wait until we're history.
Accordingly, the spotlight in climate research is shifting from gradual
to rapid change. In 2002 the National Academy of Sciences issued a
report concluding that human activities could trigger abrupt change.
Last year the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, included a
session at which Robert Gagosian, director of the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, urged policymakers to
consider the implications of possible abrupt climate change within two
Such jeremiads are beginning to reverberate more widely. Billionaire Gary Comer, founder of Lands' End, has adopted abrupt climate change as a philanthropic cause. Hollywood has also discovered the issue—next summer 20th Century Fox is expected to release The Day After Tomorrow, a big-budget disaster movie starring Dennis Quaid as a scientist trying to save the world from an ice age precipitated by global warming.
Fox's flick will doubtless be apocalyptically edifying. But what would abrupt climate change really be like?
Scientists generally refuse to say much about that, citing a data deficit. But recently, renowned Department of Defense planner Andrew Marshall sponsored a groundbreaking effort to come to grips with the question. A Pentagon legend, Marshall, 82, is known as the Defense Department's "Yoda"—a balding, bespectacled sage whose pronouncements on looming risks have long had an outsized influence on defense policy. Since 1973 he has headed a secretive think tank whose role is to envision future threats to national security. The Department of Defense's push on ballistic-missile defense is known as his brainchild. Three years ago Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld picked him to lead a sweeping review on military "transformation," the shift toward nimble forces and smart weapons.
When scientists' work on abrupt climate change popped onto his radar screen, Marshall tapped another eminent visionary, Peter Schwartz, to write a report on the national-security implications of the threat. Schwartz formerly headed planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group and has since consulted with organizations ranging from the CIA to DreamWorks—he helped create futuristic scenarios for Steven Spielberg's film Minority Report. Schwartz and co-author Doug Randall at the Monitor Group's Global Business Network, a scenario-planning think tank in Emeryville, Calif., contacted top climate experts and pushed them to talk about what-ifs that they usually shy away from—at least in public.
The result is an unclassified report, completed late last year, that the
Pentagon has agreed to share with Fortune. It doesn't pretend to be a
forecast. Rather, it sketches a dramatic but plausible scenario to help
planners think about coping strategies. Here is an abridged version:
A total shutdown of the ocean conveyor might lead to a big chill like the Younger Dryas, when icebergs appeared as far south as the coast of Portugal. Or the conveyor might only temporarily slow down, potentially causing an era like the "Little Ice Age," a time of hard winters, violent storms, and droughts between 1300 and 1850. That period's weather extremes caused horrific famines, but it was mild compared with the Younger Dryas.
For planning purposes, it makes sense to focus on a midrange case of
abrupt change. A century of cold, dry, windy weather across the Northern
Hemisphere that suddenly came on 8,200 years ago fits the bill—its
severity fell between that of the Younger Dryas and the Little Ice Age.
The event is thought to have been triggered by a conveyor collapse after
a time of rising temperatures not unlike today's global warming. Suppose
it recurred, beginning in 2010. Here are some of the things that might
happen by 2020:
Over the past decade, data have accumulated suggesting that the
plausibility of abrupt climate change is higher than most of the
scientific community, and perhaps all of the political community, are
prepared to accept. In light of such findings, we should be asking when
abrupt change will happen, what the impacts will be, and how we can
prepare—not whether it will really happen. In fact, the climate record
suggests that abrupt change is inevitable at some point, regardless of
human activity. Among other things, we should:
• Speed research on the forces that can
trigger abrupt climate change, how it unfolds, and how we'll know it's
• Sponsor studies on the scenarios that
might play out, including ecological, social, economic, and political
fallout on key food-producing regions.
• Identify "no regrets" strategies
to ensure reliable access to food and water and to ensure our national
• Form teams to prepare responses to
possible massive migration, and food and water shortages.
• Explore ways to offset abrupt
cooling—today it appears easier to warm than to cool the climate via
human activities, so there may be "geo-engineering" options
available to prevent a catastrophic temperature drop.
In sum, the risk of abrupt climate change remains uncertain, and it is
quite possibly small. But given its dire consequences, it should be
elevated beyond a scientific debate. Action now matters, because we may
be able to reduce its likelihood of happening, and we can certainly be
better prepared if it does. It is time to recognize it as a national
The Pentagon's reaction to this sobering report isn't known—in keeping
with his reputation for reticence, Andy Marshall declined to be
interviewed. But the fact that he's concerned may signal a sea change in
the debate about global warming. At least some federal thought leaders
may be starting to perceive climate change less as a political annoyance
and more as an issue demanding action.
If so, the case for acting now to address climate change, long a hard
sell in Washington, may be gaining influential support, if only behind
the scenes. Policymakers may even be emboldened to take steps such as
tightening fuel-economy standards for new passenger vehicles, a measure
that would simultaneously lower emissions of greenhouse gases, reduce
America's perilous reliance on OPEC oil, cut its trade deficit, and put
money in consumers' pockets. Oh, yes—and give the Pentagon's fretful
Yoda a little less to worry about.