A troubling forecast

Friday, April 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:33 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

An abrupt climate change caused by global warming — long thought to be centuries away — could take place in a few decades. That’s one of the scenarios proposed by a new Pentagon report that stirred European public opinion earlier this year.

The report, published earlier this year in the British newspaper The Observer, has raised eyebrows among environmentalists because it is one of the first times the threat of global warming has been tied to national security.

The Pentagon report outlines the following scenario: The United States and Australia build defensive fortresses to hold back unwanted starving immigrants. Famine, disease and natural disasters ravage all continents. European countries suffer ice-age winters. Ocean levels rise, causing widespread flooding, and violent storms make large parts of the world uninhabitable. Warmer regions of the world become deserts. Shortages of potable water, food and energy lead to widespread, and possibly nuclear, war by 2020. The Pentagon report predicts: “Once again, warfare would define human life.”

This is not a pretty picture. But local scientists say the apocalyptic future described in the report is not necessarily going to happen.

“The report was not meant as the expected scenario, but focused on the worst case to examine possible warfare consequences,” said Winifred Colwill, energy director of the League of Women Voters of Missouri. “What is interesting about the report is that the issue of national security has never been publicly discussed by the government. Generally all the attention has been on the environmental impacts of global climate change.”

The authors of the report, Peter Schwartz, a CIA consultant, and Doug Randall of Global Business Network, were quoted by The Observer as saying climate change “should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a U.S. national security concern.”

However, Schwartz, Randall and military officials say the study has been largely misconstrued by the media and environmentalists.

Since he entered office, environmental activists have charged President Bush with playing down the importance of global warming, citing his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to The Observer, U.S. military officials censored the report because the issue of global warming could affect the presidential campaign.

Kerry Cordray, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Energy Center, said the coverage of the report was not very balanced.

“The Observer’s sensational reporting didn’t consider if the dramatic scenario was really likely to happen,” he said. “The truth is that there is good consensus in the scientific community about the reality of global climate change, but there isn’t as strong an agreement on its specific effects.”

The Pentagon report states that Earth has experienced abrupt climate change over time even when the atmosphere and biosphere were not polluted by human action.

Christopher Wikle, an MU adjunct professor of atmospheric science, said an explanation could lie “in the amount of volcanic emissions, whose particles worked both as a trap to the outgoing radiations and prevented others from reaching the lower levels of the atmosphere, causing overheating or cooling.”

Another reason is the Earth’s orbit change, Wikle said.

“The outcomes currently analyzed by scientists are the best possible available, but the biggest challenge is to clarify the uncertainty about how the large model of climate system and its processes work,” he said.

Wikle said changes in technology “are important but cannot stop the problem overnight.” Since the earth’s climate system is so complex, there is still uncertainty about whether human actions can make a big difference in preventing or limiting climate changes.

But Wikle said such uncertainty should not be used as an excuse to stop asking questions and looking for answers.

“We should ask ourselves whether this lack of guarantees is enough for us just to sit back and do nothing about it, without even trying to work for the better,” he said.

Wikle explained how the global warming process works in simple terms. Short-wave energy radiations from the sun reach the earth, warm it and radiate back in the form of outgoing long waves. An unnaturally high level of carbon dioxide emissions hinders this process by trapping an excessive number of energy waves. Emissions result from human activities such as burning dirty fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. Once they accumulate in the atmosphere, the gases blanket the Earth and cause an unbalance in the retained heat, leading to the greenhouse effect.

The use of environmentally friendly sources of energy is a key to helping reduce gas emissions. Colwill said the league has been focusing on energy conservation programs and on the use of renewable sources of energy since 1978.

The state of Missouri was supposed to give tax credits for the users of renewable sources or biomass technology, but this was never enacted, she said. The league’s energy committee acts on local, state and national energy issues.

“We wrote our U.S. senators to vote against the 2004 energy bill because it would increase oil and gas burning and exacerbate the problem of global warming,” Colwill said. Past efforts to enact state tax credits for use of renewable energy failed in Missouri. “The league is supporting legislation right now that would require electric companies in Missouri to begin to utilize some renewable energy,” she said.

The energy committee investigates on various sources with Central Electric Cooperative. “Boone Electric Coop is selling electricity derived from burning walnut shells together with coal,” Colwill said. Boone Electric’s power supplier, Central Electric Cooperative, bought about 3,000 tons of landfill-bound walnut shells and used them to produce about 3.8 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. Walnut shells fall in the biomass category of renewable energy.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has long perceived the need for renewable energy sources.

In 1991, an assessment from the Missouri Commission on Global Climate Change and Ozone Depletion stated that “climate change is being induced by human activity and may occur at an unprecedented pace which could challenge natural and human adaptation.” The assessment went on to say that “continued accumulation of greenhouse gases will alter the environment.”

The statement propelled the state to conduct two projects partially funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to address global warming and possible solutions.

Published in July 2002, the report, “Missouri Action Options for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” focuses its attention on five specific sectors: electric generation, agriculture and forestry, solid waste management, energy use in buildings and highway and other transportation.

“The report isn’t intended to predict future development of global warming; its purpose is to evaluate the current greenhouse gas sources in Missouri and provide data on how various actions could affect future emissions,” Cordray said. “It spells out different kinds of policies that would require voluntary actions or changes in legislation to be implemented. Seeing those policies enacted either by law or voluntary actions would be a huge challenge.”

Cordray, like Colwill, pointed out that electric generation plants, which burn coal to produce electricity, are among the biggest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. The department’s report found that energy generation plants are the largest stationary sources of Missouri GHGs and other air pollutants, with coal-fired electric generation plants being the largest single sources.

According to a 2003 World Wildlife Foundation report, “Power Switch: Impacts of Climate Policy on the Power Sector,” electricity production is responsible for 37 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The analysis says the U.S. power sector can cut its carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming nearly 60 percent by 2020 and reduce its dependency on dirty fossil fuels by using available energy technologies and supporting innovative polices.

WWF focuses on its PowerSwitch! program to collaborate with electric power companies internationally to commit to clean energy and to become carbon dioxide free by 2050. In the United States, five companies have so far embraced the project.

Colwill said she believes progress is being made.

“Missouri’s new, up-to-date wind assessment maps show that certain areas of the state have some potential for wind power that can be used for electricity by farmers and communities. Landowners can use the state’s anemometers to test local wind speed and intensity,” she said.

An obstacle that needs to be challenged is the common assumption that alternative sources and technologies are not yet available, feasible or affordable, she said.

“If environmental damage were included in the cost of conventional fuel, it would be clear that alternative sources of energy have not only an appropriate price, but would help the national economy by reducing dependence on external sources,” Colwill said. “The beneficial impact on the environment would be priceless.”

The Pentagon report is available online at

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