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Environmental Collapse - Sooner Not Later

Environmental Collapse - Sooner Not Later

By Rowan Wolf, Uncommon Thought Journal

There is an interesting article in the February 9, 2004 edition of Fortune Magazine - CLIMATE COLLAPSE - The Pentagon's Weather Nightmare - by David Stipp. The Pentagon is apparently taking "climate change" seriously even if the White House is not. The Pentagon called in Andrew Marshall, who has been the the Defense Department's "sage" for over thirty years, to look at the scenarios.

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.

The perception of the pace of global warming is rapidly shifting (as I have discussed before here on Uncommon Thought). Rather than a gradual warming taking a century or more we are looking at a much shorter timeline - a decade or less. Further, rather than getting significantly warmer and staying warmer for some time, there is likely to be a relatively rapid descent into an ice age - severity and duration unknown. The reasoning is based upon evidence of previous ice ages and what seemed to precede them.

The pattern seems to go: warming, shut down of the "ocean conveyor," ice age, warming towards normal. The northern hemisphere seems to get hit the worst by ice ages. The warming melts the polar caps and the North Atlantic current ("ocena conveyor") stops. On one hand, this stops the flow of the warmer ocean waters of the south from having their affect on both Western Europe and North America. The melting ice also decreases the salinity of the ocean which changes the force of the circulation patterns. It gets cold and stays cold until the polar caps restore themselves sufficiently to restart the ocean conveyor.

The warming that is happening at this point is rapid because of the massive contribution that we have made to that process (as noted in the quote above). Scientists now believe that the climate (nor Earth's balance) is limitlessly pliable. Rather once the balance moves out of a certain range, we have the "tipping point." The question right now is whether we are near, at, or past the tipping point. Regardless of when the conveyor shuts down, it is likely that there will be a rapid descent into an ice age. What is known as the "Little" ice age lasted from about 1500 to 1850 and brought violent storms, droughts, and very hard winters. From my reading of the article, neither the Pentagon nor the scientists expect anything so mild.

Some of the evidence noted in a supporting piece by Stipp (Growing Evidence of Scary Change:

. In tandem with rising average temperatures across the globe, 3% to 4% of the Arctic ice cap has melted per decade since about 1970.

. Recently the Arctic's largest ice shelf broke up near Canada's Ellesmere Island, releasing an ice-dammed freshwater lake into the ocean. (Scientists believe that the similar melting of an Arctic ice dam 8,200 years ago triggered an episode of abrupt climate change.)

. The North Atlantic's salinity has declined continuously for the past 40 years--the most dramatic oceanic change ever measured.

. The flow of cold, dense water through a North Atlantic channel near Norway--part of the great ocean current that warms northern Europe--has dropped by at least 20% since 1950, suggesting that the current is weakening.

The article includes the Pentagon's "most likely" scenario for various place around the world, but let's focus on the one for the United States (from the main Stipp article):

Megadroughts afflict the U.S., especially in the southern states, along with winds that are 15% stronger on average than they are now, causing widespread dust storms and soil loss. The U.S. is better positioned to cope than most nations, however, thanks to its diverse growing climates, wealth, technology, and abundant resources. That has a downside, though: It magnifies the haves-vs.-have-nots gap and fosters bellicose finger-pointing at America.

Turning inward, the U.S. effectively seeks to build a fortress around itself to preserve resources. Borders are strengthened to hold back starving immigrants from Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean islands--waves of boat people pose especially grim problems. Tension between the U.S. and Mexico rises as the U.S. reneges on a 1944 treaty that guarantees water flow from the Colorado River into Mexico. America is forced to meet its rising energy demand with options that are costly both economically and politically, including nuclear power and onerous Middle Eastern contracts. Yet it survives without catastrophic losses.

This actually seems like a highly flawed scenario in my mind as it overlooks some critical issues, and is based on some possibly flawed assumptions. Let's start with the flawed assumptions.

First, this climatic change and resulting violence would probably take out most of our coastal cities which would kill and/or displace literally millions of people (13 million from NY City alone). These cities happen to also be the primary points of commerce (import and export), house the heart of both national and international finance, and the seat of the federal government and the Pentagon (Washington, DC). At the same time that this is happening, the drastic climatic changes will totally shift the various biosystems of the US. What is now the "bread basket" of the United States could face severe droughts, and winters rivaling Siberia. Areas that might be agriculturally productive may be under millions of tons of shopping malls and urban sprawl. Things will be tight. People will be hungry. The global proposition of the "haves and have-nots" will be taking place nationally as much as it will internationally.

The next set of flawed assumptions is that the US infrastructure can withstand such a dramatic change. Across this nation, much of the infrastructure has and is deteriorated. The massive blackouts this last summer in the east were at least partially due to an inadequate and ill maintained power grid. Cities across this country are fighting failing water and sewer systems, and failing bridges, tunnels, and roadways. Even during the realtively posh times of the mid-1990s, infrastructure was not at the top of the list. Now, with most states running deficits, and no help from the federal government, infrastructure is not even on the radar screen. Ongoing declining funding for public education in Oregon has resulted in the diversion of funding for even regular maintenance - until buildings and systems fail. Cities and states are facing similar situations. A weakened infrastructure is not likely to withstand what appears to be hanging over us.

There are also critical issues that lead to significant problems. At the top of the list is the peak oil crisis. We are at, near, or beyond peak oil. In other words, the point at which half of the known global oil reserves have been depleted. At this point global consumption is not only not stabilizing, it is accelerating at a rapid rate. We are going to be in the middle of the loss of the world's primary power resource at the very time that we may need it the most. The loss of the oil, even without an ice age, is expected to result in the deaths of billions of humans (Life After the Oil Crash by Matt Savinar). The solution? Well, it seems that the Pentagon assumption is a mass transfer to nuclear power (which has its associated nuclear proliferation risks and is noted in the Stipp article). Problem? First, we don't have those plants in place. Second, they have not been particularly efficient or dependable. Third, what do we do with all that nuclear waste?

The oil crisis will hit agriculture as well. Not just planting and harvesting. Not just processing and transporting of product. The oil crisis will hit agriculture because we are using tons of oil as fertilizer to replace what we have stripped out of it by over-farming, and use of pesticides and herbicides.

I'll make this the last critical issue. The US cannot even feed itself - even though we have just about the best agricultural climate and landscape in the world. Why? Two reasons. First, like the rest of the globalized planet we are bound to an export/import economy. Agricultural products are among our top exports. That means that the production has been focused to a profitable export market and not to feeding the population of the United States. If you have read Robert Mannings article "The Oil We Eat" in the February 2004 Harpers, then the following statement might have jumped out at you:

America's biggest crop, grain corn, is completely unpalatable. It is the raw material for an industry that manufactures food substitutes. Likewise, you can't eat unprocessed wheat. You certainly can't eat hay. You can eat unprocessed soybeans, but mostly we don't. These four crops cover 82 percent of American cropland. ...

About two-thirds of U.S. grain corn is labeled "processed," meaning it is milled and otherwise refined for food or industrial use. About 45 percent of that becomes sugar, especially high-fructose corn sweeteners...

So most of the agricultrual land is taken up by four crops that can't be used without utilizing more energy to make them edible. Further, that the processing that is set up does not create what we might consider a "healthy" diet - not one that we could probably live on for very long.

Therefore, the scenario that we can hunker down in fortress America and wait out the ice age is unlikely. It is more likely that the US, like much of the rest of the world will experience a massive die off. We will face massive social disruption as infrastructures and politcal structures bend and then fail. The space-based weapons systems the US is planning and building are certainly there, in part, because of just such a looming catastrophe. Of course, what they were looking at was capturing and controlling a dwindling resource supply in the face of globalization. With or without globalization the resources are dwindling. An ice age just accelerates the scenario and increases the risks - not lessens them.

This is truly a grim picture. But I don't think that it has to be quite as grim as I have depicted. My assumption is that we are unlikely to change the course we are on. It is possible that we could. Assuming that we are not past the climate tipping point, then massive reduction of global warming gases could slow (though not avert) what is going to happen. That would have the additional benefit of extending the global oil supply. We could address the impending climate change directly by strengthening infrastructure, refooting our economy, and moving populations from areas that are likely to be ravaged by rising oceans and the accompanying storms. We could prepare in a number of ways, and we could help the rest of the world do the same thing. This would lessen the threat of invasion or attack forseen by desperate masses trying to survive.

Would this bring us, or the rest of the world, through either the oil crisis or the ice age unscathed? No. Would it make it more likely that we (and other Earthly inhabitants) might survive? Yes. Would it have the additional benefit of working collaboratively with the rest of the world thereby reducing tensions and hostilities? I think so. Would it be possible to go into this event that will have global impact as a global community? Yes, I believe that as well. I believe that we could pull together rather than pulling apart, and that would be a wonderful thing to behold.

However, this takes acknowledging the problem and addressing it head on. So far the Bush administration hardly wants to admit there is an issue (either peak oil or global warming), even though the Pentagon is obviously thinking about how to militarily deal with these same events. Much of the nation is still arguing that global warming is a "theory" based on the corporate science that also doesn't want to address the issue because the current path is so profitable for them. So people need to know what is going on - in both the broad and long view as well as the specific issues. Maybe we can give our politicians the backbone to directly face these rather unpalatable truths.


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