Sunday, February 22, 2004

WEATHER OF MASS DESTRUCTION?

That's the sensationalist spin that Greenpeace is putting on the threat of climate change. It's in response to a recent report commissioned by the Pentagon on the subject. The Guardian, mildly less sensationalist, has a story on the report as well. The report, commissioned by Pentagon defence adviser Andrew Marshall, apparently describes the possibility of imminent climate change causing flooding, drought and famine which could lead to widespread chaos and conflict for water, food and energy resources.

The Guardian quotes the report noting:

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.

An imminent scenario of catastrophic climate change is 'plausible and would challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately', they conclude.

The Guardina also picked out this:

'Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life,' concludes the Pentagon analysis. 'Once again, warfare would define human life.'

Now it strikes me that on the grand scale there has seldom, if ever, been a time when conflict and warfare have not been endemic and defining features of human life, but that's not primarily what I am commenting on here; its the threat of climate change.

Last week in the Globe and Mail, Thomas Homer-Dixon (The Ingenuity Gap) wrote an opinion piece prompted by this same report. He actually plays down the fact that it was commissioned by the Pentagon and focuses on a much more reasoned analysis of the science behind it. The result: the report is still worrying but it doesn't have me hoarding food and arming myself just yet.

Homer-Dixon writes:

Sharp, non-linear change of the global climate could pose the greatest environmental challenge to our species in the past 10,000 years. We may be far closer to such a threshold than we dare admit.

He goes on to describe how global warming could disrupt, or essentially kill, the gulf stream which would actually have the effect of making much of North America and Europe vastly colder and cause massive drought in many other parts of the world. Yet, he also writes,

"as ever, uncertainty intervenes: The interactions of ocean and atmosphere are so complex that it's impossible to know exactly when or how something like this might occur. Scientists...acknowledge that they're in the dark as to how close Earth is to a new climate regime."

The change may come next year, or it may not come for another thousand years. It may be primarily the result of human action or it may be more a factor of ongoing climate cycles of the planet. The question is, how will we respond? Over the course of history humanity has faced several debilitating disasters, the bubonic plague seems to be the best example. Across Europe and Asia a significant portion of the human population died resulting in major social disruption.

Humanity, however, is pretty resilient and very innovative. I think that whatever disasters the world throws at us, or whatever problems we create for ourselves, we will adapt to them. We will re-negotiate society and reform the world as we always have. It would be nice, of course, if we could preempt disaster, which is why I think we should be focusing a little more attention and political will to the climate change question. I have every confidence that humanity can survive anything. It's the price of that survival that worries me.

Posted by Matthew @ 9:35 PM