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1998 - 2003© Copyright From The Wilderness Publications


Global Climate Change and Peak Oil

The Sword of Damocles Has Two Edges

(Part I)


Dale Allen Pfeiffer

© Copyright 2004, From The Wilderness Publications, All Rights Reserved. May be reprinted, distributed or posted on an Internet web site for non-profit purposes only.

[Peak Oil is bringing on the agonies of a huge cultural and economic transition. Like the withdrawal symptoms endured by an addict, the effects of the coming petroleum crisis will ravage the American body politic and work necessary but painful changes in the life of the entire human community. Just as that inexorable withdrawal closes in on us, we're acquiring a new awareness of the damage already done by the petroleum addiction itself. Peak Oil is the crisis of getting off petroleum; climate change is the almost- irreversible legacy of two hundred years of fossil fuel pollution. The difficult irony for the United States – whose annual oil consumption dwarfs that of any other nation – is that this day of reckoning comes at a time when our political institutions are at their worst levels of performance since the Civil War.

Corruption, income inequity, narco-traffic, money-laundering, the warfare state, loss of civil liberties, imperial overstretch, racism, and the constant recourse to violence as a tool of domestic and international policy – all the ailments of the republic are interconnected. At their center is an oil economy bound to militarism by the petrodollar money system. Change that system, and the other problems become far more amenable to rational reform – as Catherine Austin Fitts has said, “until we change the way money works, we will remain perpetual victims at the hands of elites who have no incentive to change.”

Climate change should be that missing incentive. Wealth and weapons are not much use under seven meters of melted glacial seawater. Still, the fake statesmen who profiteered from fifty years of nuclear “Mutual Assured Destruction” are unlikely to be moved by any amount of peril, so long as they enjoy coercive economic and political power. It seems the education of the public is the key to a safer world – so we're educating each other. In part one of this three-part story, FTW Science Editor Dale Allen Pfeiffer sets out a detailed picture of the climate change issue and its paramount importance. Part two will consider the dreadful convergence of global climate change and the peak of global oil production. – FTW]

APRIL 13, 2004 0800 PST (FTW) In October of 2003, the Pentagon published a report on abrupt climate change.1 Its authors were by Peter Schwartz, a CIA consultant and former head of planning at the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network.2 Their task was to assess the likelihood of abrupt climate change within the next twenty years. They were then supposed to develop a scenario of the possible consequences should abrupt climate change occur starting in 2004. Finally, they were to make recommendations to the President based on their study: An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security.

A few copies were printed and circulated around the Pentagon, which heavily censored the report and is now downplaying its significance.3 It remained effectively buried and all but forgotten until copies were leaked to the media, first to Fortune Magazine,4 and then to The Observer.5 The Pentagon has rightfully pointed out that this is a speculative report; they are not expecting abrupt climate change to begin in the year 2004. Schwartz and Randall are exploring a risk scenario, such as the Pentagon and the CIA draw up all the time – what would happen if the Russians launched a nuclear attack this year; what would happen if California suffered the big one, etc. But the real importance of the report lies in the statement of probability and in the authors' recommendations to the President and the National Security Council.

While no statistical analysis of probability is given in the report as it has been released (any such statistical analysis would most likely be classified), the authors state that “the plausibility of severe and rapid climate change is higher than most of the scientific community and perhaps all of the political community is prepared for.”6 They say that instead of asking whether this could happen, we should be asking when this will happen. They conclude: “It is quite plausible that within a decade the evidence of an imminent abrupt climate shift may become clear and reliable.”7

From such a shift, the report claims, utterly appalling ecological consequences would follow. Europe and Eastern North America would plunge into a mini-ice age, with weather patterns resembling present day Siberia. Violent storms could wreak havoc around the globe. Coastal areas such as The Netherlands, New York, and the West coast of North America could become uninhabitable, while most island nations could be completely submerged. Lowlands like Bangladesh could be permanently swamped. While flooding would become the rule along coastlines, mega-droughts could destroy the world's breadbaskets. The dust bowl could return to America's Midwest. Famine and drought would result in a major drop in the planet's ability to sustain the present human population. Access to water could become a major battleground – hundreds of millions could die as a result of famine and resource wars. More than 400 million people in subtropical regions will be put at grave risk. There would be mass migrations of climate refugees, particularly to southern Europe and North America. Nuclear arms proliferation in conjunction with resource wars could very well lead to nuclear wars.8 And none of this takes into account the effects of global peak oil and the North American natural gas cliff. Not pretty.

At the end of their report, Schwartz and Randall advise that climate change “should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern.”9 And while “alternative fuels, greenhouse gas emission controls, and conservation efforts are worthwhile endeavors,” we're urged to “prepare for the inevitable effects of abrupt climate change -- which will likely come regardless of human activity.”10

As stated, the Pentagon is playing down this report and has opted not to send the authors' recommendations on to the White House.

Urgent for humanity or not, this report is a major embarrassment to President Bush and his corporate handlers, who remain content to deny the reality of global climate change and the validity of the overwhelming case for it. A phalanx of corporate-sponsored disinformationists earns their keep by deriding the report, wearing the mantle of scientific authority while selling their intellectual souls. And the mass media within the US have done their part by virtually ignoring the story.

But outside the well-funded mental playworld of Bush and his junk-science hirelings, what is the global scientific consensus on abrupt climate change? How real is global climate change, and what evidence do we have for it? How could global warming result in a miniature ice age in Europe and Eastern North America? What are the differences among “accelerating climate change,” “abrupt climate change,” and “runaway global warming”? And how will Peak Oil and the North American natural gas cliff affect global climate change? This article tries to answer those questions, with some surprising results.

Global Warming is a Reality

In 2001, no fewer than sixteen major academies of science from throughout the world issued a statement which reads, in part:

The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents the consensus of the international scientific community on climate change science. We recognize IPCC as the world's most reliable source of information on climate change and its causes, and we endorse its method of achieving this consensus. Despite increasing consensus on the science underpinning predictions of global climate change, doubts have been expressed recently about the need to mitigate the risks posed by global climate change. We do not consider such doubts justified.

…we support the IPCC's conclusion that it is at least 90% certain that temperatures will continue to rise, with average global surface temperature projected to increase by between 1.4 and 5.8ºC above 1990 levels by 2100.

It is now evident that human activities are already contributing adversely to global climate change. Business as usual is no longer a viable option. … We urge everyone - individuals, businesses and governments - to take prompt action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The balance of the scientific evidence demands effective steps now to avert damaging changes to the earth's climate.11

In their statement, the scientific academies refer to a four-volume report released by the IPCC in 2001, titled Climate Change 2001.12 The first volume focuses on the scientific case – a giant, multifaceted, multidisciplinary edifice of peer-reviewed empirical research and argumentation converging on a shared set of conclusions. For instance:

Globally, it is very likely that the 1990s was the warmest decade and 1998 the warmest year in the instrumental record, since 1861 (see Figure 1a).

New analyses of proxy data for the Northern Hemisphere indicate that the increase in temperature in the 20th century is likely to have been the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years.

Satellite data show that there are very likely to have been decreases of about 10% in the extent of snow cover since the late 1960s, and ground-based observations show that there is very likely to have been a reduction of about two weeks in the annual duration of lake and river ice cover in the mid- and high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, over the 20th century.

There has been a widespread retreat of mountain glaciers in non-polar regions during the 20th century.

Northern Hemisphere spring and summer sea-ice extent has decreased by about 10 to 15% since the 1950s. It is likely that there has been about a 40% decline in Arctic sea-ice thickness during late summer to early autumn in recent decades and a considerably slower decline in winter sea-ice thickness.13

Variations in the Earth's surface temperature over the last 140 years and the last millennium. Taken from Climate Change 2001.

Arctic Sea Ice 1979 — Arctic Sea Ice 2003

Taken from Recent Warming of the Arctic May Affect Worldwide Weather.
NASA, 10/23/2003.

One of the most dramatic findings of the report concerns the shrinkage of what had been permanent ice shelves inside the Arctic circle. Satellite studies conducted by NASA have shown more recently that Arctic perennial sea ice has been decreasing at an average rate of 9% per decade.14 The above satellite photos demonstrate just how dramatic this retreat is. But its implications go far beyond the transformation of the world's northern landscape. The inexorable melting of sea ice could disrupt oceanic currents which help to regulate and moderate the global climate, leading to abrupt global climate change. These currents are absolutely crucial to the familiar functioning of the biosphere and all its ecosystems, including agriculture. But a major shift in the convection currents of the world's oceans (the Gulf Stream is the most famous) would make the Earth quite a different world from the one to which civilization has adapted. That will be the subject of this article's sequel.

Decreasing snow and ice cover leads to further warming of the Earth's surface. Whereas black objects absorb incoming electromagnetic energy, the bright white snow and ice at the poles is an excellent reflector — so light and heat from the sun bounce off the surface of our planet and back into space (an effect known as albedo). As global warming melts the polar snow and ice cover, the Earth's albedo diminishes, allowing even more of the sun's energy to be absorbed and retained by the Earth. This, in turn, can lead to a further decrease in snow and ice cover, resulting in a positive feedback loop which further increases the effect of global warming.

Returning to the IPCC report, other major observations include a rise in global average sea level over the 20th century, and an increase in global average ocean heat content measured since the 1950s. Average rainfall has decreased in the mid-and higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere during the 20th century, at the same time that rainfall is likely to have risen over equatorial land masses. Mid- and high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere have seen an increase in severe weather, as well as an increase in cloud cover. Since the 1950s, there has been a reduction in the frequency of extremely low temperatures, and a smaller increase in the frequency of extremely high temperatures. Episodes of El Niño-Southern Oscillation phenomenon are becoming more frequent, more persistent, and more intense. And in some regions, particularly in Africa and Asia, the frequency and intensity of droughts is increasing.15

The IPCC goes on to quantify the effect of human-induced climate change. They note that the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased by 31% since 1750. The report states that 75% of anthropogenic [human-induced] carbon dioxide emissions over the past 50 years is due to fossil fuel burning, with most of the remainder due to land-use change and deforestation. Atmospheric concentration of methane has increased by 151% since 1750, and atmospheric concentration of nitrous oxide has increased by 17% since 1750.

Long records of past changes in atmospheric composition
provide the context for the influence of anthropogenic emissions

(a) shows changes in the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) over the past 1000 years. The ice core and firn data for several sites in Antarctica and Greenland (shown by different symbols) are supplemented with the data from direct atmospheric samples over the past few decades (shown by the line for CO2 and incorporated in the curve representing the global average of CH4). The estimated positive radiative forcing of the climate system from these gases is indicated on the right-hand scale. Since these gases have atmospheric lifetimes of a decade or more, they are well mixed, and their concentrations reflect emissions from sources throughout the globe. All three records show effects of the large and increasing growth in anthropogenic emissions during the Industrial Era.

(b) illustrates the influence of industrial emissions on atmospheric sulphate concentrations, which produce negative radiative forcing. Shown is the time history of the concentrations of sulphate, not in the atmosphere but in ice cores in Greenland (shown by lines; from which the episodic effects of volcanic eruptions have been removed). Such data indicate the local deposition of sulphate aerosols at the site, reflecting sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions at mid-latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. This record, albeit more regional than that of the globally-mixed greenhouse gases, demonstrates the large growth in anthropogenic SO2 emissions during the Industrial Era. The pluses denote the relevant regional estimated SO2 emissions (right-hand scale).

[Based upon (a) Chapter 3, Figure 3.2b (CO2); Chapter 4, Figure 4.1a and b (CH4) and Chapter 4, Figure 4.2 (N2O) and (b) Chapter 5, Figure 5.4a]

Graphs and caption taken from Climate Change 2001.

Understanding the science of climate change involves learning a few key terms. Radiative forcing is a measure of the influence a factor has in altering the balance of incoming and outgoing energy in the Earth-atmosphere system.16 It's an index of the factor's importance as a potential climate change mechanism. It is expressed in Watts (a unit of power, or energy-per-second) per square meter (a unit of area on the Earth's surface): Wm -2. According to Climate Change 2001, radiative forcing due to increases in greenhouse gases from 1750 to 2000 is estimated to be 2.43 Wm -2 overall: 1.46 Wm-2 from carbon dioxide, 0.48 Wm -2 from methane, 0.34 Wm -2 from halocarbons (chlorofluorocarbons and similar gases), and 0.15 Wm -2 from nitrous oxide. Overall mean radiative forcing is expected to increase further over the next century even if emissions of greenhouse gases decrease, due to the lifetime of present gases in the atmosphere.

The report points out that newer and stronger evidence has made it plain that most of the warming observable over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities. Ice core records from Iceland and Antarctica are widely considered to have cinched the case for industrially caused global warming. These ice cores have provided us with a climate record stretching back over 1,000 years. Along with new and more accurate models of climate variability, the extended climate record indicates that the current warming trend is unusual and unlikely to be entirely natural in origin. Improved models of climate response to natural and anthropogenic forcing consistently find evidence of an anthropogenic signature in the climate record of the past 50 years.

Contrary to the politically convenient science preferred by the White House and the petroleum executives who live there, simulation of climate response to natural forcings alone – the much-vaunted variations in solar irradiance and volcanic eruptions – do not explain the warming in the second half of the 20th century. Natural forcings are a contributing factor, but the current generation of computational models can now correct for them effectively (in other words, the new models take into account uncertainty in the magnitude of modeled response to external forcing due to uncertainty in climate sensitivity). Models are becoming sufficiently sophisticated that they now accurately model climate observations made over the last 140 years. These models demonstrate that the estimated rate and magnitude of warming due to increasing greenhouse gases alone is sufficient to account for observed warming.17

Stepping away from the IPCC report, we can find an abundance of evidence supporting global climate change from scientific institutions throughout the world. Seasons and weather patterns are changing; glaciers are retreating; the continental ice sheets of Antarctica are beginning to break up; permafrost in the upper latitudes of North America and Siberia is thawing; the Inuit people of the far north are finding that their traditional lifestyles are endangered by shortened winters and ice flows which are breaking up sooner; islands of Polynesia and elsewhere are being submerged by rising water levels; tundra flora is receding; and subtropical flora and fauna are moving into temperate latitudes.

In December 2003, the World Health Organization announced that global warming is killing an average of 150,000 people per year.18 Global warming is contributing to increases in malaria and other insect-borne diseases, malnutrition and pollution-related diseases, and extreme weather events such as the deadly 2003 summer heat wave in Europe. A recent issue of the journal Nature contained a report signed by numerous prominent scientists warning that as much as one quarter of the animal species on the planet will be threatened with extinction in the next 50 years due to global climate change.19

The economic toll is already considerable; global climate change is now costing the world economy billions of dollars annually. The UN estimates this cost at over $60 billion for 2003 alone, a year of climate change induced disasters such as the killer heat wave in Europe and the massive flooding in China.20 And a group of insurers led by Munich Re has reported to the UN that global climate change could cost the world over $300 billion per year by 2050.21

Meanwhile, a report issued by the German Advisory Council on Global Change has stated that measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions must be at least four times stronger than the Kyoto Protocol if they are to prevent melting of the polar ice caps.22 The Council warns that there is only room for another 1.4ºC of global warming before dangerous climactic changes become probable. The global mean temperature has already risen 0.6ºC since the beginning of the industrial era, so this places the danger threshold at an average global increase of 2ºC, which the Council warns will be exceeded within this century if we do not pursue stringent climate protection policies. Although the Kyoto Protocol is not sufficient to prevent disaster, it would be a first step.

Yet the Kyoto Protocol now appears to be dead in the water. The Russians have followed the US lead in walking away from the protocol because they believe its measures would damage economic growth.23 Between the American culture of fossil fuel addiction and the capture of Congress by corporate money, Kyoto never had a chance in the US Senate. For the moment, then, the struggle to slow and reverse these disastrous climatic trends must proceed from inside the collective insanity of our global economic system.

Yet the risks are much greater than even the sources quoted here have allowed, as will become apparent when we discuss the possibilities of abrupt climate change and runaway climate change, and when we look at how the global oil peak and the North American natural gas cliff could affect global climate change.

1 An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security, Schwartz, Peter, and Randall, Doug. October, 2003.

2 Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us, Townsend, Mark, and Harris, Paul. The Observer, 2/22/2004.,12374,1153530,00.html

3 Pentagon downplays report on climate change that it commissioned. AFP, 2/24/2004.

4 Climate Collapse; The Pentagon's Weather Nightmare, Stipp, David. Fortune Magazine, 1/26/2004.

5 Op. Cit. See note 2.

6 Op. Cit. See note 1.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 The Science of Climate Change. 5/17/2001.

12 Climate Change 2001, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

13 Ibid

14 Recent Warming of the Arctic May Affect Worldwide Climate, Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA, 10/23/2003.

15 Op. Cit.

16 “Radiative forcing is defined as a change in average net radiation at the boundary between troposphere and stratosphere (known as the tropopause). A positive radiative forcing tends on average to warm the surface; there is a net heat flow from troposphere to stratosphere. A negative forcing on average tends to cool the surface; there is a net heat flow from stratosphere to troposphere.” See ‘Alternatives to Traditional Transportation Fuels 1994, Volume 2, Greenhouse Gas Emissions; Appendix A, The Chemistry and Physics of Global Warming: An Overview.'

17 Ibid.

18 Global warming kills 150,000 people a year, warms UN, Kirby, Terry. The Independent, 12/12/2003.

19 Extinction Risk from Climate Change, Thomas, Chris D., et al. Nature, Vol. 427, 1/8/2004.

20 Climate change ‘cost $60b' in 2003. CNN, 12/11/2003.

21 Impact of climate change to cost the world $US 300 billion a year. United Nations Environmental Programme, 2/3/2004.

22 Climate Protection Strategies for the 21 st Century; Kyoto and Beyond. German Advisory Council on Global Change. WBGU, 2003.

23 Russia: Kyoto pact harms economy, Reuters. CNN, 12/2/2003.


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