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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Climate Collapse
distributed 2/27/04 - ©2004

It can be hard to get people really stirred up about global warming.

The whole thing is so abstract, so gradual, that other issues and interests seem to take precedence -- especially in the political world. The potential dangers and costs of climate change sit somewhere out there in the future. Doing something specific to lesson climate change shifts those costs onto our society and our generation, and that's a politically difficult thing to do.

A new report, with strong ties to the Pentagon, is changing the tone of the conversation. It spells out the potential form and impacts of an "abrupt" climate change event that could take hold as early as 2010 -- and it is not a pretty picture.

The scenario that is presented is clearly labeled as a "plausible" situation. It is not a prediction of what will happen, but a description of what could come to pass in the very near future. Taking seriously the possibility of rapid climate shifts, the report presents climate change as a matter of urgent concern about national security.

I've seen references to the abrupt change possibility for years. This report is making waves because of

  1. the detail that it provides about geo-political implications of sudden climate flips,
  2. the prominent and highly respected people from the Defense Department who are behind the study,
  3. the prominent write-up of the report in business-oriented Fortune magazine, and
  4. because of the political timing of the "leaks" about the report at the start of this election year.
For all those reasons, the report could make climate change a hot political topic.

The science behind the study shows why experts talk about "climate change" instead of "global warming." The scenario runs like this:

  • Warmer temperatures lead to increased melting of Arctic ice (a process that is well underway), which in turn changes the chemistry of sea water in the polar region. The water is less salty, and thus less dense, than other waters. This cold, relatively fresh water pours into the North Atlantic in major currents running past Greenland.

  • The Arctic waters collide with warm water that circulates north from the tropics, including the Gulf Stream. The less dense water rides up over the warmer currents, forcing them down into the deep ocean -- effectively shutting off the Gulf Stream.

  • When the warm water that has provided a temperate climate for Europe disappears, Europe suddenly falls into ice-age like conditions.

  • And because the climate of the entire hemisphere is interconnected, sudden and dramatic shifts in weather also hit in North America and Asia.
That sort of climate shift is not pure speculation. There was a corresponding case about 8,200 years ago that looks like a collapse of the ocean "conveyor" system in the Atlantic. It led to a century of cold, dry and windy weather across the Northern Hemisphere.

But today's world is very different from human situation in 6,000 BCE. We live in a highly populated, technological and militarized world.

The Pentagon planners look at what might happen when droughts and extreme storms take hold in today's world. Refugees stream across national borders. Conflicts flare up over resources. The wealthy nations -- Europe and especially the US -- are able to cope with some of the climate effects, but also become most attractive destination to hordes of refugees. The wealthy nations also become targets in the increased tensions between rich and poor countries, igniting waves of terrorism and war.

Nuclear war becomes likely between India and Pakistan. Other nuclear powers -- Russia, China, North Korea -- are pushed into unstable and dangerous positions. Warfare over critical resources -- food, water and energy -- becomes the normal way of life around the globe.

The Defense Department report examines that scenario in terms of what it means for US security needs. They find that defending the nation's borders and resources under such conditions make current thinking about terrorism defenses trivial.

The plausible and possible scenario for sudden climate change puts an urgent new face on a long-standing problem. In a time when US foreign and domestic policy has been shaped by fears of terrorism, this study shows that our warping of global climate systems provides a far greater threat to security and survival, in this country and around the world.

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Responding to the threat of sudden climate change requires a complex mix of political action, technological innovation, personal lifestyle changes, and shifts in business and economic practices. It is precisely the mix of changes that has been so difficult to mobilize through the last 15 years of research and activism.

If this report helps us understand the reality of climate change in a way that spurs us to individual and collective transformation, it will have done a great service.

I urge you to read about the report (various links are found in the box below), and to talk to your neighbors, political representatives, church and other community leaders. Talk about the feelings and thoughts that are stirred up. Talk about the need for quick and decisive change toward a more stable world.

As we begin this season of Lent -- a time of prayer and reflection -- the reports on abrupt climate change could even be a powerful place to center your devotional life. Let it shape your prayers about peace, justice, community and compassion.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Links to reports on the abrupt climate chage report from:


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