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Interview: Abrupt Climate Change, the Pentagon, and The Day After Tomorrow
Alex Steffen, 26 May 04

Doug Randall wrote (along his boss at Global Business Network, Peter Schwartz) what has come to be known as "the Pentagon study" on abrupt climate change. Their scenaric findings -- that the gradual global warming we're experiencing could plausibly trigger an abrupt climate snap, and that its effects would be massive, perhaps catastrophic, and of direct relevance to the national security of the United States -- were picked up by media around the world, gathering a snowball of controversy and hype along the way. Their scenarios, freely available on the Web, were termed a "secret Pentagon report," and their descriptions of possible climate catastrophe taken as bald prediction.

But underneath the hype was a reasoned attempt to judge the seriousness of the threat posed by climate instability. That's something all of us hoping to change the world have to take into account. So we asked Doug about the implications of that report (now that the dust has settled), the movie The Day After Tomorrow, and how to think about the future of climate change.

Alex Steffen: Please give us the elevator pitch here: what is abrupt climate change, how could it happen and what did your scenario study show it could be like?

Doug Randall: Sure, and let me also give you the background on this. The Pentagon asked us to think about abrupt climate change and what its geopolitical implications might be. We weren't saying this is what will happen, only that it plausibly could happen.

Abrupt climate change is the possibility of sudden and dramatic cooling, drying and windiness that potentially could be triggered by slow and gradual global warming. Now when you talk about climate change, most people think slow and gradual global warming, which itself is a very real problem. But the story that hasn't been told as often, but is clearly understood by most scientists, is a sudden and abrupt change in the planet's climate.

This has happened many times in the planet's history, and most scientists agree it will happen again at some point and that gradual warming makes it more likely to some degree. The big questions are when, how much, in what regions and to what degree.

Now, we looked at the worst-case realistic scenario: what would happen if abrupt climate change was as extreme as is plausible, if it hit the most vulnerable regions the hardest, and if it all happened at once. There are no scientists we've run into who say that abrupt climate change will unfold exactly as we've outlined, but there are also very few scientists who say that something like this is implausible.

What would happen? Well, in our study, average temperatures drop five degrees Fahrenheit, maybe twice as much in North America and Europe. There are huge droughts across the world and rapidly-worsening storms, leading to food shortages, lack of fresh water and disrupted energy supplies.

In terms of daily life, food prices would go up, and certain foods would be harder to get. Fuel prices would go up. But more importantly, if this were to occur, you'd probably see mass-migrations. People in Sweden moving to Spain, people in Canada moving to the US, people in hard-hit developing countries moving wherever they can.

But things might not be that bad, and we might be able to respond effectively.

Your scenario is based on actual events 8,200 years ago, right?

Yes, the historical record is clear. Abrupt climate change happens.

But that doesn't mean that there aren't huge questions. For instance, do advance technologies and globalization make this sort of change less impactful, because we can adapt more quickly, or do they make it worse, because our systems are more brittle and we're more reliant on one another? That's a key question.

And what's your thinking on that?

It's hard to know. It's certainly plausible to imagine the impacts being worse, and that leading to a sharp decrease in the carrying capacity of the planet, and that would lead to even more conflicts over food, water and other resources, more instability.


I was just recently reading the newly-released, updated 30th anniversary edition of The Limits to Growth. The authors there argue that we're already beyond the limits, and cutting pretty deep into the natural capital upon which human civilization relies, and you make the point that abrupt climate change could wreak profound havoc on natural systems which are already under stress. How bad could this get?

Well, on the one hand, human society is pretty resilient.

On the other, if abrupt climate change strikes in an area which is already vulnerable right now, say, Africa, then the impacts will be much, much more severe. African systems are already straining. How much more drought, how much more famine, how much more severe weather can we handle in Africa? Where carrying capacity is already stressed, where we're already beyond the limits, a sharp right punch like abrupt climate change could be truly disastrous.

Is the industrialized world doing a good enough job preparing for climate instability?

What do I think personally? No. I believe the industrialized world has the knowledge, the capacity and the motive to focus much greater attention on these issues, and we ought to. But that's not a suggestion that came out of the scenario or our report.

The U.N. just called for more aid to help the developing world predict severe storms, estimating that last year, 75,000 people died as a direct result of a weather disasters. Freak storms, tidal surges, sea level rises, Arctic trekkers finding open water at the North Pole -- many of the kinds of things your scenario describes are already today's headlines. What if anything does your work tell us about how to think about stories like these?

You know, it's hard to know where you are in the cycle. We tend to think, during a harsh winter or a heat wave that, see, global warming is here. But are we deep in climate change, or are these just aberrations? We just don't really know where on the curve we stand.

One of the things Day After Tomorrow had been criticized for is the extreme suddenness of the climate collapse. Nobody credible thinks it will happen overnight or to that extent. Yet, as you point out, drops of 5-10 degrees in a single decade are entirely plausible, given the historical record -- that's still pretty freaking extreme, pretty damn quick. Should they have titled this movie "The Decade After Tomorrow"?

[Laughs] Well, they're trying to sell movies, and a day is much more interesting than a decade. This movie is science fiction, not science fact, but I think that it's becoming a platform for meaningful discussion.

Really? Do you see signs of that discussion starting to happen?

I was actually very pleased with the responses we received to our work from a lot of individual readers. Of course, there was a media firestorm and a lot of inaccurate statements made, but what came out of it was the beginning of a real dialogue, and I think there's starting to be an awareness in the general public of what abrupt climate change is. Global warming is serious and somewhat understood, but the second half of that story -- abrupt climate change -- is not something we've been thinking about.

So it may be good that it's hard to ignore The Day After Tomorrow. I haven't seen it. I know that in the movie the impacts of abrupt climate change are probably exaggerated and the timeframe is definitely exaggerated, but the premise is one of the real issues of our day -- and it's being debated right there on the big screen, with people paying $9.50 to do it. I applaud that. I think it's great.

You guys make the point that in terms of being prepared for abrupt climate change, the question to ask is not whether this will happen, but when. You also say we may be on the cusp of such an event. What are the danger signs, and how alarmed should we be, how alarmed are you?

The danger signs come from the world of science and have to do with things like salinity of the Atlantic Ocean and the thermohaline conveyor. Signs that point to big shifts in these kind of processes are the ones to look for, as opposed to hotter weather or strange storms. We need scientists out there looking. We need deeper understanding and more knowledge.

How alarmed am I? This could be a much larger problem than even climate change in general is, but I'm hopeful that we'll put more resources towards understanding it.

But there must be a certain level, when you're doing this kind of thing, where you realize, "Wow, there's some real plausibility to the idea that the whole planet's weather could change in a decade." At some point you must've had an "Oh, shit!" moment there, you know?

Sure. There are definitely those moments. Oh shit moments kind of come with the job. I mean, personally? I would really like to see us start moving more aggressively on global warming and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

This is why I'm -- again, personally -- an advocate of hydrogen and similar kinds of solutions. The hydrogen scenario (which Peter Schwartz and I painted in Wired magazine a while back) has its own problems. Hydrogen is a good direction to move because it gives increasing flexibility to move away from fossil fuels, but it's hard to imagine realistically doing it without using fossil fuels and probably nuclear power to create the hydrogen in the interim. So those would be steps towards a greener future, though not necessarily green steps themselves. If this were an easy problem, we'd have solved it already.

While you were working on this, what surprised you the most?

I was actually surprised about how much the scientific community knows about the history of climate change, and how little it knows about the future of climate change, and how hard it is to make these links with with anything close to the level of certainty policy makers and funders would like.

The planet is so complex, and so fragile in many ways, that it becomes very hard to understand how everything will interact as the weather changes. More to the point, we don't really know how climate change will play out in specific regions, and that's actually the data we most need to make decisions about what to do.

You can't build up every sea wall. You can't fortify every grid. You can't find more water for every farm. We just can't afford it. It's not possible. But you don't really know for certain where gradual climate change is going to hit the hardest, or how abrupt climate change might unfold. And you can't make good decisions about how to respond until you do.

What kinds of questions remain to be asked, that would be useful to ask in a scenaric way: what kinds of questions do you think remain to be asked about these larger questions of climate that may not be usefully subject to straight prediction?

Wow. I like that question. My primary focus is really not on the environment, but I guess I'd say that among the questions that remain to be asked is what would it be like if the world viewed climate change as a global problem, rather than a set of national problems? How would things change if the world engaged in real collaboration on stopping and responding to climate change? I think that'd be the one I'd be really interested in.

Then there are lots of unknowns about technology. People are starting to talk about technology and the developing world -- the cellphone in places like India and China is the often cited example of... what do they call that?


Yes, exactly. What might that look like if it continues, and how real is the possibility of leapfrogging here in the developed world? I have yet to see good scenarios on the future of technology and how it relates to climate change.

For example, environmental groups in the United States might ask themselves, Can we have the greatest impact focusing domestically, or would we have a greater impact focusing globally, even though our area of concern, our sponsor dollars, our members are here? I'm not an expert on the environment, but I suspect that looking dollar-for-impact, focusing on the developing world would be the way to go. But it's a big, unanswered question.

So, last question: are you going to go see The Day After Tomorrow?

[Laugh] Oh, definitely, yes.

(And welcome, Slashdotters -- good to have you visit. Take a look around, check the archives, and let us know what you think!)

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Great piece, guys!

Posted by: Vinay on 26 May 04

After the second world war, we had the Neurenberg
trials. Suddenly it became possible to punish
the leaders of a state for crimes, against which,
at the time, were no laws.
It would a good thing if /our/ leaders would be
confronted with the fact that they too could very
well be hauled in court for crimes against the
environment against which were no laws at the
time they were committed.


Posted by: hans paijmans on 27 May 04

i'm a big fan of apocalypso movies, so i guess i have a bit of terriblisma :D

so i'll definately be watching the latest roland emmerich world trashing by ice... BUT, my money's still on magnetic pole reversal!

Posted by: reflexorset on 27 May 04

Yeah, just think if our evil modern world screws up the wonderful stable earth paradise we were handed we might have global ice ages or shifting continents or increased vulcanism or great extinctions. Wait a minute! Those already happened, long before Man even existed. Hmm. Something wrong here.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on 27 May 04

Seems you've missed what Doug Randall's saying and trying to impose a "sky is falling" mentality here. Wasn't the "Limits to growth" discredited a while back?

Posted by: Adrian Ramsey on 27 May 04

Use of nuclear power brings gigantic risks associated with terrorism. In particular, airplanes. It's worth pointing out that some designs are less inherently dangerous than others in case of physical breach. See for example pebble-bed modular reactors, under development AFAIK mainly by Eskom in the RSA, see

Posted by: F.Baube on 27 May 04

Thirty years ago they warned us about global cooling. Nobody paniced so they switched it to global warming. Still nobody paniced. So now they try global cooling again.

Posted by: Bob on 27 May 04

Its the frog in the slowly heated pan syndrome - where the frog only has its need for certainty met when its too late to save its own rear.
Seriously, how many people stil beleive you can have any absolute or even satisfactory level of certainty with such complex systems such asthe weahter adn climate.

People demanding such proofs do not understand science (probably not interested) and would make lousy risk assessment managers.

In any complex system, emergent properties and trends\patterns are rarely if ever fixed to a particular pattern of growth or type of result. Not until the late stages of the process.

Its simply not possible to give concrete answers about climate change until not long before teh water lapping at your fornt door.
Hence our big homosapien brain which can deal in probabilities, odds and likelyhoods.

Yes nature changes and cycles the weahter periodically and always has. So whether humanity triggered it or simply is victim to natural cycle is not the most important quesio.What we need to ask is, what can we do to slow or alleviate and if neccessary deal with the negative impacts of climate change.

Its up to us blame or cause said aside, to decide what we're gonna do

Posted by: karim on 27 May 04

What most of the population ignores (including Mr Randall apparently given that he does not address the point) is that over the historical record, temperatures have varied wildly. The temperate climate we have had over the past few thousand years is _an abberation_. The climate will change whether or not we humans are present even if many of the more extreme pushers of the global cooling/warming/sky is falling scenarios like to fault human beings sources for their scenarios.

Posted by: phayes on 27 May 04

re: "What most of the population ignores..."

sigh. I am so tired of seeing this ridiculous "reasoning" being portrayed as being somehow more insightful or intelligent. The fact that temperatures & CO2 levels are cyclical in nature is neither evidence for nor against mankinds contribution to the current upward trends. There is no logical connection. That you are steadfastly convinced that the fact of historical cycles means that current trends CAN'T be influenced by mankind is evidence only of faulty wiring in your brain.

Furthermore, since we are currently very close to a historical peak in those trends, and since there is plenty of solid evidence that severe or catastrophical climate changes can occur during those peaks, the POTENTIAL that mankind may be contributing even a very small amount to the upward trends MUST be cause for GREAT concern. How can you not get that? If we were at a historical median, maybe mankinds contributions to global warming would be insignificant. We're not. Go and actually look at those graphs of climate change cycles you blither on about. We're very close to being at a historical peak. Therefore man's contributions, even if a small fraction of the cyclical forces, are cause for concern. Duh.

It astonishes me, the incredible creativity people show in coming up with ways to be stupid.

Posted by: SomeOldGuy on 27 May 04

It's tough to be civil in response to some of the comments here.

"Bob" says "they" scared "us" about cooling, then warming, now cooling again and wants to conclude there is no real problem. Once more slowly, then: If it gets warmer *too fast* the climate will change, crops will fail, etc. It might even melt enough ice to disrupt ocean currents that move heat north, making things suddenly get colder *too fast*. In either case climate will change, crops will fail, etc. True, colder is different from hotter but they're both equally bad and equally likely. What is so hard to understand about this?

Similarly phayes' remarks. Yes, climate has changed continuously throughout the earth's history. We don't understand why. What we do know is that, whether the change occurred "naturally" or not, it would be very bad for us if it changed *suddenly*. Until we understand exactly how the system works we should quit making it even *more* unstable by making massive changes to the elements of the system (like generating greenhouse gases and eliminating tropical rainforests).

Posted by: joe on 27 May 04

Good rebuttals Joe. HTe inanity of some of the knee-jerks in this forum is amazing. they are akin to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages denying the earth revolves around the Sun: we are emotionally attached to our current beliefs and don't want our ognorant bliss disturbed so we have no facts or patience to try gather them and understand so we are certain it cannot be true.

Posted by: coderanger on 27 May 04

All in all, humans don't have enough recorded history to make anything more than guesses or wild postulations about long-cycle patterns spanning hundreds of thousands of years. We might know what happened climatically 8200 or even 200,000 years ago, but we have zero knowledge about the why or other variables impacting the events captures in icecores or the geological record.

The fact that climate change occurred before human activity means that climate change could be occurring today independent of human activity. No one can even say that "human compatible" climates are the norm or if they are, in fact, the abberation.

Posted by: katorga on 27 May 04

Ok Joe. You're right. You should stop driving your car and heating your house immediately. How can you sleep nights while your furnace puts tons of CO2 into the atmosphere bringing certain doom to us all? And don't tell us you set the thermostat down a couple degrees. That's not gonna save the planet. Show some compassion and have the damn furnace taken out and recycled into leg braces for crippled children.

Posted by: Bob on 27 May 04

Excellent interview.

(You might want to fix that leapfrogging link to point to '' though, it doesn't work right now.)

Posted by: Mike on 27 May 04

Thanks, Mike, will do.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 27 May 04

You are right Joe, it is tough to be civil with folks who learned enough to be able to type and then halted education. Throwing back that one person alone needs to alter their behaviour to save the rest of us displays a lack of anything knowledgeable to add to the discussion.

Human civilization can continue to reduce the diversity of crops with monocultures and tree farms instead of forests. No problem. Continue to empty the oceans of entire species of fish. Continue to produce acid rain to fall on the soil being robbed of natural biology by substituting chemical fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide, while compacting the top-soil ever slimmer with heavier and heavier equipment. No there is nothing we should do as humanity... All this will make it so much easier to make a transition in tough times (as if it wasn't stupid behaviour in the first place).

Posted by: Frojon on 27 May 04

I think what the naysayers are arguing is that if there exist historical trends for cyclical climate, then might not the negative changes come regardless of what we do? What real difference can we make one way or the other? Sure climate can be dangerous to humans, but even if we had no effect on climate, eventually humans would suffer at the hands of natural climate change. Can we really say that the climate would be "better" (we know humans affect climate) if we didn't exist?

It is somewhat childish/simple minded but it almost seems they would rather here, ok there is an x% chance the climate is going to heck in x years, and this is how you can protect your family when armageddon comes.

They just don't want to try a possibly futile attempt at manipulating something as beyond them as the weather. That's God's domain after all.

Posted by: Alex on 27 May 04

Insightful interview. Most people have difficulties invisioning scenarios with severe consequences. The point that our just-in-time world may be more brittle rather than more adaptive is excellent.

Humans no doubt will adapt over time to pretty much anything the climate can throw at them. Eskimos and Bushmen have managed. However, transitioning billions of people quickly in response to an abrupt climate change is not feasible without serious advanced preparation.

If you read the Pentagon study you will note a reference to "The Little Ice Age" that lasted roughly from 1320-1850. This relatively minor climate change affected northern Europe especially severely. For example, the population of England declined from a peak of 6 million to 3 million, and did not recover for some 400 years. Granted, some of the population decline can be attributed to plague which came along a few decades after 1320...on the other hand plague was noted to also follow other climate shifts, especially around 550 at the end of the Roman Empire.

If we consider for a moment the mutual causality that can occur between complex systems, in this case climatic and human systems, and recognize that a state-change in one system may force a state-change in the other, once the forced system changes it does not automatically change back to its earlier state when the first system does so. The implication of this is profound---if an abrupt climate change forces the human system to lose its balance, it may not return to its balance for quite some time.

If there is thermohaline forcing of the Gulf Stream southwards, weather patterns globally will be affected. Such a scenario would likely bring severe drought to south China...not a pleasant thought.

We should consider if the human system as we know it today could withstand a 20% reduction in food production/distribution efficiency. My estimation is that we will witness what has happened many times throughout history when resources are strained: famine, pestilence, and war.

WHile we should certainly look to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to hopefully ward off the worst of the climate change, we cannot risk being unprepared when it does happen. We need to begin the process of "beating swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks" or else many shall suffer the taste of cold steel.

If there ever was an issue that we could hope to cooperate on globally, this is it. Even if you are in a location that could even benefit from such a climate change in terms of weather, how would you feel if your markets for your goods dried up, or if hundreds of millions started migrating your way?

Thanks for reading.


Posted by: Rod SMith on 27 May 04

The Answer as to "Why?": We don't really know. We don't have enough emperical data. It's all speculation at the hypothesis level.

The Answer as to "When?": Ditto

The Answer as to "How?": Ditto

The Answer as to "If?": Ditto

The Answer as to "Who?": Us. You and I. Those of us reading this story. It is not dependant on anyone else.

The Answer as to "What?": Prepare to adjust. Prepare to change your ways of doing things. Prepare to make a difference before any of the speculated events happen. Invest directly in companies or individuals who are developing alternate, clean sources of fuel. Not because "greenhouse gasses" are the root problem (we're not really sure), but because diversity increases survivability. Invest in companies or individuals who are coming up with innovation for growing crops in a natural way. We already know that the chemicals are causing problems, but there is always a way to do things better. Invest in education and those things that increase understanding, hope, and community. An aware populace (like you and me.... you are aware out there, aren't you... helloooo.....) that willingly works together instead of subjugating, fighting, or basically doing ONLY their own thing with no regard to the impact on others, can solve a lot of problems. It's the individuals with visions, though, that will bring the solutions that must be embraced. Talking about it does very little.

Think about it...... then do something worthwhile...

Posted by: randy on 27 May 04

just a few points here.
a) It is a clear trend from beginning to end of this thread and in all the literature that climate change happens with or without humans.
b) The foremost experts in the field have failed to come to a consensus as to what type of climate changes we should expect (cooling or warming, gradual rapid)
c) Our understanding of the long-term trends is clearly inadequate, so by extension, our knowledge of the effects of our actions is nonexistent. (For example, if we are due for a rapid cooldown at this point, MORE greenhouse gasses might be desireable to produce a faster recovery).

Now, I suggest we start thinking about what we are going to do to continue to exist on a slightly changed world. In practical terms, a 5-10 degree temperature change is not that big a deal (think moving from washington dc to southern Pennsylvania).
The problems in the developed world should be very minimal, a few years of higher food prices, and then we switch to a crop that likes the new environment, not a big deal. The current price of gasoline is probably a bigger inconvenience than this will be.
The problems will be where sustaining life is currently on the edge feasibility. Africa should have minor problems with the climate change compared to some of their other problems (AIDS alone will probably bring the population down to easily sustainable levels). I would expect the bigest problems in China, India, and probably mexico, these areas are currently under severe population pressure, and they just do not have the resources to deal with the change.

Posted by: bill on 27 May 04

Some clarifications and corrections:

* The climate does change on its own, but that doesn't mean that human activity doesn't affect it. Human activity has a measurable effect on the atmosphere. The climate is a complex adaptive system -- small inputs can have big effects.

* The notion that global warming is a "hypothesis" is simply wrong. Even energy industry execs who deny human effects admit that the warming is real. That a warmer climate can trigger rapid-onset ice ages isn't a hypothesis, it's historical reality. What is speculative is whether the current warming -- which evidence increasingly shows is largely human caused -- will trigger such an event. Some of the early signs, such as the weakening of the Thermohaline Cycle, suggest that it might.

* The debate isn't between "cooling" and "warming;" the question is whether warming will cause a rapid-onset ice age. It has happened before. The notion that possible cooling means that more greenhouse gases would be the right choice is, sadly, nonsense.

* A 5-10 degree difference in global temperatures is *not* the same as a 5-10 degree difference in weather. A change of that magnitude would wipe out numerous plant and animal species, cause sufficient glacial and polar melting to raise the ocean enough to flood out many coastal cities, and very likely cause bigger storms and more drought (already in our seventh year of drought in the western US, btw). Adaptation would be possible, but not simple or cheap.

* Overblown disaster movies notwithstanding, humankind would survive, but millions of people would die, especially in the poorest and most unstable areas, and the expense of mitigating and adapting to the still-changing (and increasingly unstable) climate would be far, far more expensive than acting now.

The irony in all of this is that atmospheric-carbon-induced global warming is a solvable problem, with technologies we have now. What's more, the scare-stories that doing anything to alter carbon output would ruin the economy are just that: stories, based on far fewer facts and far worse models than the even the most speculative climate theories. There are numerous examples -- this blog is full of them -- of how doing the right thing for the planet (and for people) actually is at least as profitable as screwing us all up, and far more sustainable.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 27 May 04

I think what some of the people were trying to point out is that we know the last 100 years or so of weather patterns have been aberrant, in that they have been far more stable than the record (preserved geologically and in the rings of trees) shows us previous history has been.

This means that it is expected that the weather will get more unstable with greater and more regular climatic changes, as this is normal behaviour for the planet.

BTW, a possible explanation for abberrant calmness lies in the fact that we are (close to or just past) perihelion on a Malenkov Cycle. Small changes in our planet's orbit and rotation are _far_ more significant to climate change than anything humans have or have not been doing. Anyone who doubts this should think about what causes the difference between summer and winter, and even between night and day.

The important discussion is not over what's causing change. Neither should we focus on debate over how we prevent change, which we can't, at least not without the ability to control the motion of the planet.

The debate should focus on how do our societies live with increased changeability in the climate.

Until now, our reaction has been to react to each event after it happens.

While people might have difficulties with it, that is certainly a workable policy, as in the long run it doesn't matter how many individuals are killed in natural disasters, as long as the species survives.

Too many people think that the long term goal is survival of what could loosely be called "Western Civilization", or even something as ludicrous as the survival of an individual country, when specific civilizations and countries are irrelevant to our continued survival as a species.

In a couple of millenia no-one will care about our current civilization any more than we care about what the Romans were doing, and our society will most likely be nothing like the one we have now.

This will be the case whether we "do anything" about climate changeability or not.

We've been through one big loss of civilization (the Dark Ages), which itself could potentially have been largely caused by climate change, and another doesn't really matter in the long term.

In that couple of millenia we might not even need a planet for survival anymore.

Posted by: grimjack on 27 May 04

I've enjoyed the article and the debate, but am disgusted by Bill's statement: "Africa should have minor problems with the climate change compared to some of their other problems (AIDS alone will probably bring the population down to easily sustainable levels)." Well, now, isn't that bloody convenient! Do you not have an inkling about the suffering that will ensue from flood, heat and famine? Sure, there's not much difference between 90F in the shade and 110F in the sun (because of course the shade tree's dead), unless it's YOU sitting there without any water. Millions of children have been orphaned by AIDS, are being raised by impoverished grandparents, orphanages or by themselves, many developing brain damage and disease from malnutrition. Global warming will turn those pathetic innocents into ducks in a barrel. Maybe you think they'd be better off dead, but it's a moral imperative to find out everything we can to mitigate the climactic damage we're doing. Shirking that responsibility, shrugging off suffering, is just sick.

Posted by: Ataah on 27 May 04

Does anyone knows where I can find the "updated 30th anniversary edition of The Limits to Growth"?

Posted by: Moses on 28 May 04

a) ataah, I understand the suffering involved in the african aids epidemic, I have been to the third world, and in fact, I am in the third world NOW. What I was saying is that given how bad things are there now, this change is merely a drop in the bucket, I am sorry if you misinterpreted my statements as apathy, but the point is, if we have to live in this world, we should apply our limited rescources where they might make a difference. and incidently, the 90 in the shade 110 in the sun thing is a bit irrelevent, we are talking about a potential ICE age here.

b) grimjack, nice post, it is also interesting to note that the dark ages in europe coincided with a golden age in the middle east and southeast asia. This is a world, and I see many people have a very eurocentric view. I also agree with you that a purely reactionary policy to climate change might be effective here, if we do not know what will happen, the only proactive steps we can take are to prepare for ALL possible scenarios, this is not possible, sometimes you just have to wait and see.

c) Jamais, I am not under the illusion that human activity does not affect the climate, that would be quite ludicruos, just to name a few things that clearly must have effects, 1) we have paved huge areas of land, this changes the albedo of the planet, as anyone who has walked from the grass onto the road has probably noticed. 2) we have moved billions of tons of carbon from deep in the earth's crust to the atmosphere, creating an atmosphere that is more friendly to plant life, and less to animal life, (not the increasing incidences of asthma and other respiritory ailments). 3) the heat alone from the burning of all the fossil fuels should have a non-negligible effect. Furthermore, I also am convinced that global warming is taking place. I point however is that complex reactive systems almost always MINIMIZE the effects of small changes, however, tampering in the margins of systems in balance is dangerous at best. However, it is also worth noting that the total heat/carbon dioxide load that humanity has created amount to less than 1 large volcanic eruption.

Now, I have to point out a few inconsistencies in your comments, 1) Why would more greenhouse gasses not end an ice age sooner? I know it wil not be popular with the greens, but that does not mean it wouldn't work. 2) did I hear you correctly that an Ice age would result in melting of the polar caps??? this is a little counterintuitive. 3) In the past when climate changes have taken place, the plant and animal species were not for the most part "wiped out", they migrated north or south to compensate for the change. and yes, it does correspond to a difference in the weather, note what species live at different lattitudes, and you will see what I mean.

It is worth a note that ALL of the fosil fuels we have released into the atmosphere were once plant and animal matter, bringing that carbon back to the surface might actually have significantly more positive long-term effects than I have ever seen considered.
I do agree that we should be considering more sustainable energy production methods, but mainly because basing the world's economy in non-renewable rescources and failing to explore alternate methods is a truly bad idea. I do however have a little faith that when the price of oil becomes prohibitive, these better methods will get the attention they deserve.

Posted by: bill on 28 May 04

Thanks for all the comments!

I think a key point here is that what ought to concern us is not warming or cooling per se but *instability*. We know the climate has changed before, yes, but the overwhelming majority of serious climatologists believe the warming we're currently experiencing is human-caused. That warming is contributing to all sorts of climate instabilities even without an abrupt climate snap, and those instabilities are costing us lives and fotunes now, and are only predicted to increase.

Dumping more carbon into the system at this point only increases the instability. That's bad.


"Does anyone knows where I can find the "updated 30th anniversary edition of The Limits to Growth"?"

It'll be released next month.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 28 May 04

Based on many of the postings I see it may be futile to state facts regarding our climate system. Often times the message is better communicated through metaphor. Fortunately two of the most respected climatologists have provided us with metaphors:

"The climate system is a capricious beast, and we have been poking it with a sharp stick" (Broecker '87). The implications of this statement are that the climate changes without our forcing, however if we give it a good poke...

"You might think of the climate like a drunk. When left alone, it sits; when forced to move, it staggers." (Alley 2000). We have been enjoying the most stable period of climate for the last 8,200 years that occured in the last 420,000 years. Do we really want to disturb its slumber?

As to the cavalier attitude that the western industrialized countries could easily adapt, think again. Our systems are more brittle than the Bushman's. What would happen to our export markets? How about oil?

As to the simplistic idea that global warming will counteract severe simply haven't read the research. The shifting of the Gulf Stream southwards is caused by fresh water melt in the arctic...itself caused by global warming. The best insurance for the Gulf Stream to remain where it is is not to poke the beast, or wake up the drunk.

Finally, Swiss Re and Llyods have both taken a strong stance on global warming because of business concerns. For reinsurers, uncertainty translates into costs. They would prefer a stable climate.


Posted by: Rod SMith on 28 May 04

I have read a good deal of research, I missed the bit about WHY the gulfstream will move south. But then, I also read one maybe a year ago that said that the antarctic ice shelf would be undercut, and the whole thing would collapse causing a huge tidal wave. I read one that said that global warming is caused by the "solar year" on a 100,000 year cycle. I read 1 that said we should expect the sea level to rise, and 1 that said it would fall. There is too much contradictory data for a layman to really work with. There are only 2 things that they all agree on, 1) We need to do more research into climate change. 2) global warming is currently taking place.

The sad truth is that environmental science really doesn't deserve the name, it isn't a science, there are no control groups, there is no way to alter 1 thing in isolation, our time frame for direct observation is EXTREMELY short, and our ability to draw meaningful data from things like ice cores is limited, there are too many variables to be considered properly, and when you start to compare data across sources (ice cores and tree rings for example) the varibles mount up very quickly. What's the margin for error in carbon dating again? Honestly, the best computers and scientists on this planet can't even tell us if it will rain tomorrow or not, and people want to spend billions of dollars on their predictions for 10 or 100 years in the future?!?

What makes the most sense for now is to research the techlologies that will allow us to stop poking it with the stick, (unfortunately, we absolutely do not have these technologies now) and in the meantime to stockpile resources to deal with the problems as they occur. The other option is to kill off maybe 3 billion people and go back to being bushmen.... not very desireable that. 1 thing that I have noticed in my travels is that in the industrialized world (in the nonindustrialized world, the ecology is great, but the people are in bad shape), the richer the country, the better shape the ecology is in, I write this from less than 100 miles from chernobyl, so this is not really the hyperbole it sounds like.

Posted by: bill on 28 May 04

Great conclusion as to what actions we should take for a self-described "layman". I can understand how confusing all the different studies can be.

Unfortunately, comploex systems problems rarely have deterministic solutions. If you are a baseball fan you may think of the complexities of a double-play, and whether you wish to attempt it. Many factors come into play: score, inning, field conditions,who the runner is etc. etc. Trying to simulate the decision process "scientifically" is extremely challenging.

I found the National Academy of Sciences book titled "Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises" to be an informative read. It is available online in digital format, or you can send for a hard copy.

Your point about the poor state of ecology in poor countries is excellent.


Posted by: Rod SMith on 29 May 04

My old professor used to say:"An engineer thinks in extremes". Things, bridges, buildings, etc. fail because the engineer who designed them did not think in extremes large enough.If we examine the exponential population growth curves, we can see, that the time comes when the only way people will fit on this planet will be by standing on each other shoulders and reaching approximately to the moon.
It would not take too long to get to it.
Obviously, it can not happen, so some other mechanisms have to come into effect to slow down the insane population explosion. Let's just sit back, relax and see what happens.

Posted by: Mike on 1 Jun 04

As an engineer myself, I understand, but had never heard the saying.

if you look at demographic curves, you can see that it is already happening, africa is depopulating rapidly, almost all the FSU countries are depopulating, china is levelling off most of America's growth is from immigration, not birth rate. overall, I would say that things look pretty good for a relatively smouth transition to a zero growth level. However, the methods for this are, always have been, and always will be unfortunate, the four horsemen (war, pestilence, famine and death) are really pretty good at population control. They just aren't much fun to have as visitors.

There is no chance that the earth will "fail" due to the effects of mankind (even an all-out nuclear war from the height of the cold war wouldn't have been permanent or total destruction), it is just too robust for that, we are just talking about the preservation of our position as the dominant lifeforms on it.

Posted by: bill on 1 Jun 04

Interesting comments from every one.

During the past two decades the public has been led to believe that the earths average temperature is rising and that moderate rises in temperature (2oC-4oC) will result in bad things happening. In addition, we have been led to believe that an increase in CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) is the cause of rising temperatures and we humans are the cause of the CO2 increases by burning our favorite fuels Petroleum and Coal.

Two of the above statements are true.

1. The earth’s average temperature may be rising (+0.9oC) based on approximately 50 years of temperature data, however; the data is not conclusive. There may be no change at all on a regional basis.

2. There has been a measurable increase in CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere.

This is where the truth stops. Here are the facts.

1. Plants thrive on increased levels of CO2. This is an experimentally provable fact that can be verified by home or classroom experiments.
( Reference:

2. Plants’ ability to thrive and survive at increased temperatures improves with higher levels of CO2.

3. There is absolutely no scientific proof that the human made increases in CO2 have caused increased temperatures.

What the facts say is that the temperature may or may not be rising but the CO2 levels have risen and this is good for plant life on earth. We don’t really know why these things are happening or how they are connected but because they are happening at the same time we suspect that there is a connection. We know that our fuel burning has contributed to less than 5% of the increase and is very unlikely to have had an impact in the overall scheme of things.

The “Bad Things” that have been forecast over the last 20 years include:
· Plant and animal extinctions
· Increasingly erratic weather patterns (i.e. storms, droughts, etc.)
· Devastating increases in sea level.

The truth is:

1. If CO2 levels increase and temperature goes up a couple of degrees plants will do better in the cooler planetary areas and about the same in the warmer planetary areas. This will increase overall planetary plant cover and provide for a larger food supply and range for plant eating animals, hence more animals for the hunting animals to eat , eg more plants and animals over all. Is this bad?

2. Records show that there has been a slight decrease in natural disasters over the last 50 years. To most of us it seems like more because of modern communications and the fact that we keep building our largest cities where they are vulnerable to natural disasters (i.e. Los Angeles, Miami, Vancouver, etc)

3. If there is a connection between CO2 levels and global warming it is far more likely that it is a natural consequence of the earths climate cycles than of anything we have done.

4. The burning of fossil fuels have ushered in an unsurpassed era of productivity and started humanity on a road to increasing the standard of living and well being of a large portion of the earth’s population. We have a long way to go but we are on the right track.

5. There are at least enough oil and gas reserves to last for 50 years, possibly a lot longer.

Regardless of the above we should and are using our technology to develop cleaner burning and more efficient engines, alternate sources of energy including nuclear(oops I said N word). As an aside, Nuclear Power is probably the cleanest and most efficient power source available to humanity next to Hydroelectric. All of the excuses for not using it are technical and completely solvable. The reasons for not using it are all political and inexcusable.

Why does humanity so readily believe what special interest groups say without questioning the actual science behind the statements?

Are we becoming a race of sheep that follow the loudest voice or worse yet are we becoming a race that isn’t satisfied unless the news is all-bad. Are we gradually educating ourselves and our children to only trust a negative view in the media?

Posted by: Bruce Rines on 2 Jun 04

Hey Bruce, thanks for writing. Given that you cite only the most compromised of sources (think tanks kept by carbon-intensive industries), one might almost wonder where you're getting your paycheck...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 2 Jun 04


I'm open to arguments that reference actual scientific studies that support the facts. As a hobby I have done significant reading of the actual studies and they seem to support the fact that we don't know the causes of global warming or the relationship between it and increased CO2 in our atmosphere. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is a good idea because of the pollution they cause and the fact that sooner or later they will run out. In the meantime, starting to mess with our climate based on guesses doesn't seem like a great idea to me. For instance "What if increased CO2 turns out to be the boisphere's natural response to increased temperature and we go all out to reduce the CO2 levels in the atmosphere." What might be the consequences?

Posted by: Bruce Rines on 2 Jun 04

Well, you might try the leading international scientific body on the matter, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change...

But given that there's near-universal scientific consensus about the existance of climate change, its dangers and its at least partially-human origin, and given that most "skeptics" at this point are in the pay of carbon-intensive industries, you'll have to excuse me if I continue to assume that you've got a conflict of interest here.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 3 Jun 04

Alex, If I were to assume that you draw a government paycheck, would that mean that your statements on the subject were invalid as well?

Research funded by "carbon intensive industries" is in my opinion no more tainted than research funded by government agencies. Each have an axe to grind, each seek to taint science for their own ends, and neither is capable of producing true science. One of the oldest sayings in science is "enough research will tend to support your theory". This is doubly easy when dealing with something as vague and open to interpretation as climactic research. Science is many things, one thing it can unfortunately be is a political tool.

I am curious to see some of the "raw data" does anyone know the actual percentage increase in co2 levels in the last 50 years, and what raw tonnage of co2 this correlates to? The tonnage of "fossil fuels" burned in the same time would help too, I can do the redox reaction myself to determine how much co2 that would equal out to.

Posted by: bill on 3 Jun 04

Alex, I have just perused a good percentage of the data available, and have completely failed to find ANYTHING to back up your statements. There is for one thing NO consensus at all among scientists about what is causing global warming, and only a limited consensus (75-80%) that it is in fact taking place.

Furthermore, I have also just perused the IPCC "scientific basis" paper(executive sumaries only I grant you), and found it to be alarmist claptrap couched in scientific terms. It reminds me very much of the Di-hydrogen Monoxide scare. It fails completely to consider any of the other possible (nonhuman) sources for global warming. It also fails to cite ANY sources for their data other than their own studies, and it is fairly clear that they draw their paychecks from the agencies which regulate industrial co2 emissions. If ever there were a tainted piece of research, this is it people.

Posted by: bill on 3 Jun 04


The below reference gives a 40year history of Atmospheric CO2 for Mauna Loa, Hawaii, the longest continuous record of directly measured CO2 concentrations. is a good factual source of co2 data.


I checked out the site you recommended. The main agreement seems to be that we don't understand the processes going on and that human impact if any is very small. They suggest lots more study(which I agree with) leading to better understanding. This site does seem to rely heavily on computer models. You know what they say G. in G. out. They also admit that when they analyze the the results they tend to focus on areas where the model correctly predicts observed climatic behavior and discount areas where the the model is incorrect. I don't believe the purpose of scientific studies is to support your view, it is to discover the truth whether you agree with it or not.

There is not a near concensus on climate change or increasd CO2 levels, these are both scientific facts. The questions in my mind are:
1. Are they related to human activity? In my opinion not proven to date by any scientific facts I have seen.
2. Are they good or bad? If you take a look at the earths (and humanities past) moderate increases in temperature seem to make life a little easier. There's no question that moderate increases in CO2 benefit plant life. To my way of thinking, if the plants do better so do the animals.

Posted by: Bruce Rines on 3 Jun 04

thanks bruce,
Well, I did a little "back of the envelope calculation.

5.1 × 10^18 kg total atmosphere's_atmosphere

1.4x10^15 kg co2 in the atmosphere at 1750. sorry, I lost the page for this one.

1.9x10^15 kg in 2000 (from the mauna loa site)

5x10^15=500,000,000,000,000 kg total increase in atmospheric c02.

283 billion tons(english)= 257,000,000,000,000 kg co2 released by fossil fuel burning

or roughly half of the total increase..... hmmm, I might be convinced of the desireability do do something about this after all... I think the greens need to get behind nuclear power in quite a hurry.

not to start sounding alarmist myself, but assuming that co2 is truly a "greenhouse gas" it sounds like the human contribution to global warming is quite non-negligible.

Posted by: bill on 3 Jun 04

Hi Bill, thanks for your comment, if you are still there.
Bill, you caught me off guard, I admit that I did not read up on population growth lately...let's fix that. Last info on internet says that presently population grows at 80 million people per year (size of Mexico).
Apparently, it takes 1 acre of trees to release enough oxygen for 17 people. If it is correct,
than we need to plant at least 4.7 million acress
of trees per year just to keep up. In my experience, only approximately one out of five planted trees survives, so we should plant over
20 million acres of new trees per year(and not cut any old ones, ofcourse). Why do I still see images of people in Asia and South America and elswhere burning trees?

Posted by: Mike on 8 Jun 04

Hi Bill, thanks for your comment, if you are still there.
Bill, you caught me off guard, I admit that I did not read up on population growth lately...let's fix that. Last info on internet says that presently population grows at 80 million people per year (size of Mexico).
Apparently, it takes 1 acre of trees to release enough oxygen for 17 people. If it is correct,
than we need to plant at least 4.7 million acress
of trees per year just to keep up. In my experience, only approximately one out of five planted trees survives, so we should plant over
20 million acres of new trees per year(and not cut any old ones, ofcourse). Why do I still see images of people in Asia and South America and elswhere burning trees?

Posted by: Mike on 8 Jun 04

hi mike. looks like we are the last diehards.
About your comments, the # of trees is not the issue, the covered area is, so a "mere" 4.7 million acres would suffice, I don't see it happening, but I have heard that there are more trees growing in the continental us than at any time in history. confirm or deny?
where'd you get the population stats? I knew the population of the world is still growing, but I wonder if it is starting to level off?

Posted by: bill on 9 Jun 04



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