A worst-case scenario: Are we ready?


In October 2003, a think-tank known as Global Business Network prepared a
report for the Pentagon detailing a worse case scenario for rapid climate
change entitled, "An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications
for United States National Security" (available on the Internet at

Authors Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall said, "We have created a climate
change scenario that although not the most likely, is plausible, and would
challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered

The report recommends that "the risk of abrupt climate change, although
uncertain and quite possibly small, should be elevated beyond a scientific
debate to a U.S. national security concern."

The report was premised upon a finding that the North Atlantic Ocean has
become "less salty over the past 40 years" partly as a result of "being
freshened by melting glaciers, increased precipitation and fresh water

The Northern Atlantic Gulf Stream is a conveyor belt-type movement of ocean
water. From the area of the equator, warm ocean water flows northward. This
warm water results in much milder weather conditions in northern Europe and
the North American continent. As warm water in the north cools down, its
salt density causes the southward water flow to drop to the bottom of the
ocean. It then continues its flow as a huge ocean river to the equator,
where it warms up and flows back to the north.

The worst-case scenario delivered to the U.S. Department of Defense
envisions the possibility of the Gulf Stream stopping completely, something
that happened in the Northern Atlantic 8,200 years ago. Such an event would
lead to extremely harsh winter conditions, reduced soil moisture and much
more intense drying winds. The resulting climate change would have a
devastating effect on global food production and fresh water supplies,
leading to a huge spike in energy demand and sparking massive population
displacements around the world as the oceans rise and crops fail.

According to Schwartz and Randall, sometime between now and 2010 we could
see famines, water shortages and population movements resulting from rapid
global climate change, which will worsen at an accelerating pace by 2020
and beyond. That's within the next 15 years.

A climate change disruption played itself out in Europe from 1300 - 1850
A.D., the authors said. The result was a period of dramatic cooling that
"brought severe winters, sudden climatic shifts and profound agricultural,
economic, and political impacts in Europe." Ironically, it was in the 1400s
- 1900s that the so-called "age of discovery" emerged and played itself out
as European powers colonized and dominated the globe. Indigenous
populations were devastated and depopulated and indigenous territories
taken over, while European societies fed themselves and overcame famines
with such indigenous crops as the potato.

An accelerated warming of the earth is something the report authors say is
a real cause for alarm. They envision a rapid "warming from .2 degrees
Fahrenheit to .4 degrees Fahrenheit, and eventually .5 degrees Fahrenheit
per year in some locations."

Then this: "As the surface [of the earth] warms, the hydrologic cycle
(evaporation, precipitation and runoff) accelerates, causing temperatures
to rise even higher. Water vapor, the most powerful natural greenhouse gas,
traps additional heat and brings average surface air temperatures up.

"As evaporation increases, higher surface air temperatures cause drying in
forests and grasslands, where animals graze and farmers grow grain. As
trees die and burn, forests absorb less carbon dioxide, again leading to
higher surface air temperatures as well as fierce and uncontrollable forest
fires." This warming trend will continue to spiral out of control.

By 2010, massive amounts of fresh water will gradually have been added to
the North Atlantic Ocean for some 60 years and, according to the worse case
scenario, the complete collapse of the Gulf Stream effect will begin.
"Ocean circulation patterns change, bringing less warm water north and
causing an immediate shift in the weather in northern Europe and eastern
North America," said Schwartz and Randall.

The massive climate changes will have a dire effect on agriculture,
fisheries, wildlife, water and energy supplies.

Anthropologist Jared Diamond is author of the forthcoming book "Collapse:
How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed." In a Jan. 1 New York Times op-ed
piece, Diamond asked, "What lessons can we draw from history? The most
straightforward: take environmental problems seriously. They destroyed
societies in the past, and they are even more likely to do so now." Will
this be the ultimate U.S. national security issue?

According to Diamond, the other deep lesson to be drawn from history
"involves a willingness to re-examine long-held core values, when
conditions change, and those values no longer make sense."

The Hopi elders prophesied that this time was coming if the colonizing
society did not change its values and its ways. The elder brother Kogi sent
word to their younger brothers in the colonizing society to change their
values and their madness because the Kogi could tell that the Earth was
drying up and going through massive changes. The Mayan calendar is said to
end in December 2012, marking the close of this age of subjugation. A
restoration of and return to indigenous values is imminent because Mother
Earth will force human beings to come to terms with an arrogant and
colonizing lifestyle that tries to ignore the natural balance and cycles of

If reports such as this and others are correct, a life of unmitigated greed
based on petro-gold (oil) and which desecrates the basic elements of life -
earth, air, fire and water - is about to end. Are we ready as indigenous
nations and people? Are we ready as human beings? Even based on a best-case
scenario, it is well past time to begin putting our lodge in order and
figure out how we will survive the coming cleansing - physically, mentally,
emotionally and spiritually.

Steven Newcomb is the Indigenous Law Research Coordinator at Kumeyaay
Community College on the reservation of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay
Nation, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a
columnist for Indian Country Today.