msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/26/2004 10:41:58 AM ET 2004-02-26T15:41:58

A report commissioned by a Pentagon think tank is creating a storm of controversy — not because of any military scenarios but because of what it has to say about climate change.

Environmentalists, and even European media, have jumped on the report as evidence that President Bush is out of touch with even his own experts. Bush withdrew the United States from U.N.-sponsored talks to implement a treaty to curb carbon dioxide and other emissions tied to warmer temperatures.

Climate change skeptics say the report, subtitled "Imagining the Unthinkable," is nothing new and purely speculative.

The Pentagon think tank, for its part, paid $100,000 for the report but said it was not satisfied and would not forward it to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Authors: Elevate debate
The report's authors said their scenario was “not implausible” and would challenge U.S. national security in ways that should be considered immediately. “This report suggests that because of the potentially dire consequences, 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,” they wrote. Interactive: The greenhouse effect

But following all of the controversy, the authors' consulting firm, Global Business Network, stated on its Web site that that the report offered a worst-case scenario, not a prediction.

"As is customary in military and defense-related projects, the authors describe a worst case scenario (not a prediction) for abrupt climate change," the company said. "They note that 'the purpose of this report is to imagine the unthinkable—to push the boundaries of current research on climate change so we may better understand the potential implications on national security.' Contrary to some recent media coverage, the report was not secret, suppressed, or predictive."

Earlier warming-cooling event
So what's in the report that created the controversy? The worst-case scenario is that global warming is approaching a threshold beyond which a sudden cooling will set in. That kind of climate event is believed to have happened 8,200 years ago and lasted for 100 years.

The authors suggest a number of dire consequences in a scenario in which the current period of global warming ends in 2010, followed by a period of abrupt cooling. Some examples:

  • As temperatures rise during this decade, some regions experience severe storms and flooding. In 2007, surging seas break through levees in the Netherlands, making the Hague “unlivable.”
  • By 2020, after a decade of cooling, Europe’s climate becomes “more like Siberia’s.”
  • “Mega-droughts” hit southern China and northern Europe around 2010 and last 10 years.
  • In the United States, agricultural areas suffer from soil loss due to higher winds and drier climate, but the country survives the economic disruption without catastrophic losses.
  • Widespread famine in China triggers chaos, and “a cold and hungry China peers jealously” at Russia’s energy resources. In the 2020-2030 period, civil war and border wars break out in China.
  • “Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life.” In a “world of warring states,” more countries develop nuclear weapons, including Japan, South Korea, Germany, Iran and Egypt.

Think tank's response
The Pentagon official who commissioned the study, Andrew Marshall, issued a brief statement saying it “reflects the limits of scientific models and information when it comes to predicting the effects of abrupt global warming. ... Much of what this study predicts is still speculation.”

Marshall, head of a Pentagon think tank known as the Office of Net Assessments, said his intent was to explore the question of whether countries affected by rapid climate change would suffer or benefit, and whether the change would make them more or less stable.

“More pragmatically, what kinds of climate change might our worldwide forces encounter in the future?” Marshall said.

A spokesman for Marshall, Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Hetlage, said the report did not fully satisfy Marshall’s needs. As a result, the report, commissioned last October and finished earlier this month, will not be passed along to Rumsfeld.

Global Business Network's statement and the full report can be viewed via www.gbn.org.

The Associated Press and MSNBC.com's Miguel Llanos contributed to this report.

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