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Diary of a Dying Planet

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Given the imminent threat from global warming, even the Bush administration might be expected to launch a War on Heat. After all, as a candidate in 2000, George W. Bush vowed to "establish mandatory reduction targets" for carbon-dioxide emissions, saying he would make the issue a top priority.

Once Bush became president, however, reducing carbon emissions was the first promise he broke — and his record has been all downhill from there. Only two months after taking office, the administration withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, the global treaty that the United States signed in 1997 to set strict limits on greenhouse emissions. Instead, Bush instituted a voluntary emissions plan that has been an abject failure: So far, only fourteen companies have pledged to curb their CO2 output.

The president also folded the interagency group that monitors climate change into the Commerce Department — led by Secretary Don Evans, a former oil and gas executive. And he called for additional climate research that would delay any meaningful regulation for at least another decade. "We do not know how much our climate could or will change in the future," Bush declared in a speech in the Rose Garden. Such statements spurred an open letter signed by twenty Nobel laureates, who blasted the administration for having "consistently sought to undermine" public understanding of man's role in global warming. (Bush's science adviser refused to be interviewed for this article.)

Then the censorship began. In September 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency released an air-quality report that — for the first time since 1996 — included no mention of global warming. Seven months later, the White House made wholesale revisions to the climate-change chapter of the EPA's "Report on the Environment," playing down human influence, deleting references to the health impacts of global warming and inserting climate data funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute. The EPA withdrew the altered chapter, acknowledging in an internal memo that it "no longer accurately represents scientific consensus on climate change."

Even some Republicans have been astounded at Bush's meddling in EPA affairs. "What seems constantly evident with George W. Bush is that EPA is expected to take its marching orders from the White House on regulatory matters," says Russell Train, who headed the agency under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. "During my time, I never had that happen. Never." Train, a recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom from the elder Bush, calls the administration's approach to global warming "totally wrong" and "irresponsible."

Bush can rely on key Republicans in Congress to block any efforts to curb pollution and stave off disaster. Sen. James Inhofe, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, dismisses global warming as a "hoax." In a speech last July, Inhofe compared the IPCC to the Soviets and extolled the virtues of what he called a "CO2-enhanced" world. "It is my fervent hope," he concluded, "that Congress will reject the prophets of doom who peddle propaganda masquerading as science in the name of saving the planet from catastrophic disaster."

As inhofe railed against global warming from the Senate floor, one "prophet of doom" was quietly working to defend America from global warming. Now in his eighties, Andrew W. Marshall is so renowned for his visionary powers that his admirers call him Yoda. But Marshall doesn't work for an environmental group such as Greenpeace, or even for what Inhofe calls the "Gestapo bureaucracy" of the EPA. He works for the Pentagon.

As director of the Office of Net Assessment, a small branch of the Defense Department charged with identifying long-term threats, Marshall had been worried about worldwide climate reports ever since the military's disastrous experience in Somalia. In 1993, a U.S. helicopter was shot down in the capital city of Mogadishu, and the body of an American soldier was dragged through the streets. What was the U.S. doing there in the first place? Guarding a famine-relief effort that had been precipitated by a severe drought. If localized dry weather could lead to Black Hawk Down, the Pentagon worried, just imagine what kind of trouble a sudden shift in the global climate could bring.

So Yoda called on an old friend, Peter Schwartz, co-founder of a futurist think tank called the Global Business Network, in Emeryville, California. He asked Schwartz to study current warming trends and answer a simple question: What's the worst that could happen?

The headquarters of the Global Business Network looks like some mysterious dotcom offshoot of the CIA. A white "X" is all that marks the entrance of a blue warehouse, secreted away in an aging industrial district across the bay from San Francisco. Imagining the worst apparently gets you the best: The GBN parking lot is home to a Mercedes c230 Kompressor, an Audi TT, a new T-bird and a convertible Z3.

Peter Schwartz is a compact man with lively eyes and an air of importance. A rocket scientist by training, he also researched climate change at Stanford Research Institute. Drawing on knowledge of past climate shifts, Schwartz spun out the most dire scenario he could defend scientifically. Starting tomorrow, he assumed, the world warms faster than even the most alarming predictions — by as much as half a degree a year. The heat sets off a chain reaction. Droughts spark catastrophic fires, which release still more heat-trapping CO2 into the air. Increased water vapor in the atmosphere traps still more heat. Super-storms break dikes in Europe, and coastal cities such as the Hague in the Netherlands become uninhabitable. Levees break in California, creating an inland sea and disrupting the water supply in Los Angeles.

Then Schwartz drew upon one of the least intuitive impacts of global warming: the idea that turning up the world's thermostat could lead, perversely, to a cooling crash. As high temperatures melt ice at the North Pole, the runoff of cold water could disrupt the Gulf Stream. This conveyor of warm water is what gives Europe its temperate climate; flip off the Gulf Stream, say climate scientists, and the continent hits a deep freeze. Mainstream projections say this shouldn't happen before 2100; Schwartz envisioned it happening in 2010.

As Europe plunges into a Siberian chill, the rest of the globe continues to sizzle. Sea levels rise. Megadroughts strike worldwide, spawning dust bowls and destroying crops. The world suffers from "catastrophic shortages of water and energy supplies." Earth's "carrying capacity" — militaryspeak for the number of people it can feed — drops radically. Given the deadly shortages of food, civilization erodes as "constant battles for diminishing resources" become the norm. "Every time there is a choice between starving and raiding," Schwartz writes, "humans raid." America turns inward, attempting to shield itself from the flood of refugees from the drought-stricken Caribbean. Hostilities arise between the U.S. and Mexico as both countries jockey for water from the Colorado River. Europe considers invading Russia for its food, and Japan eyes Russia's oil. Africa starves. Bangladesh is unlivable. Famine drives chaos in Asia. "Envision Pakistan, India and China — all armed with nuclear weapons — skirmishing at their borders over refugees, access to shared rivers and arable land," the scenario suggests. "In this world of warring states, nuclear-arms proliferation is inevitable."

"Once again," the report concludes starkly, "warfare would define human life."

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