mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


A New Ice Age?

George W. Bush may not know it, but one influential part of his
government is finally taking global climate change seriously. An
extraordinary new report by an elite Pentagon planning unit has
declared that climate change is a national security threat of the
greatest urgency and demands an immediate response.


Directly contradicting Bush and other right-wingers, the Pentagon
report maintains that climate change is not only real, it could strike
sooner and with much deadlier effect than is usually thought. By 2020,
when babies born today will be in high school, climate change could
unleash a series of interlocking catastrophes including mega-droughts,
mass starvation and nuclear war, as countries like China, India and
Pakistan battle over river valleys and other sources of scarce food
and water. If the climate’s tipping point is reached, change could
come abruptly, within a span of three to five years, and ironically
result in another ice age. A frozen northern Europe would become all
but uninhabitable. The American Midwest would be rendered a dust bowl.
Southern California would go thirsty. The risk of such outcomes is
uncertain and quite possibly small, the Pentagon report notes before
adding,but given the dire consequences, it should be elevated beyond
a scientific debate. Action now matters.

Bush and his allies in the fossil-fuel and auto industries will find
these conclusions hard to accept but also hard to ignore. The
naysayers’ usual defense—that climate change is more a theory favored
by liberals than a reality proven by data—won’t work against Andrew
Marshall, the brain behind the Pentagon report. At 83, Marshall is a
legendary figure who has done big picture strategic planning for the
military for decades and been a trusted associate of Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld since the 1970s, when the two men were among the
earliest advocates of missile defense, the right wing’s holy grail.

It’s not known whether Rumsfeld has read the climate change report,
but either Marshall or someone close to him made sure it didn’t get
buried: A copy of the unclassified study was given to Fortune, which
published a measured yet terrifying summary in its February 9 issue.
Placing the report in such a respected, widely read business
publication may have been Marshall’s way to do an end run around the
White House and send a message to US business leaders: Wake up to
climate change’s dangers and work to shift civilization’s course.

One immediate effect may involve the World Bank, whose board of
directors is expected to vote by April 15 on a controversial
recommendation to stop all funding of coal and oil development, the
two fuels most responsible for the carbon dioxide emissions that
propel climate change. The vote poses a dilemma for World Bank
president James Wolfensohn, for the recommendation comes from an
advisory commission he himself appointed to show that the bank was
open to input from civil society.

The so-called Extractive Industries Review commission was chaired by
Emil Salim, a former environment minister of Indonesia and former
board member of a coal company, and it featured representatives of
industry, labor unions, Third World governments, nongovernmental
organizations and indigenous peoples. Citing the dangers of climate
change and the often punishing human rights and pollution effects on
local people, the review urged that the bank halt all coal loans
immediately and all oil loans by 2008. It also recommended that the
bank increase renewable energy loans by 20 percent a year and grant
local peoples the right to veto projects they don’t want.

These changes would amount to a virtual revolution in the World Bank’s
operations, so it’s not surprising that bank management has resisted
them. The bank has been one of the world’s leading public investors
in climate change, says Daphne Wysham, a fellow at the Institute for
Policy Studies in Washington, DC, who monitored the Extractive
Industries Review. Wysham notes that the World Bank’s energy lending
is lopsidedly biased, with 94 percent of total funds underwriting
fossil-fuel projects and only 6 percent supporting renewables like
wind and solar.

According to a draft response, World Bank management wants the board
to reject nearly all the commission’s reforms. Rather than halt coal
and oil loans, management urges $300 million to $500 million a year in
new funding. Fossil fuels, reasons the draft, are the cheapest energy
available and thus promise to speed Third World countries’ ascent from

But the Pentagon report makes it harder for defenders of the status
quo to sustain such arguments. What good is it to ascend from poverty
into a world descending into weather chaos and social breakdown? Such
reasoning is unlikely to sway George W. Bush; progress in the United
States will have to wait until after he is replaced as President. But
at the World Bank, the board of directors will soon make a fateful
decision: Either back management’s call for more coal and oil or lead
the way to a post-carbon future. If board members take the trouble to
read the Pentagon’s warnings in Fortune, it’s hard to see how they
could vote the wrong way.



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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.