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Weathering the Crisis

A Pentagon report indicates that climate change looks much more imminent than previously thought. Will the cold, hard data galvanize the administration?
 
 
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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 poverty.

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.

Mark Hertsgaard is an independent American journalist and the author of five books, including "The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World."