We’re having a heat wave …

Image: NOAA.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

A hair-raising Pentagon report [PDF] on the potentially imminent and colossal national security threat posed by climate change has been making its way around the Internet since its release in late January, and this week it picked up considerable speed.

Fortune magazine was the first major news outlet to cover the report; the “Climate Collapse” feature in its Jan. 26 issue raised many an eyebrow in business and Beltway circles. Then, this past Sunday, a somewhat more histrionic article on the report ran in the British Observer and has been swirling through blogs and listservs.

While The Observer sensationalized the story with its erroneous claim that the report was “secret” and “suppressed by U.S. defense chiefs” when in fact it had already been publicly discussed, the document is worthy of even the British press’ flair for melodrama. After all, intimations of fast-approaching environmental catastrophe sound a lot different coming from the Pentagon than from the Ph.D.s who have been uttering these warnings for decades.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The report wasn’t penned by members of the “Chicken Little sky-is-falling crowd” (as Republican leaders like to call global- warming activists), but by Peter Schwartz, former head of planning for Shell Oil and sometime CIA consultant, and Doug Randall of the Global Business Network, a California think tank.

Commissioned by esteemed Department of Defense planner Andrew Marshall, the report paints a scenario under which global warming could pose a threat to the world “greater than terrorism” — complete with mega-droughts, widespread famine, and rampant rioting. But while it has sounded alarms on Capitol Hill, it hasn’t provoked so much as a peep from the White House.

When Muckraker contacted White House Council on Environmental Quality spokesperson Dana Perino for a statement on the report, she responded, “I haven’t seen it, I haven’t read it, and I don’t want to make any comments on the matter. As I understand it, this is a ‘what-if’ scenario — not a diagnosis, not a prophecy, and not a foundation for new policy.”

Do or do not. There is no try.

Perino directed Muckraker to Navy Lieutenant Dan Hetlage, a Pentagon spokesperson who said, “We did not expect any White House response to the Pentagon on this report. Andrew Marshall is our Yoda, our big thinker who peers into the future. But it’s all speculation. It was very ethereal, very broad in scope. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, wow, that totally debunks the president’s stand on global warming,’ because it was merely a thought exercise. We don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t really know.”

When pressed to explain the point of a “thought exercise” that can have no policy implications, Hetlage said, “People should feel comforted that we are thinking about contingencies.” Cold comfort, one might think, in the absence of any plan to avoid such contingencies.

But even as the report fell on deaf ears at the White House, it’s been breathing new life into congressional discourse on climate change. “This adds a powerful new voice to the global-warming debate in Congress,” said Tim Profeta, senior policy advisor to Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). Profeta hopes the report will spur renewed interest in and support for the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, which he called “the most viable and promising global-warming legislation that has ever been introduced.” The bill was defeated in the Senate last fall by a narrower-than-expected margin, and Profeta said it may be brought up for consideration again this spring. Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee, through which the bill was initially introduced, is likely to hold a hearing on global warming in the next month, which will focus in part on the DOD report.

Debbie Reed, director of climate change research at National Environmental Trust, said she has also been discussing the report with the staff of Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which plans to hold its own hearing in the next month on global warming and the national security threat it may pose.

Sign of the times?

Photo: EPA.

Though Reed was heartened by the attention the Pentagon report has been getting, she was less enthusiastic about another report released last week by the National Academies’ National Research Council. The report applauded the administration’s revised plan for climate change research, but questioned its commitment to fund and implement many of the new research proposals. “It’s all well and good to advance the science on global warming. We all want that,” said Reed. “But all the emphasis on research can’t come at the expense of developing hard-and-fast policy initiatives to curb the underlying problem, not just the symptoms.”

Indeed, two of five sections of the administration’s research plan focus on creating infrastructure to respond to the symptoms of global warming — for instance, instructing water company directors to pump more resources into drought-stricken areas and electricity planners to direct more juice to areas that need additional air conditioning in higher temperatures.

The White House was gleeful over the report’s positive tone, however. Said CEQ’s Perino, “They gave us really high marks. We got an A!” Cold comfort, indeed.