Late last year, Village magazine carried a cracking article entitled ‘Our deluded ESRI’, which opened as follows: “Patchy and boosterist forecasting, unquestioning neo-liberalism, an unempirical attitude to science and systemic ambivalence to environmentalism taint the performance of this apparently domestically-unassailable Irish institution”.
The author of that piece, Adrian Kelleher, did a particular public service in deconstructing the modus operandi of the ESRI’s Dr Richard Tol, a chameleon figure who is on the one hand presented as a mainstream ‘climate expert’ (usually by himself, admittedly, and mainly in a pseudo-science known as ‘climate economics’). The busy Dr Tol finds time to also be a member of the grandly titled ‘Academic Advisory Council‘ of a right wing climate denialist lobby front called the Global Warming Policy Foundation. It masquerades as a charity so the identity of its energy industry paymasters can be kept from public scrutiny.
Meanwhile, I am delighted that, after an extended absence from the fray, Adrian Kelleher returns today with the contribution below for ThinkOrSwim:
At the time of writing Google throws up about 1.43 million pages with the exact phrase “global warming alarmism”, so it is already a cliché. The site Wattsupwiththat alone features alarmism no fewer than 15,200 times, alarmist 6,720 times and warmist on 3,610 occasions. Like the question “how long since you stopped beating your wife?” these words are designed to convey an implication but in a way that evades responsibility.
A typical claim is that environmental NGOs exaggerate scientific facts to try and mobilise opinion. Certainly there are some very unsettling scenarios out there. One study speculated that a “world of warring states” will emerge and that “disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life” with many countries driven to develop nuclear weapons if the uncertainty in current climate projections turns out to conceal powerful feedback mechanisms.
Another pointed out that “lack of access to stable supplies of water is reaching unprecedented proportions in many areas of the world”, that the global food supply is in serious jeopardy and claimed that within 15 years “perceptions of a rapidly changing environment may cause nations to take unilateral actions to secure resources, territory, and other interests”. It only got gloomier from there, stating that “scientists are currently uncertain whether we already have hit a tipping point at which climate change has accelerated and whether there is little we can do … Most scientists believe we will not know whether we have hit a tipping point until it is too late”.
It goes on to project a scenario where, in the wake of a weather event of unprecedented severity occurring within just 10 years, the US president writes in his diary that “the scenes were like the stuff from the World War II newsreels, only this time it was not Europe but Manhattan…”. The fictional president is left to regretfully ponder his own failures: “the problem has been our whole attitude about globalization… we have not prepared sufficiently for the toll that irresponsible growth is having on the environment”. American presidents are not known for placing the words “irresponsible” and “growth” side by side, so do these studies reflect extremist NGOs frightening the public with overblown claims?
The two studies quoted originated in reality within different offices at the Pentagon. They represent the fear among military thinkers that threats to peace may loom that cannot be bombed or shot at. The first was a leaked report prepared by the Office of Net Assessment, a blue-skies intelligence and theoretical think tank at the core of the US military headed by Andrew Marshall who has served eight presidents in the post. The second was “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World” by the National Intelligence Council.
Marshall, a figure whose public reticence belies his centrality to the American military, has been at the core of US strategic thinking since he worked alongside luminaries like John Von Neumann and John Nash (who was portrayed by Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind”) at RAND in the 1950s and 60s, not to mention the real-life model for Dr Strangelove, Herman Kahn. When they weren’t trying to figure out what percentage society could endure of infants mutated in the wake of a nuclear exchange or how to maximise the number of Soviet fatalities, the RAND faculty made contributions of first-rate importance to economics and mathematics.
Marshall was appointed Director of Net Assessment by Nixon in 1973, where people like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were his protegΘes. There, he took charge of “transformation”, something as sweeping as it sounds: a re-imagination of the military as an information-centric institution which Donald Rumsfeld viewed as his crowning achievement. It’s difficult to imagine someone further removed than the ultra-hawk Marshall, who is 90 this year, from the tofu-eating, kaftan-wearing hippie jealous of “wealth creators” that is sceptics’ stereotypical environmentalist.
The National Intelligence Council is described as a “center of strategic thinking within the US Government” and reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence, a four-star general or equivalent and the USA’s highest-ranking intelligence figure.
Global Trends isn’t the only NIC publication that worries about the strains that global warming will place on world peace. It commissioned a series of reports on climate impacts on developing countries. The one devoted to China cautions that within 20 years water stresses “may impact [its] social, economic, and political stability to a great extent”, notes that it has already experienced more extreme weather events of every kind recently than ever before and that these currently have direct costs of around $30Bn annually.
The military is one of the Republican Party’s most reliable voting blocks. The Military Times conducts occasional surveys of serving troops and its most recent one reported that just 8.4% considered themselves “liberal” or “very liberal” compared with 45.8% who replied “conservative” or “very conservative”. More than three times as many personnel reported being Republican as did Democrat. Officers were even more likely than the average to be Republican and it seems reasonable to assume that this pattern holds true of senior intelligence staff.
In recent years the Republican Party has set itself against the scientific establishment not just in relation to climate change but regarding a whole range of issues. The Bush presidency was accused of manipulating scientific data regarding stem cells, AIDS, homosexuality, deforestation and mining as well as fossil fuel use and its effects.
Why has the US intelligence community not succumbed to the Republican Party’s hostility to climate science? Part of the reason is that it has long and bitter experience of political interference, its effects on the accuracy and credibility of its work and implications for national security, a story that also includes RAND.
In the late 1950s, the collegiate world of American intelligence broke down as senior air force figures conspired with certain Republican politicians to exaggerate Soviet strength. The politicians then used the distorted figures to press for more military funding. Political pressure was exerted on other intelligence sources and their work was subject to constant criticism, causing their assessments in turn to become ever more inaccurate.
RAND was entrusted with optimising the size, structure and doctrine of the USA’s nuclear arsenal but as the figures it was fed grew more unrealistic, garbage in garbage out caused its results to become progressively more misleading. The result was serious damage to the strategic security of the United States, not to mention the waste of vast sums of money on poorly-selected weapons. Much of the wasted money ended up in the hands of corrupt defence contractors that were later shown to have routinely paid bribes at home and abroad, and the episode influenced Eisenhower’s famous farewell speech where he warned of the dangers of the “military-industrial complex”.
The entire process was repeated in the 1970s when Republicans including Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld created a special group called Team B which distorted intelligence about Soviet missile strengths, once again resulting in squandered resources and funds being diverted to counter imaginary threats. The mutual incomprehension between the superpowers that was an enduring, dangerous and destabilising feature of the Cold War was thus aggravated during one of its most tense periods in the early 1980s.
In the run up to the Iraq war, Dick Cheney inserted a political team into the top of the CIA called the Office of Special Plans (OSP). Following a familiar script, the OSP laundered intelligence until it suited the objectives of the administration, showing what Bush and Cheney wanted to be true: that Saddam Hussein had secret nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes that threatened the world. Colin Powell was then handed a dossier of phoney intelligence and sent to the UN to justify the invasion.
When he found he had been exploited, Powell was embittered. “There were some people in the intelligence community who knew at that time that some of these sources were not good,” he said later, “…they didn’t speak up. That devastated me”.
By this time, however, the trick was getting old and the CIA soon felt the blowback of public outrage. Repeated exploitation as tools of right-wing politicians caused a backlash among staff. One CIA officer went on the record to describe Cheney’s OSP as “a threat to world peace”, adding that it “lied and manipulated intelligence to further its agenda of removing Saddam. It’s a group of ideologues with pre-determined notions of truth and reality”.
Ironically repeated manipulation of intelligence for political ends may have helped inoculate its intelligence agencies against political illusions. Hard-headed and conservative, they are nonetheless aware of how dangerous the manipulation of their work proved over 5 decades.
Since the end of the Bush administration, which discouraged its discussion, study of the political implications of global warming has exploded in US security circles. The recent quadrennial defence review devoted significant attention to the topic. Even the CIA has opened a centre to study its effects, promising to fast-track declassification of satellite imagery of use to geophysicists when it did so.
While the US military is an especially voracious consumer of fossil fuels, its recognition of the problem’s existence provides environmentalists with a gilt edged debating point in arguments with sceptics. By digesting the issue on conservative terms, it suggests ways in which the cross-party consensus on climate that exists elsewhere might be translated to the USA.
It goes without saying that famine cannot be bombed with precision munitions and missiles are of no use against carbon dioxide. The inescapable logic of US long-term intelligence is that spending on the military should actually be reduced and money redirected to emissions control in order to promote stability.
Another logical conclusion is that while models might place a floor under the cost of impacts, any attempt to put a ceiling to the figure is doomed. To the ‘tail risk’ of so-called black swan events must be added the possibility that even much milder climate impacts could have disastrous results due to the interplay of economic, political and environmental factors. History is replete with cautionary examples of societies such as the Maya or the Garamantes which imploded under environmental pressure.
In recognising that economic growth as the sole and paramount objective of governments could prove a deadly trap they demonstrate political courage their civilian bosses would do well to emulate.
Global Trends 2025 also makes an important leap in considering how future leaders will understand the world. GHG pollution continues to be aggravated at an ever increasing rate with no end in sight. It may be that by 2025 it will be apparent that extreme consequences can no longer be avoided. That would alter the perceptions and behaviour of political leaders in ways it’s hard to imagine as benign. “Unilateral actions to secure resources, territory, and other interests” means war plain and simple — and plausibly within 15 years rather than sometime after mid-century.
If the upsurge in interest in climate change indicates anything, it’s the unreality of much of the climate change debate. For example reinsurance rates are soaring to accommodate anticipated climate related costs and if sceptics really believed in what they said, they’d invest in those businesses, undercut their competitors and make a fortune. It says volumes about the sincerity of their purported beliefs that they don’t. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no sceptics in insurance.
Likewise, while conservative politicians insist everything is fine the military professionals are preparing for dire implications. This isn’t just purely theoretical, for example designs of ships and aircraft are being re-examined and adapted to withstand more severe weather conditions.
In spite of all this it’s important to remember that alarmists really do exist, frightening the public with propaganda to dishonestly advance hidden agendas. Dick Cheney is chief among them. In fact global warming may be the only thing that does not alarm Cheney, a man inclined to fear that every rock in Asia might conceal a terrorist.
During his time in office he pressured the Centers for Disease Control until it edited to his liking a report to Congress on its health effects, deleting six pages. Not for the first time, he forced his “pre-determined notions of truth and reality” down the throats of the professionals.