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Part 1: A Gathering Storm

YOWUSA.COM, 16-June-04
Dale Caruso

Abrupt Climate ChangeWe know some things, but many, many more things we don't.  One thing we can say for certain is that our world's climate is changing faster than at anytime in our recorded history, and no matter where you stand on the cause of this change, one needs to be totally honest and admit that it is difficult to know, no matter what any "expert" may claim, what the future holds.

Perhaps these quotes - favorites of Lonnie G. Thompson, Professor of Geological Sciences, Distinguished University Professor (Ohio State University) will serve to make the point:

  • In 1943, Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM stated, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers..."
  • In 1981 Bill Gates stated "640 K (memory) ought to be enough for anybody."

In addition, a Yale University management professor who evaluated Fred Smith's paper proposing a reliable overnight delivery service wrote, "The concept is interesting and well formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible."  As you may know, Fred Smith went on to found Federal Express.

Public Awareness

The day has finally arrived ... it is the "The Day After Tomorrow."  The much-anticipated movie opened Friday, May 28.  The Day After Tomorrow, based in part on the Art Bell/Whitley Strieber book, The Coming Global Superstorm, is based loosely on the theory of "abrupt climate change."  Because of global warming, the Gulf Stream (part of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation) shuts down.  The North Atlantic region starts to cool while heat builds up in the tropics.  The result is a severe storm, the likes of which no one alive has ever seen, and a dramatic change in the global climate.

Both Bell and Strieber attended the premiere.  Writing at his website, Whitley Strieber's Unknown Country (http://www.unknowncountry.com), Strieber had this reaction, "We went to the premiere of the Day After Tomorrow with Art and Ramona earlier this week.  It was a fabulous event, with the whole front of the Museum of Natural History turned into an arctic waste via the use of artificial snow.  The premiere was packed with celebrities, including the stars of the movie and many others.  The film itself is a mind blowing roller coaster of brilliant special effects.

It has been generally called a tremendous boost for environmental concern, but as science, bunk.

How predictable the media is.  The press is virtually unanimous about the Day After Tomorrow: great special effects, cool movie, important that we should be concerned about global warming.

But that storm, unfolding like that over just five days—well, that's part of the movie's fun, but it could never happen."

When scientists talk about climate change, they are usually referring to "gradual climate change."  In other words, if the planet warms steadily, the climate changes steadily.  But there's a mounting body of evidence that suggest that some parts of the climate system work more like a switch than a dial: if a certain temperature level is reached, there may be an abrupt and large change in the climate.  That's why some scientists worry about a catastrophic event — like the breakup of the West Antarctic ice sheet or the collapse of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation.  In other words, the claims that climate will take a long while to change to the point that we need be seriously concerned, seems now to fly in the face of some very compelling evidence to the contrary.

In 2001, The National Research Council, which is part of the National Academies, which also comprise the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine, stated, "Most climate change research has focused on gradual changes, such as the processes by which emissions of greenhouse gases lead to warming of the planet.  However, new evidence shows that periods of gradual change in Earth's past were punctuated by episodes of abrupt change, including temperature changes of about 10 degrees Celsius, or 18 degrees Fahrenheit, in only a decade in some places.

Severe floods and droughts also marked periods of abrupt change.

If the planet's climate is forced to change, as is currently the case, it increases the number of possible mechanisms that can trigger abrupt events, the report says.  And the more rapid the forced change that is taking place, the more likely it is that abrupt events will occur on a time scale that has immediate human and ecological consequences."

The following year, the Council's Committee on Abrupt Climate Change: Implications for Science and Public Policy, chaired by Richard B. Alley Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, and Associate Professor of the Environment Institute College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Pennsylvania State University, University Park Pennsylvania,  issued a lengthy and comprehensive report, titled "Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises."

In that report, the authors stated that, "Until the 1990s, the dominant view of climate change was that Earth's climate system has changed gradually in response to both natural and human induced processes.  Evidence pieced together over the last few decades, however, shows that climate has changed much more rapidly—sometimes abruptly— in the past and therefore could do so again in the future."

While raising serious concerns about the new body of evidence emerging that indicates, the stage is indeed being set for massive climate change, the authors of the report couch that concern somewhat by stating, "It is important not to be fatalistic about the threats posed by abrupt climate change.  Societies have faced both gradual and abrupt climate change for thousands of years and have learned to adapt through various mechanisms, such as moving indoors, developing irrigation for crops and migrating away from inhospitable regions."

Nevertheless, concerned they are, as should we be, for lest you begin to breathe more easily over the above statement, in the next line of the report they say, "Nevertheless, because climate change will likely continue in the coming decades, denying the likelihood or downplaying the relevance of past abrupt events could be costly.  Increased knowledge is the best way to improve the effectiveness of response; research into the causes, patterns, and likelihood of abrupt climate change can help reduce vulnerabilities and increase our ability to adapt.

Possibility of Abrupt Climate Change
Needs Research and Attention — NOW!

The growing concern over the possibility, or more accurately, probability of rapid and abrupt climate change was echoed earlier this year in a report prepared for the Pentagon.

In that report, serious concern was raised that climate change over the next 20 years could result in a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters.  It warns that major European cities will sink beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a 'Siberian' climate by 2020.  Nuclear conflict, mega droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world.

The document predicts that abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies.

"The threat to global stability vastly eclipses that of terrorism," say the few experts privy to its contents.

The reports authors, Peter Schwartz, CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California based Global Business Network, say that "Climate change 'should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern."  They go on to state that, an imminent scenario of catastrophic climate change is "plausible and would challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately,"

Perhaps pessimistically they conclude that as early as next year we could see instances of widespread flooding by a rise in sea levels will, according to Schwartz and Randall, create major upheaval for millions.

They conclude by saying that "It is quite plausible that within a decade the evidence of an imminent abrupt climate shift may become clear and reliable .  It is also possible that our models will better enable us to predict the consequences.  In that event the United States will need to take urgent action to prevent and mitigate some of the most significant impacts.  Diplomatic action will be needed to minimize the likelihood of conflict in the most impacted areas, especially in the Caribbean and Asia.  However, large population movements in this scenario are inevitable.  Learning how to manage those populations, border tensions that arise and the resulting refugees will be critical.  We will also need new forms of security agreements dealing specifically with energy, food and water.  In short, while the US itself will be relatively better off and  with more adaptive capacity, it will find itself in a world where Europe will be struggling internally, large number so refugees washing up on its shores and Asia in serious crisis over food and water.  Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life."

Bob Watson, chief scientist for the World Bank and former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, added that we could no longer ignore the Pentagon's dire warnings.  Watson renewed calls for countries to sign up to the Kyoto protocol and set tough new greenhouse gas reduction targets.

He says there will be major ramifications for the world's poorer nations if industrialized countries refuse to address the issue of global warming.  "The first challenge is to ratify the Kyoto protocol and start to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases, but for that we need all developed countries to get on board.  We need Australia and Russia on board; we need the United States, but sooner rather than later.