We’ve been talking about global warming for the past 50 years, and we still haven’t managed to take action against this threat that may very well lead to human extinction. Global warming is here, and we can no longer ignore its worldwide effects.
An old enemy
“In the worst case, where climate changes caused grave shortages of food despite U.S. exports, the potential risks to the U.S. would rise. There would be increasingly desperate attempts on the part of the militarily powerful, but nonetheless hungry nations to get more grain in any way they could. Massive migration backed by force could become a very real issue. Nuclear blackmail is not inconceivable …”
The paragraph above was taken from a CIA report produced in 1974 in order to furnish U.S. planners with information on the effects of a worldwide change in climate.
The so-called “greenhouse effect,” first studied by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius who coined the term in 1896, has been a subject of intense scientific debate and journalistic doomsaying for almost a century. The release recently of two new scientific reports, one by the National Academy of Sciences, the other by the Environmental Protection Agency, has given significant support to the greenhouse effect theory and the global warming threat.
The reality of global warming
These reports indicate that we are indeed in the midst of a climatic change, the effects of which will have far-reaching consequences on not only world climate, but also the foreign policy and national security of the U.S.
While the long-term effects of global warming have often been sensationalized by the media, e.g., polar ice caps melting and coastal cities flooding, little attention has been paid to the relatively short term (10 to 50 years) effects of such a climate change.
For instance, the CIA report quoted above indicates the possibility of starving nations resorting to nuclear intimidation to feed their people. Hunger has more than once been the motivating factor of revolution. Should the rulers of these countries be faced with the possibility of revolt and the consequent destruction of the state, it is not farfetched to assume they would use every available option to assure the survival of their system.
Other possibilities too were considered by the CIA, ranging from the use of large-scale terrorism by smaller starving countries against the “haves” to the possibility of countries using climate modification techniques, which would impact adversely on the U.S. and its agricultural output.
These possibilities will be discussed later. First though, what is the “greenhouse effect” and how will it impact on global food production?
How It Works
We all know that a greenhouse is used to retain warmth for the benefit of the plants within. The heat energy which warms the interior enters the greenhouse through the glass roof as sunlight. This light is made up primarily of high-frequency wavelengths, which are unaffected by their passage through the glass of the greenhouse roof.
Once these high-frequency light waves strike the surfaces of the interior of the greenhouse, their energy is absorbed by these surfaces. This absorption of energy causes the atoms in the absorbing surfaces to become more active and release heat energy. The heat is in the infrared wavelength of the spectrum and is of a much lower frequency than the entering sunlight.
The glass of the greenhouse roof acts as a barrier to this infrared heat energy and traps it inside the greenhouse, thus raising the temperature.
On a planetary scale, the atmosphere of the earth can be thought of as the glass roof of the greenhouse. Acting both as a filter and as a transmission medium for incoming solar energy, the earth’s atmosphere protects us by screening out a large portion of cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation while at the same time admitting a majority of the solar radiation we see as sunlight.
Once through the atmosphere, the sunlight strikes the surface of the earth and, as with the interior of the greenhouse, is absorbed and radiated as heat energy.
The CO2 issue
This heat energy is prevented from leaving the earth’s atmosphere in large part by the carbon dioxide (CO2) gas in the atmosphere. This carbon dioxide acts as does the glass of the greenhouse roof to block the infrared (heat) wavelengths of energy from escaping to space.
Without this blocking action and its consequent heat-trapping effect, the earth would be a cold and lifeless body very much like some of’ the other planets in the solar system.
We can see by this very basic explanation that carbon dioxide plays a key role in the climatology of the earth. Increase (or decrease) of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere could, in theory, upset the balances upon which the earth’s climate is maintained.
CO2 is what we exhale with each breath. CO2 is also a byproduct of the burning of natural materials such as coal, wood, oil, etc. Geologic processes such as volcanoes also release substantial portions of CO2 into the atmosphere. On the other side of the equation, plants, trees, and forests consume CO2 in their biologic processes.
The oceans also absorb and retain portions of the available atmospheric CO2. Other processes both absorb and give off CO2, but these generally function on a geologic timescale of millions of years and more.
All in all, this bio-geo exchange of CO2 has resulted in an atmospheric concentration of CO2 of about one-hundredths of one percent. That is a volume of about 2.6 trillion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere of the earth. Put scientifically, and our atmosphere contains 407.4 parts per million of CO2 gas.
Mankind has been burning fossil fuels at a furious rate for little more than a hundred years. This burning has released great quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. At the same time (especially in the past 100 years), mankind has been obliterating large tracts of forests for development and resources.
These two conditions, adding CO2 to the atmosphere through combustion while removing the natural CO2 “scrubbers” (the forests), has increased the atmospheric levels of CO2 to 410 ppm, or a 15 percent increase in atmospheric CO2 levels in the past 100 years.
Since we know that the CO2 in the atmosphere is responsible for retaining heat, the increase of CO2 at such an alarming rate has prompted great scientific concern for an overall increase in global temperatures and the effects such an increase will have on climate, agriculture, and society. This then, in brief, is the greenhouse effect.
Global Cooling, Ice Ages
You may have read that we are heading for another ice age, and on the surface, this would seem to contradict the greenhouse effect theory.
Ice ages come in cycles. There have been eight ice ages in the past 700.000 years. They last roughly 90.000 years, each with an interglacial period of 10,000 to 12,000 years between ice ages. We are now emerging from the end of one of these interglacial periods.
Since these climatic upheavals take place on geologic timescales, they are at the same time easier to predict in the long term (thousands of years), while still being subject to drastic variation in the short term. Thus a warming trend produced by the greenhouse effect can substantially raise temperatures over a period of tens or hundreds of years while doing so in the midst of a long term (tens of thousands of years) cooling trend.
The two theories are not incompatible with each other when viewed with reference to the time frames in which they occur. We are indeed heading for an ice age, but that ice will take 1.500 or so years to get here. The warming caused by the greenhouse effect is with us now and is of immediate concern in the decades to come.
Effects of Global Warming
“It is increasingly evident that the intelligence community must understand the magnitude of international threats which occur as a function of climatic change. These methodologies are necessary to forewarn us of the economic and political collapse of nations caused by a worldwide failure in food production. In addition, methodologies are also necessary to project and assess a nation’s propensity to initiate militarily large-scale migrations of their people, as has been the case for the last 4.000 years … The politics of food will become the central issue of every government.”— CIA report on Climate Change 1974.
In attempting to determine the impact on agriculture of the greenhouse effect, there are two widely used methods of analysis, which can be of help.
The first is the comparison, using geologic records, of the climates and weather patterns on the earth during periods of warmth, which roughly correspond to the level of warming predicted for the green-house effect.
The second method, available to scientists only in the past decades, is one of computer modeling of the atmosphere under the conditions which would be prevalent in a greenhouse affected world.
Practical, accurate computer climate modelling has only recently become available with the advent of supercomputers capable of solving the billions of equations necessary for the creation of an accurate atmospheric model.
Using these two systems, climatologists have begun piecing together the effects of a warming trend produced as a result of a greenhouse effect. Analysis using the two separate methods has yielded very similar results, giving climatologists a high degree of confidence in their predictions.
Some of these predictions are summarized below.
1—A rise in worldwide average temperatures of between 2 to 5 degrees Celsius (3 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit).
2—A lower rise in temperatures in the equatorial regions with the rise becoming more pronounced moving north and south from the equator.
3—A shift in worldwide rainfall patterns with less rainfall in the U.S. and Canadian grain belts. Less rainfall is also likely in the current grain-producing regions of Russia. Increasing rainfall is probable in India and north and east Africa.
4—A larger rise in temperatures over those areas predicted to have less rain, with a lesser rise in temperature for those areas likely to have an increase in rainfall.
Agricultural Effects Predictions:
1—North and East Africa, currently drought-stricken, could, in the long-term, become grain-producing and possibly even exporting regions.
2—India will probably be able to harvest another rice crop each year, increasing overall food production. Like north and east Africa, this is possible in the long term and only if sufficient financial and technical resources are invested.
3—Russia can expect an increase in the growing season of the central plains region of up to two weeks. This will not necessarily result in an increase in production since the lack of readily available water for irrigation will remain or worsen. Also their economy has proven quite incapable even under present conditions of producing enough food to feed itself.
4—United Kingdom. A return to the climate that was prevalent during the Middle Ages, with a subsequent increase in agricultural output and export.
5—Tthe United States and Canada. A warmer climate with less rainfall will reduce yield in the grain belt. Agriculture relying primarily on irrigation, mainly in the west and the southwest U.S., might have to be abandoned entirely due to an insufficiency of water for irrigation. While the agricultural production of this area involves only 15 percent of the nation’s farms, it accounts for 40 percent of the value of all crops produced in the U.S. This area could be one of the hardest hit in the entire world by the warming of the greenhouse effect.
It should be noted that the U.S. itself, even in the worst-case scenarios, will not face a future of being unable to feed its people. Hopefully, America will continue to produce enough food to feed itself.
Recommended reading: Eight Efficient Food Crops To Grow
What can be expected is a reduction of the surplus agricultural commodities produced by the U.S. that much of the world depends upon. It cannot be assumed that those regions which benefit from greenhouse warming will be able to compensate for the loss of the U.S. surplus.
The areas which would benefit from a warming are generally in third world countries which have neither the knowledge nor the technical capacity to increase food production even if the growing conditions improve. As a practical matter, the decrease in U.S. production will not be offset by an increase in production of the third world countries for a very long time, if at all.
International Implications of Global Warming
“Food is a weapon, and we should use it.” So spoke Daniel P. Moynihan (Senator from NY), just prior to his confirmation as U.S. Ambassador to the UN in 1975.
And we have used it.
In 1972 the U.S. refused to sell grain, even on a cash basis, to the Marxist regime of Salvador Allende in Chile. This refusal contributed to the instability and eventual overthrow of that regime. At the very same time, as the U.S. was deciding not to sell grain to Marxist Chile, another decision was reached to sell nearly one-quarter of the entire 1972 U.S. wheat crop to the Soviet Union.
In 1972 detente was the policy of relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. The Soviets made it quite clear to the U.S. that the continuation of detente was, in part, contingent upon U.S. willingness to sell large quantities of grain to the Soviet Union.
As a result of the sale of such a major portion of the U.S. wheat crop to the Soviets, the world and U.S. food prices increased. Third world nations saw many of their people go hungry when they were unable to pay the inflated prices of the world grain market. Meanwhile, the U.S. did get a continuation of detente with the Soviets, at least until the policy fell apart in the mid-1970s.
As the effects of greenhouse warming begin to be felt, we can anticipate that food will come to play an ever more vital role in relations between nations.
As food production lessens and worldwide surpluses decline, the power of the food-producing nations will increase. It is also likely that resentment against those countries by food-dependent nations will rise.
A CIA report addresses this problem:”. ..the rural masses may become less docile in the future, and if famine also threatens cities and reduces the living standards of the middle classes, it could lead to social and political upheavals which cripple governmental authority. The beleaguered governments could become more difficult to deal with on international issues either because of a collapse in the ability to meet commitments or through greatly heightened nationalism and aggressiveness.”
Climate modification efforts by countries attempting to increase their food production, or even more ominously, to decrease production in exporting nations, are also considered possible threats by U.S. intelligence analysts.
From a CIA report, “The potential for international conflict due to controlled climate modification can be a reality (starting) in the 1970s. . . The Agency (CIA) will be faced with tracing and anticipating climate modification undertaken by a country to relieve its own situation at the detriment of the U.S.”
Not mentioned in the report is what the U.S. could or should do if such efforts are detected. That such climate modification techniques exist is recognized by both the U.S. and other countries. In August 1975, at a meeting between representatives of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, a joint draft treaty on environmental modification was presented to the Geneva Disarmament Conference.
The treaty prohibits either side from pursuing programs that will purposely damage the other side by an alteration of the normal climate. As before, however, the question remains as to what could be done if such efforts were undertaken. Also left unaddressed is the question of a renegade nation such as North Korea undertaking such efforts.
The long-term effects of greenhouse warming are often cited in doomsday scenarios. Melted ice caps and flooded cities are indeed spectacular images of destruction. These events, however, do not happen overnight. Cities on threatened coasts will have decades before they are flooded.
Technology is already being invented, which can deal effectively with storm surges and rising seas. Indeed it may be that the long-term effects of global warming are the easiest to deal with.
Far more unclear is how we deal with the current and near-future problems caused by climate change. Hungry people are not logical, and we cannot presume that hungry nations, sonic with a begging bowl in one hand and an atomic arsenal in the other, will behave any more logically than will starving individuals.
Desperate circumstances often inspire desperate (and futile) actions. We must be aware of and guard against the threat posed by such actions. We have the advantage of knowing that global warming is occurring. We can best deal with it through a combination of vigilance, common sense food policy, technology, and perhaps most important of all, humanity.
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