Geoengineering – intentionally altering the climate, often discussed as a means of countering the already-in-process warming from greenhouse gases – has long been a favorite topic of mine. In the past few years I’ve been treated to new books out on the topic. One, Hack the Planet: Science's Best Hope - or Worst Nightmare - for Averting Climate Catastrophe, made it onto my summer reading list this year, and I’m glad it did. Published last year by Eli Kintisch, now at MIT and an experienced reporter for Science and many other sources, I have a strong feeling that it will remain a must-read for years into the future as governments are forced to contend with their lack of action to date to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Hack the Planet provides the history behind modern thinking about climate change, including the involvement of world-renowned scientists, the U.S. nuclear labs, the Air Force, and others. It also provides several different angles for the reader to consider in observing where the debate stands today, including in-depth reporting on the status of several major geoengineering-related experiments, different schools of thought in the science and environmental communities, and the political tensions involved. Kintisch even presents the thoughts of a prominent ethicist on the moral considerations of intentional, global-scale climate manipulation.
This has been a strange year for natural disasters. On December 19, 2010, The Washington Post published a report that captured the events of the last year, from quakes, floods to blizzards. “The term ‘100-year event’ really lost its meaning this year,” Craig Fugate, administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told the Post. But you don’t need to tell me. I have been spending the holidays in California where experts suggested that we experienced what some say is a 10-year rain storm, others a 100-year storm, that dropped more than fourteen inches of rain and snow in parts of California. With all this strangeness that’s been going on, what better time than to share some thoughts from one of my reads, Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley.
Forecast is not your typical climate change book. Many climate change-related books I read take the reader on a tour of the science and provide detailed scientific analysis on the physical impacts that the world is experiencing as a result of climate change. Forecast is much different. What author Stephan Faris does instead is translate the scientific impacts of climate change into the sociological consequences that people experience in these affected areas. And he does it, quite poignantly, through his on the ground reporting and telling of individual stories of those experiencing climate change already. As Faris explains to the reader, “This book is about these types of impacts, the rolling series of events that reach beyond the environment and the weather to shape the way we live.”
In a post-Snowpocalyptic world, climate change scientists have found themselves defending their work against climate change skeptics who are using the historic winter weather that left much of the East Coast blanketed with record-breaking snow fall to denounce the evidence that supports climate change (most notably, a warming planet). Some have wondered how climate change experts can explain how a world experiencing climate change – more often using the inaccurate term “global warming” – could also be experiencing a historic winter snow fall, such as Washington’s Snowtorious B.I.G. But while the debates unfolded, I used the nearly week long closing of the federal government, several feet of snow and the tree that barricaded me and my four roommates in our small basement apartment as an opportunity to read a book I had been given shortly after arriving in Washington, DC in early January; the cleverly titled Global Warring by Cleo Paskal.
I got this book for my brother Chris, a lover of diving and travel humor, for Christmas after a friend recommended it on Facebook. Having not read it and purchased it for title and cover alone, I decided to read a bit of it myself to make sure that it wasn’t a completely crappy Xmas present. No up-front intention of trying to tie it to natural security.
Try as I might to escape thinking about work, it turned out that To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism by writer and editor Chuck Thompson had a few relevant passages.
David Mamet's 1977 play The Water Engine could have taken many forms. Mamet could have taken his basic premise—guy invents engine that runs on water—and easily turned it into a contemporary thriller, a futuristic sci-fi story, or a legal drama. But he chose to set the story in 1934 Chicago, during the Century of Progress Exhibition, because the Exhibition's theme—scientific innovation—dovetails perfectly with Mamet's own theme: where technology is concerned, businesses will always emphasize profit over utility. The Exhibition's unofficial motto—“science finds, industry applies, man conforms”— becomes an ironic counterpoint to this story of avarice and betrayal.
The story is simple. Charles Lang, a young factory worker, invents an engine that runs on distilled water. With the water, and a simple battery to spark the ignition, Lang's engine can put out eight horsepower—enough to power a modern lawnmower or tricked-out La-Z-Boy. Lang tries to get a patent, but the first lawyer he approaches betrays him and brings in industrial agents to intimidate and blackmail Lang for his secrets. Even before meeting the lawyer, Lang worries for his safety— for someone who’s never seen a Michael Clayton-style paranoid corporate thriller, he seems oddly cognizant of the danger he’s in—but he’s still powerless to stop the threat campaign against him.
One of the great things about working in a new program area like Natural Security is that we’re constantly reassessing how to best address our research area. Recently, the implications of agriculture and food security on national security have been gaining prominence. When President Obama outlined his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, he specifically noted that revitalizing the agricultural economy of that country was a step towards security. Elsewhere, reports on the links between climate change and agriculture and the importance of agriculture at Copenhagen have put our food system in the spotlight.
I want to make sure that we are including some homeland natural security issues every now and again here at the Natural Security Blog. I also wanted to read something semi-fictitious other than comic strips this summer. For this I chose The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by New York Times writer Timothy Egan. As the book described it thusly: “John Steinbeck gave voice to those who fled the Dust Bowl in his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. This is the story of those who stayed and survived.” The joke was on me. I was deceived by the comparison to Grapes, but this book is cold, hard nonfiction.
Egan’s account walks the reader through the gray, grisly details of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. In one of the (if not the) worst natural episodes in the country’s history, the author details both the human role in creating the ecological tragedy, and the human reaction to it.
The Dust Bowl was in part severe, extended drought, and in part the results of abuse of the land by Americans expanding into some of the last unsettled regions of the country and attempting a dramatic and poorly planned ramp-up in agricultural production of crops not endemic to the region. The manmade environmental devastation to parts of Oklahoma, Texas, and surrounding states was in response to very attractive prices as well as irresponsible federal homesteading policies and fraudulent marketing on behalf of a few companies. In fact, many of the factors contributing to the human side of the Dust Bowl are ingredients that today we look for in unstable countries abroad as we monitor world economic, political, and natural trends.
While The Worst Hard Time provides details as to the causes of the Dust Bowl, its utility for the work we do here stems more from its detailed excavation of what the physical effects were and how the Americans most affected by the natural tragedy reacted. In looking at issues of land management and climate change, many of our questions to our scientist collaborators always come down to these factors: what do natural effects look like on the ground, and how will people respond?
This won’t be a full review of the new book Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil by writer Peter Maass, as it was treated to good reviews already this past week in The New York Times and by my dear colleague Robert Kaplan in the Wall Street Journal. But I did want to flag this book as a solid natural security read.
The bulk of this tome is a series of anecdotes in chapters themed of human misery: Plunder, Mirage, Greed, and Scarcity, for example. It is reminiscent of The End of Oil by Paul Roberts, one of my older favorites; it is striking that one substance can provide enough thought-provoking material for a seemingly endless stream of books.
A few things struck me in Crude World. The first is the corruption so often rampant in oil producing countries. This seems to be a big theme in foreign policy as of late. Last Sunday, Rep. Jane Harman wrote of Afghanistan in The Washington Post that “without a viable partner, the strategy will fail. That's why I say: ‘It's the corruption, stupid.’” In the G20 “Leaders’ Statement” resulting from last week’s Pittsburgh summit, world leaders declared that “We are committed to maintain the momentum in dealing with tax havens, money laundering, proceeds of corruption, terrorist financing, and prudential standards.” If corruption is seen as a new plague of geopolitics (note: not a concept I agree with) then this book could serve as a nice roadmap for some places to target.
As Maass notes in the chapter titled “Rot,” “Today, you needn’t be a Marxist to be interested in the role of natural resources in political conflicts.” Quite true. I consider myself and my collegues quite far from the Marxist camp, yet we explore daily on this blog the linkages, often stark ones, among resources, politics, and conflict that cannot be ignored in developing policies to secure the United States. That sentence, coupled with the author’s description of the first Gulf War in the chapter “Desire” recall a description by Peter Gleick in his April 1991 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article, “Environment and Security: The Clear Connections,” in which Gleick noted the ways energy and water were used in targeting, in threatening Iraq, and in the justifications of both sides for their actions. As he wrote almost two decades ago:
We live in an unusual period in history, as traditional military tensions and conflicts are becoming increasingly intertwined with new global challenges: widespread underdevelopment and poverty and large-scale environmental problems that threaten human health, economic equality, and international security. In many ways, the Persian Gulf war reflects these new issues…The political and ideological questions that now dominate international discourse will not become less important in the future: rather, they will become more tightly woven with other variables that loomed less large in the past.
Indeed. Maass derives from his exploration of that war, the current Iraq War, and many other situations around the world a far more nuanced view than one might expect. “[A]fter several months in Iraq,” he writes on page 138, “I realized how confounding oil can be.” While there are clear connections, pinpointing specifics can be extraordinarily difficult. At the intersection of natural resources and politics, the truth is often subjective. And as Maass described it in the book’s Introduction: “I knew that the war zones I’d visited since the 1980s were consequences rather than explanations.”
Photo Courtesty of Random House, Inc.
I launched into Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World by author/reporter/editor Tom Zoellner in my hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, appropriately in view of the 889 megawatt Davis-Besse nuclear plant on the shores of beautiful Lake Erie. The perfect spot to begin contemplating Zoellner’s tome.