July 29, 2009

Reading Old Magazines: Two Times

Reading Old Magazines this week will be short and sweet: a brief tale of two seemingly unremarkable Time magazine articles that appear to have had undue influence on two members (including the chairman) of the Senate Foreign

Relations Committee.

In last week’s hearing on “Climate Change and Global Security: Challenges, Threats, and Diplomatic Opportunities,” Senator John Kerry and Senator Robert Casey, Jr. both invoked past issues of this standard weekly in their discussions about climate change. For Senator Kerry it was an April 26, 2007 Alex Perry article that drew his attention:

Let me just say…that there has been a 30 percent reduction in rainfall in that part of the area [of Darfur]. And there has been – I forget the percentage, but a very significant percentage of increase of desertification as a result. So that has actually displaced people. And then the tribal component gets involved. So Time magazine, I think, a couple of years ago had a headline over a story saying “How to Prevent the Next Darfur: Get Serious about Climate Change.” That's what they said. And the connections, you know, the dots are connected here.

Later, Senator Casey revealed that Time provided his a-ha moment on climate change:

Like a lot of people, I was – you learn about this issue in ways you don't expect. I happened to be reading an article in Time magazine a couple of years ago, I think it was 2005; and there was one sentence that jumped off the page. And I was not in the middle of this issue in the way that Senator Kerry has been for a couple of decades now – in the middle of the science, in the middle of the advocacy, about the urgency of this issue of global warming and the effects on human life. But in this article in Time magazine, one sentence said the following and I'm paraphrasing, but this is pretty close to what it said. That in 30 years, the percent of the Earth's surface that was the subject of drought had doubled. That's all it said. And at that – when I read that, almost at that moment, or soon thereafter, I thought to myself well, if the percent of the Earth's surface subject to drought is doubled; drought means starvation, and starvation means darkness and death. That's all you need to know.

I believe that the Senator had read the March 26, 2006 article, “Global Warming Heats Up,” by Jeffrey Kluger, which reveals that “According to a recent study by NCAR, the percentage of Earth’s surface suffering drought has more than doubled since the 1970s.”

Now, just a few years later, the linkages that these articles discuss among natural systems, biodiversity, agricultural productivity, migration, land disputes, conflict, and sometimes war are far more firmly established.

But the obvious lesson here is the oversized influence that science – specifically science via popular media – had on national policy makers. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change (home of Natural Security Non-Resident Senior Fellow Dr. Jay Gulledge) and other organizations have launched new efforts lately to communicate the science and the urgency of action on climate change to the American public. Last week’s hearing revealed though that for some, vivid reporting is most memorable, and for others, unforgettable statistics tell the best tale of the devastation changes in the climate are creating. And both examples prove the value in looking to old magazines and other materials – not just recent news – in understanding any security decisions the nation’s leaders are making today.