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New US military report on global warming raises worry

Calls theories on the cause 'contradictory'

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / December 6, 2008
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WASHINGTON - A new US military report has come under scrutiny for asserting that the scientific data on what is causing global warming is "contradictory" - a position one leading specialist said indicates the government still hasn't fully embraced the urgency of climate change.

The long-range planning document, published Thursday by the US Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., which is responsible for developing blueprints for future military strategy, is intended to provide a "basis for thinking about the world a quarter of a century from now."

But a section of the 56-page report on climate change and natural disasters prompted criticism yesterday from some leading specialists who said that spreading the inaccurate perception that the causes of climate change remain an open question could result in government agencies not taking the issue seriously enough.

The report, titled Joint Operating Environment 2008, states that "the impact of global warming and its potential to cause natural disasters and other harmful phenomena such as rising sea levels has become a prominent - and controversial - national and international concern. Some argue that there will be more and greater storms and natural disasters, others that there will be fewer."

It adds: "In many respects, scientific conclusions about the causes and potential effects of global warming are contradictory."

That last line in particular was singled out at a panel discussion hosted yesterday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, on the topic of climate change and national security.

Sharon Burke, a former Pentagon and State Department official who is now a specialist at the Center for a New American Security, said the report was factually "wrong" and "out of line," saying that there is a wide consensus that human activity, namely the production of greenhouse gases, is responsible for global warming.

Other specialists had similar reactions when they read the report.

"It's very wrong," said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose work was cited in the military report. "The jury is not out" on what is causing global warming, he added. "I don't know where that statement came from, but it's pretty bizarre."

Emanuel also took issue with the report's assertions about future storm intensity.

"Everyone pretty much agrees that the intensity of events could go up with global warming, although we argue how much," he said in an interview.

The Joint Forces Command maintains that it is fully cognizant of the threat posed by climate change, saying the purpose of the report was not to debate what is or isn't causing global warming.

"We are in complete agreement that climate change will be a national security driver in the future," said Rear Admiral John M. Richardson, director of strategy for the command. "We are focused on the implications of climate change. We see what is happening. What is causing it is not in our purview. The commanders have to deal with the effects."

He added in an interview yesterday: "Don't take away that we think it is any less important."

At yesterday's conference, specialists agreed that the cascading effects of global warming - including drought, flooding, population flows, and disease epidemics - present the United States and other countries with enormous security threats in the years ahead - warnings that have been echoed by recent Pentagon reports and intelligence assessments.

Ronald Sugar, the CEO of Northrop Grumman, one of the nation's leading defense companies, spoke of the need for private industry and the government to begin the difficult task of bridging the enormous knowledge base about what is happening to the earth's climate to development of technical solutions that can help repair it.

"We have to build something that does not exist," Sugar said.

But Burke said in a follow-up interview that it remains worrisome that some in the military command responsible for helping prepare for future dangers still appear to question the science of why global warming is occurring. She believes there are many in the government who still don't fully embrace it. That makes it far more difficult for the leadership necessary to move the country to make the enormous changes necessary, she said.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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