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A newly released study commissioned by the C.I.A. entitled Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis highlights the vulnerabilities of our globalized economy to climate change. Of particular interest is the section on energy. To summarize:

1.) Oil is the most highly integrated commodity of globalized trade. Its tightly interconnected market was created in the aftermath of the OPEC embargoes of the 1970’s to prevent its manipulation by political actors. Its integration is said to be fully complete to the point that any disruption in the global oil system will cause an economic ripple effect throughout the world. Rapid oil consumption in China and India without a corresponding increase in production has left the oil market extremely tight (i.e. Peak Oil).

2.) Due to the facts stated above, any changes in climate could easily disrupt the world’s energy system. For example:

(a.) Tropical storms and sea-level rise can disrupt production, refining, and transport of petroleum since a large percentage of oil refining and processing are located in coastal areas vulnerable to such storms and floods. This is true in the U.S., Europe, China, and India. An example would be Hurricane Katrina and Rita in 2005 which disrupted oil and gas operations of off-shore rigs, coastal refining, and transport via sea ports and pipelines.

(b) Drought will cause oil refining disruptions since that process requires large amounts of water. If the drought is accompanied by higher temperatures, the scarcity of water will be exacerbated because the oil refineries will require even more cooling by water. A warming planet will also cause infrastructure damage (pipelines and drilling platforms) in Arctic operations due to collapsing earth from the melting of permafrost.

We are entering an era in which not only the global energy system is vulnerable, but the social, agricultural, and technological infrastructure is also at the mercy of climate disruptions. They were all designed around assumptions of moderately stable climate conditions, and as climate exceeds boundary thresholds, these infrastructures will break. As was demonstrated by Hurricane Sandy recently in New York/New Jersey with the power outages, gas shortages, and Nuclear plant shutdowns. The droughts this past summer in the U.S. midwest show the fragility of our food system whose development assumed fairly stable weather patterns and rainfall.

A quote from the study:

…The fundamental science of climate change suggests that continued global warming will increase with frequency or intensity (or both) of a great variety of events that could disrupt societies, including heat waves, extreme precipitation events, floods, droughts, sea-level rise, wildfires, and the spread of infectious diseases. Underpinning many of these extreme events is an acceleration of the global hydrological cycle. For each 1.8° F (1° C) increase in the global mean surface temperature, there is a corresponding 7 percent increase in atmospheric water vapor. Because warm air holds more water vapor than cool air, this leads to more intense precipitation. Essentially, warm air increases evaporation from the ocean and dries out the land surface, providing more moisture to the atmosphere that will rain out downwind. Water vapor is also a powerful naturally occurring greenhouse gas. As such it is the source of a very positive feedback to the coupled climate system that amplifies any external forcing by a factor of approximately 1.6…

We’ve passed a tipping point with the Arctic ice melt which has set off other feedback loops (Arctic amplification, methane release from permafrost melt, loss of the albedo effect, alteration of the Jet Stream, Greenland glacier melt, etc) and tipping points, some of which we are not even aware of, as the study acknowledges:

…there may be other processes in the Earth system, not yet identified, that have tipping points that could lead to abrupt climate change. Because of such gaps in knowledge, the possibility of such events occurring in the next decade or so cannot be totally discounted…

I would say “God help us” if the traditional farming lands -the bread baskets of nations- become dust bowls, but that’s exactly where we are headed with climate change and no miracle is going to fall out of the sky to save us.

Map Updated 11/07/12

Drought Disaster Designations Map (PDF, 504KB)
Text-only (accessible) version
Map shows designations due to drought across the country under USDA’s amended rule. Any county declared a primary (red) or contiguous (orange) disaster county makes producers in that county eligible for certain emergency aid.

The study talks about what it terms a “cluster of extreme events” resulting from large-scale climate processes, causing catastrophes in separate and distant areas of the globe. Trying to deal with such widespread and seemingly unrelated disruptions would quickly overwhelm the global community’s resources. An example given was in the year 2010 with the massive drought and forest fires in Russia and the epic floods in Pakistan:

…The two events were linked by more than just their proximity in time. The meteorological pattern that lead to the Russian heat wave, in which the large-scale upper-level wind flow developed a strong and persistent ridge, also contributed to the development of the meteorological pattern that resulted in the Pakistani floods —a downstream leading trough (Lau and Kim, 2012). The fact that these two extreme events corresponded in time with each other and with a single larger meteorological pattern was unusual but not totally unexpected. Circulation events like this one, which cause some event clusters, are known to occur but are not well resolved in current climate models…

…If climate events and extremes were independent in a statistical sense, the likelihood of a cluster or a compound event of any size could easily be estimated mathematically. But as the above example makes clear, extreme events in different parts of the world can be driven by common underlying forces and thus have an intrinsic relationship such that when one such event occurs, the likelihood increases that other extreme events linked to them by common causes will also occur. In statistical language, such events are called dependent.

The changing climate zones also enable the spread of tropical diseases and pests. Outbreaks of new virus strains would tax healthcare delivery systems:

…Climate events might also put stress on global health systems in various ways, most of them hard to predict. As discussed in the next chapter, climate change is expected to alter the ranges of disease vectors or pathogens in ways that expose large human populations to diseases to which they have not been previously been exposed. This could lead to a rapidly increasing demand for treatments and supplies that may not have been adequately stockpiled. If such health problems arise in combination with a disruption of supply chains for critical inoculations or medications, the potential for a severe health crisis could grow dramatically. Again, the effects might be felt far from the locations where the climate events occur. Climate events, especially when they occur in clusters, can also stress the capacity of international disaster response and humanitarian relief systems and thus cause harm in places that are not directly affected by the events but that need international assistance for other reasons…

A New York Times article, which talks about this study, quotes the author:

 “You can debate the specific contribution of global warming to that storm. But we’re saying climate extremes are going to be more frequent, and this[Hurricane Sandy] was an example of what they could mean. We’re also saying it could get a whole lot worse than that.”

Mr. Steinbruner, the director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, said that humans are pouring carbon dioxide and other climate-altering gases into the atmosphere at a rate never before seen. “We know there will have to be major climatic adjustments — there’s no uncertainty about that — but we just don’t know the details,” he said. “We do know they will be big.”

The study was released 10 days late: its authors had been scheduled to brief intelligence officials on their findings the day Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, but the federal government was shut down because of the storm.

How ironic is that? The authors of this study had to postpone their meeting with U.S. intel authorities because of a climate chaos event.

Here’s what else is ironic…

…as the need for more and better analysis is growing, government resources devoted to them are shrinking. Republicans in Congress objected to the C.I.A.’s creation of a climate change center and tried to deny money for it. The American weather satellite program is losing capability because of years of underfinancing and mismanagement, imperiling the ability to predict and monitor major storms.