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Why global warming is an attractive issue to worry about
Scripps Howard News Service


July 16, 2007

Ending today's crisis is as easy as naming tomorrow's scarier one.

Last weekend I caught several hours of the consciousness-raising Live Earth concerts. I'm already on board regarding the scientific consensus on global warming, but like many, I'm uncertain about how much priority humanity should give this crisis versus others we collectively face.

Humans crave life-focusing crises. As globalization generates inescapable complexity, it's nice to have one big boulder to push up that hill every day, no matter how Sisyphean the task. We're naturally resilient creatures, and self-sacrifice is embedded in our evolutionary code.

As someone who systemically examines the future, you'd think it would be easy for me to get excited about global warming, but it hasn't been. Let me tell you why.

Right up to 9/11 I directed a Naval War College research project that involved partnering with the Wall Street broker-dealer firm Cantor Fitzgerald -- the very same one that lost 600-plus workers that fateful day. As part of this project on globalization's future, we held an "economic security exercise," or scenario-driven war game, to explore the profound environmental issues arising from Asia's rapid development.

The exercise centered on the notion that Asia's increasing production of CO2 would become a major political issue in the collective fight to address global warming. Indeed, the primary reason why the United States didn't ratify the Kyoto Treaty was because it left rising India and China out of its global equation.

Cantor Fitzgerald had successfully pioneered financial markets to take advantage of, and further enable, the cap-and-trade regime imposed on acid rain emissions by the 1990 Clean Air Act. So in this war game, the firm was clearly interested in promoting similar market mechanisms for Asia on CO2, having recently created a subsidiary for just such purposes.

However, in designing the war game, I didn't want to stack the deck so obviously in global warming's favor. As participants were drawn from Wall Street, the U.S. government, the energy industry and environmental organizations, I thought it would be interesting to force them to rank a list of competing environmental dangers in order of perceived priority -- a bang-for-the-buck hierarchy. In a world of limited resources, I wanted them to tell me where they'd put their next dollar to fix things.

So I had the group play "Survivor" by "voting off the island" one danger each successive round following discussion of some measure of environmental degradation. As the measures selected focused attention on global warming, I was nonetheless surprised to find that it was the first issue voted off. The hands-down winner? It was lack of clean water, followed by the decline of marine habitat -- especially fisheries.

Now, one can immediately counter that if humanity deals with global warming effectively, then water issues should likewise improve. Our question, however, was all about timing and priority: for example, how much effort should be made to cut global warming X percent by 2100 versus more immediately addressing all the lives shortened by lack of access to clean water.

Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg later employed a similar thought exercise in his Copenhagen Consensus project, which utilized the combined talents of several Nobel Prize-winning experts. When forced to rank solutions, they too chose to prioritize certain near-term goals ( e.g., clean water, malnutrition, debilitating diseases) over the longer-term challenge of slowing global warming.

But having said all that, here's why I still find myself wanting to embrace global warming as the preeminent global challenge of our age: it beats the heck out of the alternatives currently offered.

I would love to see humanity focus on a "blue revolution" to address looming water shortages, but I know full well that the "war on terror" and "clash of civilizations" are current front-runners for "crisis of the age." I've come to the conclusion that we're deeply mistaken to so elevate either notion, given our current administration's track record.

So how to "solve" this crisis? Replace it with a bigger, more attractive one and, by doing so, de-escalate the harmful rhetoric vis-a-vis Islam while systematically de-legitimizing al Qaeda's self-declared importance as that religion's lead resistance to globalization's advance.

If forced to choose, I'd go with global warming right now because we'll do less damage to both our world and ourselves by myopically focusing on that crisis versus terrorism or radical Islam or China's latest submarine.

So by default, Al Gore wins my fear-filled devotion -- for now.


Thomas P.M. Barnett is a distinguished strategist at the Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies and the senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC.
Contact him at tom(at)
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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska