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Cassandra v. Cassandra

May 21, 2007

By Peter W. Huber

What's the biggest threat we face on this planet? Consult friends, colleagues, editorialists, politicians and U.N. ambassadors. Demand a straight answer--many threats may be big, but only one can be the biggest. The answer, of course, is "global something." But is it terrorism or is it warming? I'm no pollster, but where I hang out, those two are definitely the front-runners. And they are mutually inconsistent. If the planet is indeed going to hell, these two roads are so sharply divergent that no one planet can take them both.

Look at it this way: Al Qaeda could halt global warming a lot faster than Al Gore. Take one--just one--quite small nuclear gadget. Stick it in a container and load it on a ship. Detonate in the port of Jeddah, Haifa, New York or Shanghai. It doesn't have to make a big bang; a fizzle that disperses radionucleotides will do. Global trade will freeze, and the global economic depression that ensues will push energy consumption down 30%. Release of a smallpox virus bioengineered to evade the old vaccine would deliver a 50% decrease in global carbon emissions. At least.

How likely is this, and how soon might it happen? According to my computer models--too complicated to explain fully here--it could well happen, sometime, maybe soon, or maybe not soon at all. I also have a PowerPoint display showing that ever since the attack on the marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 the climate of global terror has been getting steadily hotter. The average temperature rose steadily throughout the 1990s. In 2001 it reached the curve in the hockey stick, and took off. It's been whirling out of control ever since.

Al Gore may say the two global hurricanes are drawing from the same well--the same oil funds terrorists and spews carbon. Both threats, he might add, hinge on the wrong technology in the hands of the wrong people. He would be absolutely right, on both counts. It's from here on out that views diverge.

Both camps have their apocalypse-now Cassandras, who see carbon in the air when it rains in Seattle and nerve gas when an aspirin factory is built in Sudan. But while Katrina was a disaster, no reputable climatologist says fossil fuels caused it. The Sept. 11 attack was horrific, but the attackers used kerosene, not plutonium. Doomsday is when Miami becomes the new Atlantis or New York the new Chernobyl.

Any prediction about when that will happen depends on two underlying predictions--a first one about technology and a second about how people will use it.

The dire warming scenarios hinge on predictions about engines and power plants that burn fossil fuels in rich countries and ovens and livestock fueled by wood and grass in poor ones. All will be well if these old technologies can be curbed or displaced by new ones fueled by sun, wind, corn or uranium. Or alternatively, if billions of ordinary people have a change of heart and just stop craving more energy. The dire terrorism scenarios hinge on predictions about biological and nuclear technologies falling into the hands of sociopaths. All will be well if these technologies can be quarantined, or better still, eliminated altogether. Or, alternatively, if sociopaths have a change of heart and just stop craving more death.

Some people, in other words, see doomsday coming in the casual--but not intentionally destructive--behavior of ordinary people everywhere, and especially affluent Americans. Others see it coming in the conscious--and altogether malignant--scheming of fanatics hiding in huts and caves.

All warming predictions assume that the global political environment will stay cool. They assume that the global economy will continue to prosper, fueled in no small part by 600 billion barrels of oil pumped calmly and efficiently from the Persian Gulf over the course of the next half-century or so. They assume, in short, that people, politics, economics, religion and philosophy are more stable than the earth's climate. Let's hope they're right. If they are, stable governments and prosperous people will find ways to prove them wrong. People who are rich and at peace always find ways to fix problems of their own creation.

The warming crowd acknowledge that America can't avert disaster alone but are sure that if we lead by example, the rest of the world will follow. Many in their camp seem to believe much the same about global terror. Diplomacy, reason and setting a fair, peaceful, tolerant example on the world stage will persuade al Qaeda to leave us alone. If we follow their advice on that one, and it turns out to be wrong, the crazies will prove them wrong about carbon, too.

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