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Environment and Climate Change





Environmental Collapse: Redefining Security for the 21st Century

By Lester R. Brown
May 31, 2012
One of our legacies from the last century, which was dominated by two world wars and the cold war, is a sense of security that is defined almost exclusively in military terms. It so dominates Washington thinking that the U.S. foreign affairs budget of $701 billion in 2009 consisted of $661 billion for military purposes and $40 billion for foreign assistance and diplomatic programs.
But the situation in which we find ourselves pushes us to redefine security in twenty-first century terms. The time when military forces were the prime threat to security has faded into the past. The threats now are climate volatility, spreading water shortages, continuing population growth, spreading hunger, and failing states. The challenge is to devise new fiscal priorities that match these new security threats.
Douglas Alexander, former U.K. Secretary of State for International Development, put it well in 2007: “In the 20th century a country’s might was too often measured in what they could destroy. In the 21st century strength should be measured by what we can build together.”
The good news is that in the United States the concept of redefining security is now permeating not only various independent think tanks but the Pentagon itself. A number of studies have looked at threats to U.S. interests posed by climate change, population growth, water shortages, and food shortages-—key trends that contribute to political instability and lead to social collapse.
Although security is starting to be redefined in a conceptual sense, we have not redefined it in fiscal terms. The United States still has a huge military budget, committed to developing and manufacturing technologically sophisticated and costly weapon systems. Since there is no other heavily armed superpower, the United States is essentially in an arms race with itself. What if the next war is fought in cyberspace or with terrorist insurgents? Vast investments in conventional weapons systems will be of limited use.
The far-flung U.S. military establishment, including hundreds of military bases scattered around the world, will not save civilization. It belongs to another era. We can most effectively achieve our security goals by helping to expand food production, by filling the family planning gap, by building wind farms and solar power plants, and by building schools and clinics.
We can calculate roughly the costs of the changes needed to move our twenty-first century civilization off the decline-and-collapse path and onto a path that will sustain civilization. This is what we call “Plan B.” What we cannot calculate is the cost of not adopting Plan B. How do you put a price tag on social collapse and the massive die-off that it invariably brings?
When we crunch the numbers, the external funding needed to eradicate poverty and stabilize population requires $75 billion per year beyond what countries around the world are already spending. These measures will also help prevent state failure by alleviating its root social causes.
Meanwhile, efforts to eradicate poverty and rescue failing states that are not accompanied by an earth restoration effort are doomed to fail. Protecting topsoil, reforesting the earth, restoring oceanic fisheries, and other needed measures will cost an estimated $110 billion in additional expenditures per year.
Combining both social goals and earth restoration goals into a Plan B budget yields an additional annual expenditure of $185 billion. This is the new defense budget, the one that addresses the most serious threats to both national and global security. It is equal to 12 percent of global military expenditures and 28 percent of U.S. military expenditures. Given the enormity of the antiquated military budget, no one can argue that we do not have the resources to rescue civilization. (For more details on the required spending see Chapters 10 and 11 in World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.)
Unfortunately, the United States continues to focus its fiscal resources on building an ever-stronger military, largely ignoring the threats posed by continuing environmental deterioration, poverty, and population growth. Its 2009 military expenditures accounted for 43 percent of the global total of $1,522 billion. Other leading spenders included China ($100 billion), France ($64 billion), the United Kingdom ($58 billion), and Russia ($53 billion).
For less than $200 billion of additional funding per year worldwide, we can get rid of hunger, illiteracy, disease, and poverty, and we can restore the earth’s soils, forests, and fisheries. We can build a global community where the basic needs of all people are satisfied—a world that will allow us to think of ourselves as civilized.
Plan B Budget: Additional Annual Expenditures Needed to Meet Social Goals and Restore the Earth
Goal                                                                     Funding  (billion dollars)  
Basic Social Goal
  Universal primary education                                      10
  Eradication of adult illiteracy                                       4
  School lunch programs                                              3
  Aid to women, infants, and preschool children               4
  Reproductive health and family planning                     21
  Universal basic health care                                       33
  Total                                                                       75

Earth Restoration Goals
  Planting trees                                                          23
  Protecting topsoil on cropland                                   24
  Restoring rangelands                                                 9
  Restoring fisheries                                                   13
  Stabilizing water tables                                            10
  Protecting biological diversity                                    31
  Total                                                                     110
Grand Total                                                               185
U.S. Military Budget                                                 661
  Plan B budget as share of this                                28%
World Military Budget                                             1,522
  Plan B budget as share of this                                12%
Source: Military from SIPRI; other data at
Adapted from World on the Edge by Lester R. Brown. Full book available online at


Climate Change

Since the early 1900s, the earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.5° F (0.83° C). Two thirds of this increase (1° F) has taken place in just the last thirty years, and has resulted in the melting of hundreds of billions of tons of arctic sea ice, the raising of ocean levels 4 to 8 inches, and a dramatic increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. In recent years, abnormal droughts, heat waves and floods have led to thousands of deaths, reduced crop yields, and a dangerous increase in cropland desertification. Global surface temperatures are expected to rise a further 2 to 11.5° F (1.1 to 6.4° C) by the end of this century, threatening catastrophic consequences for human civilization and all life on the planet.

There is a worldwide scientific consensus that global warming is caused by human activities—such as deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels—that increase atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases. Nonetheless, the fossil fuel industry has engaged in a massive disinformation and lobbying campaign to discredit climate science, slow progress on international climate treaties, and prevent government regulations reducing carbon emissions.

Their efforts have been greatly successful. Corporate-backed “cap and trade” programs in Europe and elsewhere have not only failed to reduce CO2 emissions, but have spawned a multi-billion dollar commodities market enriching private speculators and large investment banks that now trade “carbon credits” for profit. Recent UN climate summits in Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban have yielded no concrete agreements, largely due to resistance from the U.S. and other wealthy nations. And public discourse around the need to transform the global debt-based banking and economic system into one based on sustainable rather than unfettered development continues to be overshadowed by calls for more bailouts and the false promises of a return to exponential growth and prosperity.

There is perhaps no better example of the cynical and fatalistic perspective of corporate ideology than climate change denial, for in dismissing the science of global warming, corporations will ultimately destroy themselves. A similar cynicism infects the U.S. government. A 2004 Pentagon study acknowledges the reality of global warming and warns that climate change could lead to “a significant drop in the human carrying capacity of the earth.” Yet the report focuses exclusively on the national security ramifications of climate change, emphasizing the increased need to “secure access to energy supplies.” Mitigation efforts are never considered.

Many scientists believe that the earth’s average temperature must not rise more than 3.6° F (2° C) in order to avoid triggering various “tipping points”—like the thawing of the arctic permafrost—that would cause a runaway process of global warming resulting in the near total destruction of the biosphere and the end of human civilization. According to NASA climate scientist James Hansen, this will require a rapid reduction in atmospheric CO2 concentrations to below 350 parts per million (ppm). Given that CO2 concentrations are already above 393 ppm (Jan 2012) and rising, a mass movement of education, protest and civil disobedience that puts direct pressure on corporations and the government is absolutely necessary and offers the best chance to protect humanity’s future and the future of the planet.

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See more at Food Security and Energy


Global Warming's Terrifying  New Math

The Reckoning
By Bill McKibben
If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke 2,132 high temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the northern hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7x10 to the 99th, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.
Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record,” and was part of a 12-month stretch of heat so statistically rare, according to one calculation, that absent global warming we wouldn’t see it again till 46,298 AD. The same day, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.
Not that our leaders seemed to notice.


Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the process of pumping large quantities of water, sand and chemicals deep underground at high pressures in order to release trapped natural gas from tight rock formations, especially shale. Over the last decade, advances in fracking methods, such as horizontal drilling, have led to a dramatic increase in U.S. shale gas production. Tens of thousands of fracking wells now operate in twenty states, producing over seven trillion cubic feet of shale gas per year, or 25% of the total U.S. supply of natural gas.

While fracking has been a boon for the oil and gas industry, it has been devastating to the environment. Each well is injected with millions of gallons of fresh water containing a mix of toxic chemicals. Up to 50% of this fluid returns to the surface, having been further contaminated with methane and other hazardous substances released from the shale, including the radioactive element radium-226. Much of this toxic wastewater leaks into nearby groundwater, polluting streams and aquifers. (In some cases the methane contamination is so high that residents living near fracking wells are able to light their drinking water on fire.) The rest of the wastewater is either injected into empty, underground rock formations or shipped off to conventional water treatment facilities. However, these facilities are not equipped to handle radioactive material or other types of contaminants found in fracking wastewater, which they simply discharge into rivers and streams. And questions remain as to whether underground rock formations, many of which have been damaged by fracking, can permanently contain the wastewater. Furthermore, the USGS confirmed in May, 2012 what many people had already suspected, that the underground disposal of fracking wastewater has been responsible for the twenty-fold increase in earthquakes seen in regions where fracking takes place.

Fracking wells also emit hazardous air pollutants, including benzene and toluene, that can cause cancer and other serious health effects. Residents of Dish, TX who live near fracking wells have reported headaches and blackouts, and many of their horses have gone blind or developed other neurological impairments. In six Texas counties with intensive shale gas development, asthma rates are three times higher than the Texas average. And in Wyoming, fracking has caused ground-level ozone pollution in some residential areas to exceed amounts recorded in Los Angeles. Fracking also releases large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2, giving shale gas a larger global warming footprint than oil.

While the oil and gas industry touts fracking as a “game changer” that will lead the U.S. to “energy independence,” these claims have been widely criticized as false and intentionally misleading. High drilling costs and rapid decline rates of fracked wells suggest shale gas is uneconomical in the long run, and hundreds of internal industry documents and emails leaked to the New York Times describe shale gas development as a “Ponzi scheme reminiscent of Enron,” where “flipping land leases” and “conning investors” is more profitable than the actual gas.

Despite the environmental consequences, congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which exempted the fracking industry from virtually all environmental regulations, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act. In May, 2012 the EPA outraged independent scientists and residents of Dimock, PA, by declaring the town’s water safe to drink even though it contained unsafe levels of arsenic, barium and other contaminants. And in June, 2012 the New York department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) secretly allowed fracking industry lobbyists to help draft the state’s proposed fracking legislation, watering it down in the interest of industry profits. This criminal collusion demands a broad-based movement of education, protest and civil disobedience to put pressure on the government to ban fracking and invest in a safe and renewable energy infrastructure.

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