Let us compare for a moment the public discourse with respect to both global warming and the initiative to overhaul our nuclear arsenal. This project would be easier if there were actually some public discourse about our trillion dollar program to refurbish our nuclear weapons arsenal. The project is going forward with very little controversy, debate, or even broad awareness. We know, however, that everyone involved in the decision chain remains persuaded that these strategic weapons are intended as a deterrent. The moment these weapons are actually unleashed, all predictions are off on what might happen once the smoke of battle clears. If these weapons are actually used, they will have failed in their mission. That is the strange logic of nuclear deterrence.
Set in another frame, one might argue that sinking one trillion bucks into an inventory of bombs that are intended never to be used is kind of a waste. What makes such a waste even thinkable is that we are confronted with uncertainties with regard to our military and strategic future. It is deemed to be worthwhile to spend even that amount of money in order to cover some dire contingencies.
Now consider global warming in the same light. We face uncertainties that simply cannot yet be resolved with current scientific models, but the credible scenarios for our potential futures are indeed foreboding. It is known to a certainty that we are on an unsustainable path; the only ambiguity is the rate at which we are getting there. And the path is strewn with potential tipping points into catastrophe. In this case, however, the existence of uncertainty is seen as an argument for not doing anything. We are not yet certain, it is argued, that something must actually be done to forestall unattractive futures, so there is no reason to go into action. This is clearly perverse, particularly because there are long lead-times for the creation of alternative futures.
The Pentagon is starting to think about the national security implications of global warming, and they are grave. What is worse is that the solution to this threat is not under our control. Even if the entire nation were to become carbon-neutral by mid-century, we cannot control what others may do. We cannot solve the problem unilaterally.
When it comes to nuclear development, we are at least dealing with technical issues that are in principle under our control. When it comes to global warming, there is additionally a realm of social issues in different societies that we cannot begin to control. We could not ask for a better example than the controversy that exists around this issue in our own society.
Would it not be appropriate to act on the precautionary principle both with respect to global warming and military preparedness? If uncertainty is a mandate for action in one instance, how can it be the rationale for standing down in another? We have allowed the merchants of doubt to control the debate, when in fact uncertainty should be an imperative to action. "When they get you addressing the wrong question, they don't have to worry about the answers." In order to move our society beyond its current stalemate, we have to change the terms of debate. Uncertainty is the very thing that is worrisome. This is where the Pentagon could actually play a useful role.
Siegfried Othmer, Ph.D.