Confronting the Greatest Market Failure in History: National Security & Climate Change


scowcroft legacy.jpg
I have just discovered that former National Security Advisor to George H.W. Bush, General Brent Scowcroft, is on the board of directors of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection. Cool.
Enough have persuasively argued that systemic planetary climate change is underway and represents an existential threat to our political and social systems — as well as to humankind — that I don’t need to repeat all this.
But there haven’t been many — that I know of — who have really begun to seriously think through the national security and political dimensions of climate change. The analyses I have seen tend to speak to audiences that are already climate change policy advocates.
One very good piece written by a top tier national security commentator and colleague of mine, Anatol Lieven, pondered climate change’s social and political impact in his oped, “The End of the West as We Know It?
Here is a bit of the Lieven article that ran December 28th last year:

Every political, social and economic system ever created has sooner or later encountered a challenge that its very nature has made it incapable of meeting.
The Confucian ruling system of imperial China, which lasted for more than 2,000 years, has some claim still to be the most successful in history, but because it was founded on values of stability and continuity, rather than dynamism and inventiveness, it eventually proved unable to survive in the face of Western imperial capitalism.
For market economies, and the Western model of democracy with which they have been associated, the existential challenge for the foreseeable future will be global warming. Other threats like terrorism may well be damaging, but no other conceivable threat or combination of threats can possibly destroy our entire system. As the recent British official commission chaired by Sir Nicholas Stern correctly stated, climate change “is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.”
The question now facing us is whether global capitalism and Western democracy can follow the Stern report’s recommendations, and make the limited economic adjustments necessary to keep global warming within bounds that will allow us to preserve our system in a recognizable form; or whether our system is so dependent on unlimited consumption that it is by its nature incapable of demanding even small sacrifices from its present elites and populations.
If the latter proves the case, and the world suffers radically destructive climate change, then we must recognize that everything that the West now stands for will be rejected by future generations. The entire democratic capitalist system will be seen to have failed utterly as a model for humanity and as a custodian of essential human interests.

The Lieven article is important in that he doesn’t write much about climate change.
Scowcroft Military Academy.jpg
(Brent Scowcroft — a West Point graduate, Air Force General, and National Security Advisor — now focusing on challenge of climate change)
Brent Scowcroft is a shrewd, no-nonsense military and geopolitical strategist. He is no climate change expert, but he knows the subject is a vital one for great nations to collectively wrestle down.
It’s important to get generals, strategists, national security types in general thinking about climate change in their roster of threats facing the nation — and to consider comprehensive national and international strategies to diminish that threat.
Shanghai has just announced that it will host one of Al Gore’s global climate change cncerts called the “Save our Selves Concerts.” It will be interesting to see if China get a good chunk of its big miltary types to attend — and whether the American city that is eventually announced can also attract some military and national security bureaucrats to attend — even for the symbolic value.
Proceeds from these concerts will go to The Alliance for Climate Protection, which Brent Scowcroft helps provide some direction to. It is very good to see someone like Scowcroft in the mix.
It will also be interesting to see how Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth does next weekend at the Academy Awards.
— Steve Clemons


20 comments on “Confronting the Greatest Market Failure in History: National Security & Climate Change

  1. JohnH says:

    The problem with using the term “climate change” is that it implies that it is not my problem. The term fuel consumption makes it my problem:
    If you want to solve the problem, you have to frame it correctly. The same is true of conflict in the ME. As long as Iran is the problem, leave to the experts in the foreign policy establishment and national security mafia. When it becomes an energy problem, then it’s my problem…


  2. Ted says:

    Some of the best thinking about societal response to climate change can be found here:
    It’s time some of the national security policy types who read The Washington Note checked in over there. Some cross-pollination would be a good thing.


  3. David N says:

    The key phrase in the … posting is “capitalism as practiced today.” There are other ways to practice capitalism, ways that include regulation, and balance, and giving greater weight in law to actual people than to corporate entities.
    There are more than two choices. We don’t have to decide between either completely unfettered corporate capitalism, and completely controlled socialism. We actually did find that third way in the fifties, but corporations in the eighties and nineties found ways to do away with the restrictions on their profits that a rational economy required, and here we are . . .
    The greatest threat to free enterprise is too much free enterprise.


  4. Pissed Off American says:

    I don’t understand what the big fuss is. Haven’t you heard? Bush flushed science down the toilet, so we don’t have to worry about stuff like this anymore. Just tell your kids to abstain, and be sure to shop. No worries.


  5. jbCharleston says:

    In the early 70’s, I was privileged to be at the first public presentation of the work of the Club of Rome. This was an early attempt to apply computer simulation technology to worldwide prediction. Jay Forrester (MIT) devised a deceptively simple model using 5 intertwined variables: rates of birth and death, level of pollution, standard of living, and level of resources. Run through a simulation program, he showed a series of graphs plotting all of the variables over time. The result was so remarkable that I can remember the graphs and my reaction to them. Under almost all scenarios, the simulation showed a precipitous and calamitous decline of population. Most showed about 90% die-off in a matter of a decade or less. One of the scenarios reflected the then-hot-topic of Zero Population Growth (ZPG) by setting the birth rate to be the death rate. Everything still crashed only about 10-20 years later. The only scenarios that didn’t show this behavior were ones where ALL of the rates were set at 0 -meaning that there would be no improvement in anyone’s standard of living.
    Now this was a very large simplification. But the scary aspect is that virtually all of the scenarios crashed. We may now be on the brink of an environmental crash that could wreak havok on populations leading to a crashing of the global economy leading to a crash in worldwide standard of living.
    While we’re thinking about simulations, is anyone aware of any serious economic research into how a capitalist economy can work under the constraint of a fixed population?


  6. Linda says:

    Possible scenario? Gore wins an Oscar and Nobel Peace Prize and ends up as Democratic nominee in 2008 with Obama as VP.


  7. Via says:

    David N, Lovelock does address the “many, many people are going to die” probability in ‘The Revenge of Gaia”. He thinks billions will die and the ones who will survive will have migrated to the higher elevations of the British Isles and Arctic. If that is indeed the future our children and grandchildren face, all bets are off. Not just democracy, but civilization as we have known it will look very different than it does today. It will not be pretty, as refugees flood north and countries try to secure their borders.


  8. ... says:

    >>If the latter proves the case, and the world suffers radically destructive climate change, then we must recognize that everything that the West now stands for will be rejected by future generations. The entire democratic capitalist system will be seen to have failed utterly as a model for humanity and as a custodian of essential human interests.<<
    how true, but humans get attached to their pet peeves, ‘democratic capitalism’ being one of them. it would be one thing if it was democratic, but as far as i am concerned, capitalism as practiced today is just another form of slavery, to the banks mostly..


  9. David N says:

    Still not thinking in the right terms.
    An ice-free north polar sea will probably lead to two outcomes:
    1) disruption of the Gulf Stream Atlantic thermal circulation that transfers heat from the tropics to the East coast of North America and Europe. That will mean a substantial LOWERING of winter temperatures in those two places, and a substantial increase in destructive hurricanes everywhere.
    2) a concurrent thaw in the Siberian tundra, which will release substantial amounts of methane, itself a greenhouse gas, and cause a catastrophic rise in global temperature over and above other anthrogenic sources.
    Thus, as Freeman Dyson has written, we are dealing with an enourmously complicated phenomenon that follows the butterfly effect, i.e. small changes in input can have effects on the output that are disproportionately large and inherently unpredictable.
    Suggestions that we will do anything about this are fantasy, since anything effective will have an impact on petroleum corporation profits, and thus are automatically out of the question for this administration, and exeedingly difficult for even a rational leadership.
    The real warning on this is in the book Collapse. Which says what nobody, nobody, nobody is talking about, which is that global climate change at some point is going to lead to major catastrophes, and many, many people are going to die.
    And everybody will blame America, because that’s the easiest thing to do, and why not? We do produce 25% of all greenhouse gases, and it distracts attention from the activities of Russia, China, India, and others that are just as irresponsible.


  10. Ken From Ken's Kitchen says:

    I see now that I use anchor links here.
    Note: Also having a security code AND imposing a “waiting period” between posts is a little bit belt and suspenders, and a little bit annoying. It’s been preventing me from reposting with the links missing from my first post for over a half an hour. I’m now trying from my wife’s laptop.
    Here are the missing links to the above post. The Observer story, Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us on the Pentagon commissioned Global Warming study: 0,6903,1153513,00.html
    PDF of Pentagon study suggesting potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change:


  11. Steve Clemons says:

    Here are links from post above from “ken from ken’s kitchen”:
    Here are the missing links to my post.
    The Observer story, Now the Pentagon tells Bush: Climate change will destroy us on the Pentagon commissioned Global Warming study:,6903,1153513,00.html
    PDF of Pentagon study suggesting potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change:
    Ken from Ken’s Kitchen


  12. Steve Clemons says:

    Paul — not sure about the carbon footprint of the concerts. But would be interesting to see if Gore & Co. can figure out a way to make the events carbon neutral. That said, i think Gore is on an impressive global consciousness-raising course — and concerts of this sort won’t really reach someone like me — but they do reach many millions of culturally literate people who go to concerts, listen to popular music, and are activists. So in general, publicity stunts can also push the core objectives of this effort.
    Best, Steve Clemons


  13. paul says:

    Steve, what do you think about Gore’s series of concerts? Does the carbon footprint of these concerts outweigh the benefits in dollars and publicity to the Alliance? If the concerts are more than just a publicity stunt, where does the benefit lie?


  14. Ken Kitchen says:

    Huh? Can’t use anchor links here? Also having a security code AND imposing a “waiting period” between posts is a little bit belt and suspenders, and a little bit annoying. It’s been preventing me from reposting with the links missing from my first post!
    Anyway, here are the missing links to the above post. The Observer story on the Pentagon commissioned Global Warming study:,6903,1153513,00.html
    A PDF of the report here:


  15. Johnh says:

    Anatol Lieven says that “the existential challenge for the foreseeable future will be global warming.” Michel Chossudovsky says “the World is at the crossroads of the most serious crisis in modern history. The US has embarked on a military adventure, “a long war”, which threatens the future of humanity.”
    The common denominator between the Oil Wars and Global Warming is our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. The US is partiularly at fault here, consuming 25% of the world’s oil. To his credit, Steve advocated yesterday for a Manhattan Project to develop alternative energy sources.
    This is a good start. Sadly the foreign policy establishment and the national security mafia both prefer to slide the central issue–fossil fuel consumption–under the rug and comfortably out of public discourse. Oil Wars and Global Warming will begin to be addressed only when the central issue becomes part of the debate. Only then can we start to identify creative, effective solutions.
    My part of the solution? Fund defense spending exclusively through a tax on oil, since that is what defense spending is primarily used for today. It would reduce consumption and make people think about defense spending every time they filled the tank. Prices would come down as the DOD finally gets its budget under control.
    Reduced consumption (reduced demand) would reduce pre-tax costs of oil and make oil-rich countries –Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia–somewhat more malleable, reducing the need for conflict.
    Shifting the frame of the debate to fossil fuel consumption is the esstential step that is long overdue.


  16. Via says:

    I wish I had a better understanding of how oil/gas distribution works. Is it a ‘bathtub’ principle, into which producing countries dump their output and from which any country with the economic means purchases? Or can the producing countries designate buyers, basing sales on political motivation, excluding some, offering bargain prices to others? Could Russia indeed pump more oil, but choose to sell to India or China rather than the US? I forsee an ugly showdown in the not-so-near future if someone soon doesn’t show the leadership necessary to educate our citizens about what would happen to this economy, based on plentiful, cheap petroleum, if the spigot was suddenly shut off. I think Lovelock is exactly right when he advises us to prepare now for a ‘powered descent’. It is so important for Al Gore to be elected president (again) in 2008.


  17. Steve Clemons says:

    good comments both. Ken, your pdf did not get linked — and I don’t know how to do that in the comments section, though lots of readers seem to know what html to use.
    Could someone send me an email on how to hyperlink an item in comments?
    And Ken — if you email me the pdf, I’ll try to get it linked.
    steve clemons


  18. Caitlyn says:

    Steve, there is a very good article in the Boston Globe by Drake Bennett on effects of warming in the Arctic on energy security and on continued use of traditional hydrocarbon fuels:
    Northern Exposure, by Drake Bennett
    Interestingly, an ice-free arctic – or even one that provides seasonal access to Hudson Bay, could very likely spur further development of Russian arctic oil and gas deposits and shipment to terminals in Canada for North American consumption. Very much a case of positive feedback where oil and gas consumption leads to more, not less, oil and gas consumption in the future.


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