The Commandment to Save the Planet

America’s right-wingers are so hostile to the federal government and to the Constitution’s commandment to “promote the general Welfare” that they reject action even when needed to save the planet. A resistance that continues whatever the evidence, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

The National Climate Assessment released this week is a thorough and authoritative report that also really shouldn’t be necessary in telling us what we need to know about the underlying problem. The problem is that human activity is changing the global climate in major and mostly undesirable ways.

The evidence has long been very apparent, and the evidence is overwhelming.  It includes mountains of data and it includes principles of physics and chemistry.  What this latest report does is to relate real, not just projected, climate change to present conditions in the United States, not just to consequences that are more distant in either time or place.

Image of Planet Earth taken from Apollo 17

Image of Planet Earth taken from Apollo 17

Unfortunately denial is still commonplace, and denial reflects some unfortunate tendencies that discourse in the United States not only on this issue but also other issues often exhibits. There is a tendency not to recognize genuine questions and the difficult decisions that must be made about them, but instead to wish all this away by denying the facts.

There is a further tendency for factual beliefs to stem from policy preferences rather than the other way around.  The policy preferences involved may relate to constellations of issues that go well beyond the issue at hand. Thus there appear to be Republican facts and Democratic facts, or conservative facts and liberal facts, even on matters of chemistry and physics, and not just on the social phenomena that would be more closely related to political ideologies.

A related tendency is to discount or discredit facts communicated to us by those whose ideologies or political affiliations we do not like. Al Gore has been the most prominent American politician sounding alarms about climate change, and so those who never liked Al Gore’s politics are predisposed to disparage any similar messages on the subject.

Because there is an issue today of whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline, with American politicians carefully calculating how the interests at stake translate into political support or opposition for themselves, we hear this week members of Congress denigrating the just-released report as supposedly just a tactical ploy timed to affect debate on the pipeline issue.


Perhaps none of this should be surprising in a polity in which, in the not distant past, people close to the policy process claimed that they could create their own reality.  As a saying of longer vintage reminds us, however, one is entitled to one’s own opinions but not one’s own facts.  Neither can one make reality go away through force of political will.

For those of us who are not natural scientists but instead dwell in matters of national security and foreign policy, one thought is that there is no more basic aspect of national security than the habitability of the physical environment in which a nation’s citizens live.  Another thought is that avoiding further environmental deterioration involves complex problems of international relations.

The climate change experienced in the United States and documented in this week’s report reflects not only activity in the United States but also the burning of forests in Indonesia and the spewing of carbon by coal-fired power plants in China. If effective international measures on this subject are ever to be taken, a necessary first step is to discard the denial and to recognize explicitly the facts and the painful economic and other trade-offs involved.

The most recent episode of the television series Cosmos hosted by Neil De Grasse Tyson described some really awful previous periods in Earth’s climatological history, triggered by bombardment from space or by volcanism in Siberia igniting vast amounts of coal. The good news is that since the end of the last Ice Age and for the next several tens of thousands of years mankind is likely to have a very hospitable planet on which to live, if, that is, mankind does not mess it up through its own activity.

As Tyson put it, the dinosaurs had no way of knowing about the asteroid that did them in; what’s our excuse?

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

12 comments for “The Commandment to Save the Planet

  1. May 13, 2014 at 11:47

    Jesus said, “I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.”

  2. Gregory Kruse
    May 9, 2014 at 13:11

    As Tyson would say, if anything was just a bit off, none of this would be possible. In that light, it seems that carbon is the perfect and indispensable energy source of advanced civilization up to this point. The window through which Mr. Sanford makes us peek suggests that carbon will be the perfect solution to all the problems in the future, such as over-population and mass consumption. Those who are invested in carbon and are aware of the changes to come, will be the survivors we are beginning now to talk about.

  3. elmerfudzie
    May 8, 2014 at 12:35

    F.G.Sanford, again, I agree with you regarding fossil fuels being an essential part of the energy consumption pie chart. My point was and is, we haven’t done our homework in terms of research and development of other well known energy sources, in particular Thorium based generated power. I apologize for the double entry in my last commentary, don’t know how that one happened, perhaps CONSORTIUMNEWS will fix the misprint.

    • F. G. Sanford
      May 8, 2014 at 18:54

      When I was a kid, a long, long time ago, I sat in a bar with an uncle who was having a conversation with three Ph.D. engineers. This was during a professional convention, not like a local beer joint, or anything. They were arguing about what cars would be running on in twenty five years. My uncle kept kinda quiet; I guess he was a little self-conscious as he lacked an academic background. But after we left, he said, “I’ll tell you what cars will be running on in twenty five years”. I asked, “What?” He answered, “Gasoline”. That was forty two years ago. He’s still right. There just ain’t no substitute for “go-juice”, and these people just can’t wrap their heads around that.

  4. F. G. Sanford
    May 8, 2014 at 08:33

    Hydrogen is actually not “explosive” unless a confection is created in the form of a fuel-air bomb. It is not a “brissant” combustible as is gasoline vapor. Even as a fuel air-bomb, it has nowhere near the brissance of aromatic hydrocarbons. Please see a film of the Hindenberg disaster and note that it did not “explode”, it merely burned. It is no more dangerous than the tank of propane attached to your barbecue grill. But it contains no carbon, so the byproduct of combustion is mere water vapor.

    Electric cars are a novel idea. Try an electric airliner or an electric eighteen wheeler. Then consider the rape of the environment, the pollutant byproducts and the energy expenditure required to produce and eventually dispose of the batteries. The inherent mass of a battery makes it a poor energy storage device. Hydrogen is an efficient storage medium. batteries aren’t.

    But it all comes back, as you point out, to where the energy stored is obtained in the first place? Of course there are solutions. But they are NOT profitable and will not be pursued. The current fossil fuel economy is vastly more profitable and offers the advantage of depopulation, upward accumulation of wealth and the eventual destruction of all existing barriers to absolute world hegemony.

    “Green” enthusiasts continue to be deluded by some notion akin to a perpetual motion device, like “zero-point” energy. Energy output is always less than energy input. It takes vast quantities of energy to build a battery and charge it. Once all the calculations are made, the efficiency is about the same as internal combustion: roughly 37%. Entropy is reality, “green” energy isn’t. Again, there are better options, but no serious research and development investments are being entertained or explored. That would upset the current status quo.

  5. MarkU
    May 8, 2014 at 07:33

    @ F.G. Sanford

    You appear to have missed my point. Most electricity generation comes from burning fossil fuels. How can hydrogen be considered a ‘clean fuel’ if we are, in effect, using fossil fuels to produce it? We need clean sources of energy, hydrogen is not a source of energy, it is merely an intermediate or carrier. I was not suggesting the use of batteries as an alternative I was suggesting that hydrogen was no better.

    Furthermore Hydrogen is highly explosive, difficult to contain because of its tiny molecules, difficult to transport because of its very low density (we would need something like six times as many fuel tankers on the roads) plus hydrogen engines have a much shorter lifespan.

  6. elmerfudzie
    May 8, 2014 at 02:23

    I agree with F.G. Sanford. The technical end of the climate change community has been caught red handed deliberately attempting to skew mathematical models, for example; “Climate-gate” back in late 2009, where more than a thousand e-mail correspondences between climate change scientists were stolen and published. Secondly, I haven’t seen a thorough review of climatic impacts from sun spots, low solar activity and it’s relationship to what looks to be another mini-ice age in the offing. See http://www.earthchangeI agree with F.G. Sanford. The technical end of the climate change community has been caught red handed deliberately attempting to skew mathematical models, for example; “Climate-gate” back in late 2009, where more than a thousand e-mail correspondences between climate change scientists were stolen and published. Secondly, I haven’t seen a There may be climatic changes associated with the true and magnetic north shifting southwards and this in turn may contribute to “hot spots” that rise to the surface from titanic shifts in the molten core of our planet. Third point; residential electric bills are beginning to skyrocket and the root causes are two fold; deliberate manipulation of our energy grid to create energy scarcity, therefor higher prices and completely dismissing (or burying) the foresight of JFKs 1962 speech, where he emphasized that our nations electric needs double every decade. Our “corporate entities in charge” had fifty years of planning to prepare our economy for low-cost power via nuclear, energy conservation, wave power industrial by-product, solar and tides. Our federal government also had fifty years since JFKs enlightened speech but they too have squandered (political) resources and handed their policy making over to the “scarcity crowd” with their drum beating cabal of Malthusians and death merchants. How has it come to pass that China is the world’s first nation to power up a commercially viable Thorium 232 reactor, one I might add, is surely based on our scientific papers and theories! Germany found the budgetary resources to affix solar cell panels and windows up many a skyscraper but our country can’t?

  7. F. G. Sanford
    May 7, 2014 at 21:15

    Global warming promises to be profitable beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Keystone XL Pipeline will help accelerate the onset, so it is sure to be passed. 56 Senators are now committed to it, including 11 Democrats. ALEC is promoting neofascist legislation which will foster divestiture of government assets, increase the prison population and legislate deterioration in the quality of public education. This insures compliance through stupidity. Billionaires like the Koch Brothers are heavily invested in these initiatives. They include right wing religious organizations who comply based on a “Will of God” mentality. Financial insolvency caused by outsourcing jobs will continue to dispossess minorities and blue-collar whites as each blames their woes on the other. Crop failures, draught and severe weather destruction will enhance commodity speculation, futures trading, privatization and foreclosures. Resource wars will enhance weapons sales, displace populations and reduce labor costs. Depopulation of third world resource rich countries will open them to exploitation as their economically insolvent governments become destabilized. This is already happening in America in places like Michigan, where programmed insolvency is is leading to privatization of state land with development potential. On a global scale, the populations least likely to survive will be those considered racially undesirable by the financial oligarchs. “God’s Will” rhetoric will effectively isolate them from accusations of premeditation. Those most likely to be crushed will support them, and in fact will demand the “law and order” measures which will be used to insure that depopulation and migration progresses smoothly. Those who do not starve will die of disease, lack of sanitation and limited warfare. Worldwide military assets now deployed will be enhanced to insure containment and prevent disruption of resource exploitation caused by local violence.

    There IS NO SUBSTITUTE for combustible hydrocarbons in any near-future economic picture. NONE. Even if the XL Pipeline is cancelled, some other source of hydrocarbon fuel will be used for combustion. Defeating it will not help. Only pure hydrogen fuel can eliminate the CO2 pollution, and the technology to produce it is outrageously expensive. Global warming is a “win-win” proposition for those who will survive it. And, they have “God” on their side. There is NO CHANCE legislation will be enacted to disrupt the global warming goldmine.

    • MarkU
      May 7, 2014 at 22:36

      Re “Only pure hydrogen fuel can eliminate the CO2 pollution”

      F.G. You are usually spot on (i’m a fan) but in this case definitely not.

      Hydrogen needs to be produced. Hydrogen is not (on planet Earth) an energy source, it is an intermediate. One could just as sensibly suggest that the answer is to run everything on batteries.

      • F. G. Sanford
        May 8, 2014 at 06:29

        If we are to continue using internal combustion engines, the only ones sufficiently powerful, then hydrogen is the only clean fuel. You are right – it must be produced, but that requires electricity. Batteries? They must be charged – from what source? Clean coal? Fukushima Follies? The ONLY cheap, concentrated source of exploitable energy is fossil fuel, unless there is a complete economic revolution. The only incentive for that will come with the collapse of the economy we have now.

    • Dr. Frans B. Roos, Ph.D.
      May 11, 2014 at 11:14

      Only Hydrogen Fuel is the answer.
      I go along with you Sanford.

      I have been in favor of Hydrogen fuel since I was a youngster even there an acquaintance of the family a Mechanical Engineer (for this essay no need for names and places) who was developing an internal combustion engine driven electric power generator unit. He had the unit running and producing electricity for some time (days, weeks, months I don’t remember 75-years back is a long time) anyhow time frame makes no difference. In his experiment his biggest worry was Hydrogen fuel storage and true to form one day the Hydrogen fuel tank for the engine did blow which send him to kingdom come and of course the experiment. Now 21st century there is safe Hydrogen fuel storage tanks.

      Having been involved with internal combustion engines for most of my live I’m well familiar with the different fuels and that Hydrogen has to be produced by splitting the H2 atoms from the O atom requiring electricity.
      In the present day GREED imbued environment that will be impossible.
      First step must be the Oil Industry (start to finish), Water and Electricity has to be owned by the Public so Hydrogen can be produced at cost.
      Next step all category 1, 2, 3 nuclear power plants presently in operation with their Spend Fuel nuclear waste problems have to be decommissioned and scrapped.
      Only Thorium fuel in a Reactor especially designed for thorium of the Breeder principle must be used as they have the potential to burn up the actinides in the present inventory of nuclear waste while also producing power and creating additional quantities of fuel for more reactors via the breeding process. Tall order I hear you say, well its either you do or you don’t, there is no in-between. This takes men like J.F.K. (who paid with his life in the Land of the Free and the Brave) who took the bull by the horns in going to the Moon and these men are no longer available in today 2014’s fascist capitalist world.
      In 2013, there were 2-breeder reactors producing power: the BN-600 reactor constructed in 1980 in Beloyarsk, Russia which is still operational. Russia plans to expand the nation’s use of breeder reactors with the BN-800 reactor, scheduled to become operational in 2014, and the technical design of a yet larger breeder, the BN-1200 reactor with construction slated for 2015. Both China and India are building breeder reactors with plans to build five more by 2020. The China reactor began producing power in 2011. From this it should be obvious that the greed imbued fascist capitalist part of the world is not spending money to get on with making improvements to at least reduce the problems.
      With the Public owning the Hydrogen production Hydrogen fuel at cost for cars, trucks, ships, airplanes can be accomplished. There is no other alternative outside of sticking your head between your legs and kissing your ass goodbye.
      Hang in there Sanford, keep up the good work.

      • F. G. Sanford
        May 11, 2014 at 20:13

        Thanks – In a sane world, we would nationalize all petroleum resources and use the revenue to pay for the research and development you speak of. Why should oil companies rape our planetary resources, then make us suffer the consequences, pay for the damages and find our own solutions?

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