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Energy BOOKSHELF: Powerful CliFi from a leading American national security expert

May 18th, 2017 · 1 Comment

Richard Clarke served the United States in multiple roles, gaining his greatest fame due to his harsh criticism of the Bush White House for ignoring/down-playing his urgent calls for attention to Al Qaeda in the months leading to the 9/11 attacks.  Clarke has served the nation in other ways, including a series of thoughtful, illuminating and (extremely well-written) books on terrorism, intelligence, cyber-warfare and, the latest to be released in a few weeks, on learning how to bring to the fore Warnings from experts before catastrophe hits.

Millions of lives lost to catastrophes – natural and man-made – could have been saved by the advance warnings of experts. Can we find those prescient people before the next catastrophe strikes? …

In Greek mythology Cassandra foresaw calamities, but was cursed by the gods to be ignored. Modern-day Cassandras clearly predicted the disasters of Katrina, Fukushima, the Great Recession, the rise of ISIS, and many others. Like her, they were ignored. There are others right now warning of impending disasters, but how do we know which warnings are true?

This is the story of the future of national security, threatening technologies, the US economy, and possibly the fate of civilization.

Certainly, there are many Cassandras when it comes to climate change’s realities and threats. Cassandras routinely ignored by the American mass media (to a greater rather than lesser extent) and ridiculed by Trump and his GOP supporting cast.

This Energy BOOKSHELF moment, however, is not about the power of Clarke’s recounting of the realities of what he faced (and learned from) government service nor the insights in his non-fiction analytical works but another aspect of his work: his fiction.  Clarke is, again, an eloquent writer who knows how to communicate. He has turned his attention, at times, to fictional works which, occasionally, I’ve taken the time to read.  At the library, the other day, I bumped into Pinnacle Event and grabbed it for a week-end ‘escapism’ read.  Little did I know, when leaving the library, that I was carrying what might be the most powerful and insightful CliFi (Climate Fiction) book that I have read to date.


SPOILER ALERT: after the fold details that reveal key plot elements.

Pinnacle Event is an excellent ‘thriller’ … reading ‘after the fold’ will lessen the book’s dramatic impact.

Pinnacle” is the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff code-word for serious events, of likely interest (or demanding) the attention of the highest U.S. national security authorities. Think the question: “What keeps you up at night?”  For most, that is nuclear weapons, terrorist access to them with no-alert use to lay waste to urban areas.  For Clarke, he is emphasizing that Pinnacle would be used in all-caps (PINNACLE) with a nuclear event, most importantly a nuclear detonation (not associated with a known test program).  Thus, this is a novel centered on nuclear weapons hidden away for decades and then sold in the black market and on the loose.  Nuclear weapons threaten massive, sudden damage — and five weapons on the loose garner serious concern. The Israelis are convinced the weapons are headed to wipe out Israel. The South African government is convinced that the weapons are headed there. And, the U.S. government’s base concern is that those weapons are headed to the United States for detonation in U.S. cities.  And, what follows is a very complicated and compelling international espionage effort to find the weapons … before, of course, they are detonated.

Hidden, however, til the almost the end (SPOILER ALERT), is that this book combines the very serious manmade risk of nuclear weapons with the very serious sea-level-rise implications of man-made (okay, perhaps more appropriately, mankind-driven) catastrophic climate change. And, that connection is based on a conceived economic analysis that has a strength of plausibility that should concern us all.

For a long time, I have been thinking about (but not discussing publicly) Moonraker scenarios that super-rich or individual countries might take to deal with climate change. To remind you, if you’d forgotten, in Moonraker a mad-superrich individual decides to eliminate the vast majority of humanity to then create a ‘master race’ from the hundreds of ‘pure’ (Aryans?) safe up in space.

There is a basic formula about climate change:

Population * Climate Impact Per Individual = Climate Impact

Hmmm … if you understand the climate science and what is happening, you will be very concerned about that right side of the equation and want to reduce it.  To reduce “climate impact”, you have to tackle either/or/or both the elements on the left side of the equation.  The vast majority of ‘climate mitigation’ discussion (including by me) focuses on the second element: put solar on the roof; energy efficiency; plant trees; electrification of the economy; reduce consumption; and, well, 1000s of other worthwhile elements. (Though, side note for future Energy BOOKSHELF, Drawdown focuses on 100 top item priorities for addressing climate change.) That second side of the equation generally gets ‘less’ attention in climate change mitigation discussions, perhaps taken as a given.

And, the focus more on mitigation than adaptation for a good set of reasons: in short, without mitigation, the situation will only get worse and worse, and human civilization (as we know) simply won’t survive the coming catastrophic impacts and the costs to ‘adapt’ will overwhelm us and our children.  Yet, there is a simple and painful reality on the ‘other side of the equation’: we have already ‘tipped the scales’, there already significant climate impacts, and these impacts (no matter how good the mitigation efforts) will worsen in the years, decades, and (yes) centuries to come.  Thus, the painful reality is that: we must focus on mitigation even as we ‘focus’ on / invest in adaptation to the changing climate system.  (Now, not really for deep discussion here, we should pursue ‘adaptation’ investments that also contribute to mitigation. An example: super-efficient urban farming taking advantage of abandoned infrastructure. Food production not vulnerable to disrupted weather while also reducing the carbon footprint per calorie of food produced.)  A true reality: even as ‘mitigation’ efforts are lagging (far) behind what is necessary (and possible), adaptation to (essentially certain) climate impacts are lagging even further behind.

When it comes to adaptation, perhaps the most painfully certain climate impact: sea-level rise.

No matter what we do, the seas will rise.

We are going to see, almost certainly, in the range of a meter of sea-level rise (SLR) by the end of the century and, if we don’t get our acts together, that number could be well above three meters … with many meters of sea-level rise for the decades to come. We know this. WE KNOW THIS! Yet, around the world, beach-front properties still are being developed. Bridges — which are meant to be around for centuries — are being built without accounting for SLR. Ports, sewage systems, roads, housing, schools, military bases, factories, and so much infrastructure that is ‘designed’ for decades (even centuries) is being developed and invested in without accounting for the inexorable reality that is the SLR that is resulting and will result from human-driven climate change.  As, far too slowly, ‘we’ wake up to this reality, our ‘adaptation’ investments will continually chase this problem — and that chase will damage economies and political systems, and put human lives at risk for years, decades and centuries to come.

That is the true core of Richard Clarke’s thinking for Pinnacle Event:  with massive investment resources, a group realizes that this sea-level rise will inexorably put infrastructure at risk and that slow adaptation will devastate economies along with devastating human lives.  Their economic analysis:  humanity would be far better off if there were a SLR shock (many meters of rise suddenly, within years) rather than an inexorable incremental development.  E.g., ‘better to bite the bullet’ of losing cities in a year’s time and killing a few hundred million (perhaps), with a devastating economic shock to recover from, rather than face century- (centuries-) long decline as ‘adaptation’ constantly chases the SLR problem.

Having shifted all their investments into areas that would thrive with (>)5 meters of sea-level rise, the investors’ plan: those nuclear weapons aren’t targeted to hit cities (directly) but to blow up key Antarctic ice shelves. Have a quick, sudden SLR shock to ‘bite the bullet’, incur the ‘baked’ SLR essentially immediately, and spark humanity to move to address climate change to preempt even more SLR.

A painful reality: Clarke’s fictional concept re this analysis stands up to this analyst’s scrutiny as a plausible and legitimate economic analysis that plausibly leads to this ‘better to bite the bullet’ type choice to spark a massive global shock for near-term pain to reduce long-term devastation.

SLR is inexorable (at least to some level) and humanity needs to be focusing far more on adaptation to it (even while investing FAR more in mitigation to reduce / constrain future impacts, in terms of long-term SLR and other climate impacts).  Continued inadequate investment (and even ignoring of) this challenge gives credence to the analysis core to Pinnacle Event and makes Moonraker-type choices to (attempt to) tackle climate change dangers an ever-more terrifying potential choice by a super-rich individual or some government.

Making the choice to tackle climate change (MITIGATION + ADAPTATION), on the other hand, lessens the chance of such a low-probability but super high-damage event occurring.

Clarke, with Pinnacle Event, has made another contribution to national security thinking that merits consideration from the full spectrum of national security thinkers around the world




  1. One institution trying to tackle the ‘adaptation to sea level rise’ challenge is the International Sea Level Institute. It’s head, John Englander, wrote High Tide on Main Street  “sharing the latest scientific research and predictions on the coming effects from climate change and rising sea levels around the world— and what this coming coastal crisis means for you.”
  2. A recent post on another form of art and SLR: Hands from the sea .
  3. Richard Clarke went to Politics & Prose to discuss Pinnacle Event.  I strongly recommend taking the time to listen (you don’t need to ‘watch’) this thoughtful discussion. The first question to Clarke (23 minutes in) is about Edward Snowden. Clarke’s engagement about this is eloquent, powerful, and much worth hearing.  It is an excellent example of Clarke’s ability to parse a discussion in a way to communicate to others to help their understanding and, when as analyst, to support decision-making.


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Tags: energy bookshelf · Fiction · Sea Level Rise

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Richard Pauli // May 18, 2017 at 9:19 am

    Today is a perfect day for this great article. May 18, 1980 – On this day Mt St Helens volcano violently erupts after months of warnings from quakes, fumeroles and steam venting. We knew it was coming, We just failed to predict the exact day, the power and extent.

    Because it was a Sunday, forest workers were off duty and so the loss of human life (57) was less than it could have been. The plume of ash from the eruption rose 15 miles up and spread downwind shading much of the Pacific Northwest. Traces of ash made it as far as Oklahoma. The eruption released 24 megatons of thermal energy and ejected more than 0.67 cubic miles (2.79 km3) of material. It devastated 596 square kilometers (229 square miles). USGS scientists estimate “that the eruptions of Mount St. Helens (1980) and Pinatubo (1991) both released carbon dioxide on a scale similar to human output for about nine hours. Human emissions of carbon dioxide continue day after day, month after month, year after year.” The world’s volcanoes, both on land and undersea, generate about 200 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually, while our automotive and industrial activities cause some 24 billion tons of CO2 emissions every year worldwide. Human carbon dioxide emissions are more than 90 times greater than global volcanic carbon dioxide emissions. “Today, rather than warming global climate, volcanic eruptions often have the opposite effect. That’s because carbon dioxide isn’t the only thing that volcanoes inject into the atmosphere. Even small eruptions often produce volcanic ash and aerosol particles.”

    The lesson from that calamity is that we can be informed about a looming crisis, yet still be totally unprepared for it. The very best climate fiction adheres to the rules, stays very close to climate models and scenarios. But there will be surprises we could not predict in strict modeling. Informed fiction is key and very useful to meeting the future