David Hoppe

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:: Osama bin Laden and climate change

When informationís not enough

by David Hoppe

If, as the old saying goes, a little learning can be a dangerous thing, what are we to make of a mountain of information?

Not much, it seems.

This is my takeaway after listening to a group of veteran CIA officers talk about the hunt for Osama bin Laden in connection with a new HBO documentary airing this month, Manhunt.

As the CIA officers tell it, they were aware of bin Laden’s intentions as early as 1993. That’s when they realized al Qaeda was for real, and that bin Laden, the son of a Saudi billionaire, was its leader.

They say they discovered this before the first terrorist attack on New York City’s World Trade Center, February 26, 1993. At that time, a truck was blown up under the North Tower. The blast was supposed to topple the tower, making it crash into its twin. As it was, six people were killed instead of thousands. 

The Sisterhood was the name given to the all-female team of intelligence analysts who brought the news about al Qaeda and bin Laden to their bosses in the intelligence food chain.

No one paid attention.

“We already knew these guys were for real and coming to kill us,” Marty Martin, a member of the Sisterhood told The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern. “World Trade Center in ’93, Yemen, U.S.S. Cole, the U.S. Embassy bombing — all this was the same organization.”

Cindy Storer, another Sisterhood analyst, said that her team started sending daily briefs to the president — first Clinton, then Bush — about the al Qaeda threat two weeks before the 1993 WWTC bombing. By the spring of 2001, she added, “Everyone was running around trying to get the message out.”

It didn’t work, and the rest is history we’re still living with today.

“They couldn’t wrap their heads around a nonstate actor doing this stuff,” Storer told Marlow Stern, trying to explain how little the president’s closest advisors made of the information she and her team were providing.

This is more than a tad discouraging because we have spent, oh, a little more than half a millennium convincing ourselves that information sets us free. Ever since the Renaissance people have tended to believe that we are the center of things and that what we know, or can learn, is at the center of us.

Today, there doesn’t seem to be anything we don’t think a little more information can’t fix. That’s why we put such stock in — and get so pissed at — our schools. It’s why we’ve convinced ourselves on-line learning is just as good as the three-dimensional kind: all we have to do is feed ourselves the right information and, presto! The economy will boom, parents will know how to raise their kids, everybody will have the right amount of body fat.

But there’s a problem with information. It’s black and white, whereas the world it seeks to describe is Technicolor. The world is not only informed by facts, but by culture — the stories we tell ourselves to give all the things that happen to us a whiff of meaning. You can find out that you’re sick, but that information doesn’t necessarily provide you with what it takes to get well.

Look at all the information we have about climate change, also known as global warming. No less an authority than NASA tells us: “The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the last 1,300 years.”

NASA goes on to inform us that the global sea level has risen in the last decade at a rate nearly double that of the last century. Global temperature, warming since 1880, has been going up with particular vigor since the 1970s, with the 20 warmest years having occurred since 1981 and with all ten of the warmest of those occurring in just the past 12. The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass; NASA measurements show Greenland lost 36 to 60 cubic miles of ice per year between 2002 and 2006. Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world, including the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.

As recent flooding suggests, the U.S. has, in fact, been seeing increasing numbers of “intense rainfall events.”

This is just some of the information amassed about what’s happening to our planet. As NASA points out, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the last 100 years are most likely due to human activities. So since we’re causing this accelerating change, we should be able to do something about it.

But that, to paraphrase Cindy Storer, would mean wrapping our heads around the way we live and changing some things. A lot of things.

Substitute the first World Trade Center bombing for rising sea levels, Yemen for rising global temps, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole with shrinking ice sheets, and the U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa that killed 224 people in 1998 with glacial retreat. How, we ask ourselves, could we have had this information, seen the pattern, and not done something to stop it?

Good question.