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Tyee Books

Brace for 'Climate Wars'

Author Gwynn Dyer on techno-fixing the planet, why the Pentagon buys global warming, and more.

By Sarah Buchanan 6 Jan 2009 |

Sarah Buchanan is a regular contributor to Tyee Books.

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Earth as hot zone.
  • Climate Wars
  • Gwynne Dyer
  • Random House Canada (2008)

"I do not have enough faith in human nature that we're going to get there, on time, with no hiccups."

So says Gwynne Dyer, the author of Climate Wars, who wastes no time in revealing that things are really, really bad.

Scientists have been telling us this fact for decades, but somewhere along the line, it became totally okay to ignore them. With this era coming to an end, however, the military and scientific communities can finally agree in public that the climate is warming much faster than we ever expected, and we need to act as quickly as possibly -- preferably 10 years ago.

Our first clue that things are going pear-shaped is the fact that Dyer, a journalist and academic specializing in war and conflict, has even touched the issue. This is not a book about the environment; it is a book about the potential of conflict and nuclear war erupting because of the environment.

The huge price of delay

Dyer has combined a close reading of military and scientific scenarios, and created his own projections of what the world might look like in 2019, 2029, 2045, and so forth, depending on different courses of action we choose.

Some of the more severe scenarios involve squabbling and stalling on the part of industrialized governments during key times of crisis (like, say, right now), which in turn leads to mass starvation, desertification, and war in developing countries.

There are some hopeful scenarios as well, which depend on international cooperation and action in the next few years to make huge cuts in emissions before we hit the point of no return at a carbon level of 450 ppm (parts per million). We are now dangerously close to this level at about 380 ppm, and it's rising fast. Once we cross this line, it is projected that our actions will spark a feedback cycle in which the melting polar ice caps, once a major reflective surface for the sun, will cause the ocean to absorb a lot more heat. Combined with huge fields of methane being released from melting permafrost, the carbon train will pick up steam even without any human emissions.

The big techno-fix?

We can all agree on the need for action, but Dyer's strong advocacy of geo-engineering might ruffle a few feathers in the environmental community. Scientists have already been researching quick-fix solutions for years, and many believe these will buy us the time necessary to switch from oil to renewable resources. Some are fairly straightforward, like growing large fields of algae in sea-beds, which can be converted to fuel much more easily than the current generation of biofuels and will not use precious agricultural lands. Technologies that release sulphur high into the atmosphere, where it will have a projected cooling effect, are among the most controversial.

In an effort to spark quick action, Dyer maps out the effects of warming on the planet, both environmentally and politically.

"There's a sequence to it," he explained in a recent interview. "The first big impacts are on food. The second impacts are on human relations -- collapsed states, refugees fleeing war and starvation -- at this point it won't be possible to cooperate on an international level to cut emissions.

The third impact will be on sea levels, which will rise (but likely not until near the end of this century), and if things progress even further, you could see the oceans going completely anoxic."

It reads a bit like a sci-fi novel. A decimated human population huddles around the poles while the ocean starts to bubble with sulphur (this is also known as a Canfield ocean). But when I met with Dyer last month in Vancouver, he insisted his scenarios were not the extreme brain farts of a creative writer, but in fact carefully controlled and realistic possibilities. He has taken hostilities which already exist, such as the conflict between India and Pakistan, and extrapolated them into a hotter world.

Here's what else Dyer had to say...

On how to predict the fall of human civilization:

"Most of [the scenarios] were from military reports. There was a lot of awareness among scientists about the severity of climate change, but scientists don't do strategic scenarios. A lot of that scenario stuff, believe it or not, actually started with Shell Oil back in the '70s. They came up with relatively disciplined rules for these things -- we're not just writing science fiction here. What we want is credible, possible futures. The pentagon's very big on that now.

"The American military has been doing them for a long time -- they're not hard to get at. When Bush didn't want climate change discussed at all, the Pentagon went to the think tanks in Washington and said, 'We need you to do all the research that we've already done, but can't publish. You publish it, and we'll distribute it to our staff.'

"I was in Washington in February -- I met with a lot of senior career people, and there wasn't a denier among them. They had made their plans, and were waiting for the administration to change so they could get some action on these things."

On why you can change nature, but you can't change human nature:

"Are we going to be able to maintain our standard of living? I'll tell you what -- we can't solve this problem if it involves hairshirts. You're lucky if you can convince people to turn the heat down and wear a sweater. To really solve this, we have to go to a zero-emissions economy, and to do that, we have to replace fossil fuels, not reduce them. Otherwise, you're always playing percentages. You can get 40 per cent reductions in emissions while still maintaining our way of life, but you can't get 80 per cent. We need 100 per cent.

"People do not see this as a sufficiently large enough problem to make drastic changes in their own lives. They'll change the light bulbs, maybe insulate the house better. This might help give us more time before we hit two degrees of warming, but it won't solve the problem. We have to replace all the power generating sources in the end. Once you've done that, you can drive all you like.

"Eighty-five per cent of Americans now think that climate change is a problem. But how many of those people actually think it's a big enough problem that they would pay an extra $2000 a year in taxes? I think the numbers drop off a cliff at that point."

On the tar sands, and Harper's attempted deal with Obama:

"I was up in Fort MacMurray recently to give a speech about climate change. About half the audience was from oil companies. None of them were the least surprised by anything I said. They are watching this like a hawk. They know the Americans are moving towards banning the imported tar sands oil.

"The tar sands are probably dead anyway, but if Harper's gone, they're dead for sure. The day Obama got elected he came out with the offer of a joint Camadian-American emissions control treaty, with a small clause about not touching the tar sands.

"This is now going to move very fast over the next few years. The log jam has broken because the Americans are now on board. When they weren't, countries were bending over backwards to try to soften Kyoto to get them to sign on. Now we're stuck for the next 15 years with this watered down, badly mutilated treaty. A lot of wasted time. Now Obama's up to his ass in alligators, and he knows he has to drain the swamp. He'll be looking for low-cost initiatives that show America has its heart in the right place, and the tar sands are low-hanging fruit."

On geo-engineering, and why it will be necessary:

"There is now a real avalanche of data coming in, which is why the scientists are so scared. Things really are moving much faster than their model said. The one closest to us is the Arctic Sea ice going -- it could be all gone at the end of the melt season in five years time. Open water, all across the Arctic Ocean. This is really bad, because open water absorbs heat.

"What's so frustrating for scientists is that this is actually a relatively easy, soluble problem, particularly if we had started 10 years ago, and didn't have to resort to crash solutions. The alternative sources of energy are available. Solar, wind, even geothermal is coming along quite nicely. Replacing liquid fuels is trickier, because the current generation of biofuels don't cut it. They're doing trials with vats of algae, but we're still two or three years away from producing anything like 20,000 gallons a day on algae farms.

"I do not have enough faith in human nature that we're going to get there, on time, with no hiccups. We'll get there, but it'll be 15 years too late, and we can't afford to be late, so we're going to need to cheat. Geo-engineering is basically cheating. You're postponing the effects long enough that your actions can catch up with necessity."

On Canada's future in a violent sauna:

"There's certainly going to be more people coming into Canada. At some point we're going to have to make up our mind what we think about that. I really like a high immigration policy, but there's a limit to adaptability. We don't have a land border with any third world countries, and you're not going to face a wave of American refugees. But the pressures will grow, from the places that are suffering more, to the places that are suffering less."

On whether or not global warming will be the end of us:

"If this book doesn't scare people, they aren't paying attention. It scared me. But I was actually less pessimistic after writing it than I was at the start, because you can see a way through. You don't need to invent any magic technologies, or change the human heart. We can do this being who we are, living the way that we do.

"Look at what we did about the ozone layer, look at how we got through the last 50 years without a nuclear war. I think that's pretty impressive."

On whether we should at least stockpile guns and wheat:

"We won't need to do that in Canada. Frankly, I wouldn't do it anywhere. When there's a real shortage of resources, they shoot people who horde."

On firing up the spaceship, and getting out:

"Have you any idea the carbon cost of launching something?"