Climate Wars

by Bryan Walker on December 22, 2008

Climate Wars

Gwynne Dyer’s new book Climate Wars explores the all-important political dimension of addressing climate change. Military history is Dyer’s speciality. One origin of this book was his dawning awareness that, in a number of the great powers, climate-change scenarios are already playing a large role in the military planning process. The other factor persuading him to write the book was the realisation that the first and most important impact of climate change on human civilisation will be an acute and permanent crisis of food supply.

He produces scenarios of his own to introduce each of the book’s seven chapters, positing in coming decades dangerous geopolitical developments in response to food shortages, with massive levels of human deaths. The scenarios range through many eventualities: dangerous confrontation on the Sino-Russian border;  nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan; the collapse of the European Union under the stress of south-north mass migration; a lethally effective border barrier between the US and Mexico with disastrous consequences for Mexico and the alienation of Hispanic-Americans within the US; a unilateral geo-engineering project gone wrong; and much else. His final scenario is different in that it looks much further ahead to a possible major extinction as a result of global warming effects on the oceans, drawing on the hypotheses in paleontologist Peter Ward’s recent book Under A Green Sky.

Dyer claims no certainty for his scenarios of course, but there is no denying their underlying credibility. As the main chapters of the book make apparent, the climate changes on which the scenarios are based are inescapable if we carry on with business as usual.  The book is as much about climate science as about the political and strategic consequences of climate change. Dyer is conversant with the major themes of  current science, and well understands the feedback mechanisms which threaten to accelerate the warming already under way.  He serves the general reader well in his this respect. He knows how to explain to lay people the complexities in which the experts deal.

He also spends a good deal of space canvassing mitigation possibilities and the likelihood or otherwise of their being adopted.  “We Can Fix This…” says one chapter, “…But Probably Not in Time” says the next, which is why he goes on to consider geo-engineering measures as an emergency fall-back option if the political process doesn’t deliver the goods on time.

As a respected journalist he has had access to numerous scientists, soldiers, bureaucrats and politicians. Extracts from their interviews are a core element of the book.  They lift his material clearly out of the realm of journalistic conjecture into the sober realms of the everyday working life of those he speaks with. The interviews have the further advantage of being recent and the book consequently takes us to where things stand right now. There is little doubt that they are worse than hitherto predicted.

Neither optimistic nor pessimistic, Dyer looks for realism. His final chapter centres partly on James Lovelock whom he sees as the most important figure in both the life sciences and the climate sciences for the past half-century; indeed he has him up there with a figure like Charles Darwin in the pantheon of scientific heroes.  But he finds the resolve to differ from Lovelock’s belief that irreparable damage has already been done. Dyer’s hope is that we will move sufficiently quickly towards decarbonising our economies to avoid the worst prospects of conflict and famine portrayed in his scenarios. He reflects on the small miracle that “at exactly the same time when it became clear we have to stop burning fossil fuels, a wide variety of other technologies for generating energy became available.”  But to make use of the opportunity we have within the next few decades, we will need, he concludes, the grown-up values of self-restraint and the ability to cooperate. One hopes this is not too much to ask.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

erich December 22, 2008 at 5:35 pm

“Is global warming preventing an Ice Age?”
This head line, at first glance, may feed the global warming denier’s rationals, but in fact this work confirms man’s lucky, unintentional consequence of putting the earth to the plow and producing a warm, stable climate for his civilization to prosper.
The carbon transfered from biosphere to atmosphere, now needing to be reversed, could find no better sanctuary than the earth from which most of it came.
Why I love Biochar.

“The con­tro­ver­sial idea—first pro­posed by Uni­ver­s­ity of Vir­gin­ia cli­ma­tolo­g­ist Wil­liam F. Rud­di­man—is based on the con­ten­ti­on that hu­man-induced glob­al warm­ing started long be­fore it’s gen­er­ally ac­cept­ed to have be­gun.

The com­mon wis­dom is that the ad­vent of the steam en­gine and the coal-fueled in­dus­t­ri­al age two cen­turies ago marked the be­gin­ning of hu­man in­flu­ence on glob­al cli­mate. But Kutz­bach and like­minded sci­en­tists con­tend it really started thou­sands of years ago with large-scale ag­ri­cul­ture in Asia and ex­ten­sive de­for­esta­tion in Eu­rope.’

http://www.world-science.net/othernews/081217_warming.htm

Bryan Walker December 22, 2008 at 7:02 pm

Erich, I have just finished reading Ruddiman’s book as it happens and expect to post a review of it in a few days.

Doug Clover December 22, 2008 at 7:31 pm

Bill Ruddiman did a guest post at Realclimate back in 2005. The post, links, and discussion may be of interest.

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2005/12/early-anthropocene-hyppothesis/

Gareth December 22, 2008 at 8:30 pm

A few recent papers add to the discussion: Eli looks at a Science article by Peter Cox and Chris Jones, which seems to minimise the impact of land use changes on recent climate, while these two presentations at the Fall AGU provide support. Ruddiman’s argument is persuasive, but not yet accepted in its entirety.

Note for sceptics: this is what actually happens when new ideas are being thrashed out.

Gareth January 4, 2009 at 5:24 pm

RNZ National’s Sunday Morning with Chris Laidlaw programme repeated an interview with Gwynne Dyer about Climate Wars this morning: podcast here, or stream. Worth a listen, even if you’ve read the book (I’m nearing the end).

Gareth January 8, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Meanwhile, the Australian Defence Force is adding to the analysis that suggests climate change will create conflict. The Sydney Morning Herald says:

Rising sea levels could lead to failed states across the Pacific and require extra naval deployments to deal with increases in illegal migration and fishing, a Defence Force analysis says.

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