Climate change you can believe in

April 18, 2009

Climate Wars

By Gwynne Dyer

Scribe Publications, 2008

272 pages, $32.95

Climate Wars is a disturbing book and a valuable contribution to the ever-growing body of literature on the historic fork in the road at which the human species currently stands.

This book explains the effects of climate change not just on coral reefs and polar bears, but on hundreds of millions of climate refugees who may face a fate akin to what the population of Gaza faced at the hands of the Israeli military in January.

It also describes with some clarity a truly profound shift in collective human consciousness, which would be both the precondition and the hallmark of any successful attempt to prevent runaway warming.

Climate Wars uses an exciting format whereby a series of interviews with military, political, climate and renewable-energy specialists is punctuated by fictional projections of a future devastated by climate change.

There are also projections for how society may prevent runaway climate change, an effort which would take substantial investment and decades of sustained internationalist collaboration to succeed.

A fantastic example is a quote by Lester Brown, from the Earthwatch Institute, highlighting the fact that humanity is very capable of manufacturing and installing the vast network of green energy we need to slash carbon emissions.

"We build sixty five million cars [around the world] every year, so it's not a big deal. We could produce these wind turbines for the entire world simply by opening the closed automobile assembly plants in the USA. That's all we need to get 40 per cent of our energy from wind by 2020."

One of the most powerful (and disturbing) aspects of Climate Wars is in Dyer's investigation of reports by senior military advisers who work for the CNA Corporation (a military-funded think tank).

Dyer reveals the military in advanced capitalist countries (especially in the US) is fully aware of the grave danger posed by climate change. He explains how CNA "circumvented the [former US President George] Bush ban on treating climate change as a real and serious problem" to release the National Security and the Threat of Climate Change report in April 2007.

The report accepts, as a fact of life, that any one country that launches an emergency program to cut emissions will be at a disadvantage unless all other countries are also on board.

Dyer goes on to examine projected military and political responses to the worsening climate crisis in the not-too-distant future. These include nuclear war between India and Pakistan over water supplies, anti-nuclear and anti-geo-engineering "eco-terrorists" in Europe, or geo-engineering projects in Indonesia and the Philippines secretly financed by China.

The book also speculates about a horrific militarisation of the Mexico-US border that would follow on from massive crop failure in Latin America caused by runaway climate change and resulting in a huge rise in "illegal" immigrants attempting to enter the US.

"The food crisis in Mexico City, whose population had swollen to twenty-seven million people (including refugees), now turned into a general health crisis, with malnourished people falling victim to epidemics in large numbers", Dyer writes in a fictionalised account of life in 2026.

These are the sort of projections which show what the human cost of failing to stop climate change might be. Descriptions like this are the great strength of Climate Wars (scary as they are to digest).

Dyer broaches some fairly controversial topics including geo-engineering, nuclear power and vegetarianism. While thoroughly acknowledging geo-engineering can be used as an excuse for inaction on climate change, Dyer makes clear this is not his intent.

Dyer looks at a future scenario where sulfates are deployed in the atmosphere unilaterally by a desperate Bangladesh to induce a cooling effect (relatively inexpensive sulfur dioxide can be used to increase the planets solar reflectivity). He explores other proposed "techno fixes" like micro-satellites, cloud seeding and plankton fertilisation and looks at how viable they may or may not be.

Dyer explains why biofuel and carbon capture are scams but is ambiguous on whether nuclear power should be part of the solution.

He also observes that if the planet became vegetarian (or significantly reduced its meat consumption) there would be immensely more food to go around, and even looks at the possibility of sustainable "vat-grown" meat.

The final scenario Dyer explores (set in the year 2175) is one in which climate change of nine degrees above pre-industrial levels has caused the breakdown of ocean current cycles, resulting in "canfield oceans" full of toxic hydrogen sulfide.

The massively smaller and technologically deprived population of Earth does not have the resources to geo-engineer a cooler climate, "and besides it had a more urgent problem — the oceans were going bad. Going bad in the sense they smelled like rotten eggs."

The doomsday scenario is well researched and the horrible possibility of it actually occurring is sickening to consider.

In the final chapter of Climate Wars, Dyer argues that climate change is a historic challenge to humanity. It will result in most of our species either being wiped out, or moving to a higher level of social and ecological understanding. He uses the analogy of an examination.

"We just barely scraped through the mid-term exam in the last century; we acquired the ability to destroy our civilization directly, by war, and we managed not to use it.

"Now it's the final exam, with the whole environment that our civilization depends on is at stake. It's not just about knowledge and technical ability; it is also about self restraint and the ability to cooperate. Grown up values, if you like."

Dyer believes that successfully preventing runaway climate change would be a coming of age, a "childhood's end", for humanity.

"How fortunate that we should be set such a test at a point in our history where we have at least some chance of passing it. And how interesting the long future that stretches out beyond it will be, if we do pass."

Dyer does not seem to think that the so-called childhood's end may involve a decisive break with the past — a revolution. He seems to think there is a small chance that the elites who have control of the most profitable industries on the planet might end up having a moment of clarity and realise they must phase out their money machines.

He also seems to think the masses are too passive to build a major climate movement anytime soon and that green consciousness will instead "trickle-down" from the top.

Living in Newcastle, and witnessing the epic expansion of the world's largest coal port currently underway here, I cannot help but think the greenhouse mafia are happy to ruin the planet for profit.

Seeing (and participating in) the steady growth of the climate movement, I can also see the potential for growing a large movement relatively quickly.

Nevertheless, Climate Wars is the best book I have read on the topic since Climate Code Red and raises some very interesting points. I strongly recommend it.

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