By Gwynne Dyer1
Publisher: Scribe Publications2
Reviewed by Stephen Keim SC
onservationists and climate scientists, sometimes, face a dilemma. If the urgency of the threat of climate change is presented, truthfully, there is a danger that both governments and the public will eschew action and reach for their version of Nero’s fiddle on the basis that, since nothing can be done, we may as well party.
Gwynne Dyer does not hold back in its presentation of the dangers of climate change. Using the types of scenario developed by defence planners, Dyer presents a number of visions of the future. These scenarios are set among discussions of the available climate science and the current geo-political factors that make the scenarios plausible.
A central theme of the book is the rapidity with which the picture revealed by climate science is moving. For many, the IPCC reports released during 2007 are the definitive indication that the dangers of climate change are real and cannot be ignored. However, the IPCC reports are the result of a ponderous process which is aimed at consensus not only among climate scientists but among governments including many who still see their interests lying in denying or understating the dangers of climate change. Even the process of publishing peer reviewed scientific papers results in delays which understate the current picture.
As a result, the IPCC Reports dramatically understate the dangers revealed by current scientific work. The reports represent an anodyne presentation of data that may be as much as five years out of date.
With interviews that occurred as late as July 2008, the author provides an up to date picture. The scenarios present the dangers of climate change in very stark terms.
One scenario appears prescient even within a few weeks of Mr. Dyer putting down his pen. It describes a confrontation between Russia, on the one hand, and the United States and Europe on the other, commencing in 2019 and described as the “Colder War”. The focus of the confrontation was the oil and gas beds in a now ice free Arctic Ocean.
The confrontation between Georgia and Russia which we have just witnessed, back in the world of 2008, is not unlike the scenario presented. At time of writing, opinion polls are suggesting that an Obama presidency is more likely every day. An Obama presidency may, as in the scenario, face a new conflict between Russia and the west that will render finding any sort of consensus on climate change mitigation even more difficult. This freeze in relations between Russia and the west may yet be the most damaging aspect of the highly dubious legacy of the presidency of Bush the younger.
Another scenario set in 2029 involves automated machine gun posts and a mine strewn dry moat on a fully fenced border between the United States and Mexico. The bloodshed among desperately starving would be immigrants produces civil disorder among the remaining starving residents of Mexico and the now massively increased Latino population of the United States.
Another scenario set in 2036 looks back on the nuclear wars which took place between Pakistan and India as tension over water rights from the now much diminished rivers in the north of the sub-continent spiralled out of control.
As he discusses each scenario, Mr. Dyer presents not only the details of climate science on which they are based but also the associated geo-political issues that concern defence planners and other strategic thinkers even in 2008.
If Climate Wars breaches one taboo in setting out how desperate the present situation is, it, nonetheless, avoids total despair. It certainly avoids the cheery atmosphere of the Stern Review with its suggestion that we can pay for the changes easily out of future planned expenditure on energy infrastructure and its predictions along the lines of: “we can be as wealthy in 2052 (by solving climate change) as we could have been in the early months of 2050 if climate change was not a problem”. Mr. Dyer raises very strongly the prospect that we have already passed crucial tipping points in terms of carbon in the atmosphere. He also spells out the likely impacts of those tipping points which are yet to be felt.
While painting a series of dire pictures, Climate Wars avoids total despair. In stressing the difficulty of the problem (and the fact that switching off the bedroom light when I go back downstairs is not going to make much difference), Mr. Dyer broaches another taboo. He talks about geo-engineering solutions.
Geo-engineering involves technological ways of restricting the heating of the earth even when the carbon levels and the planet’s feedback mechanisms have gone beyond their safe limits. Suggested geo-engineering techniques include pumping sulphate particles into the atmosphere to reflect light and heat much as normal pollution does. They include the prospect of launching strips of plastic with holes in them in a geo-stationary orbit to act as a giant mirror. They include satellite guided ships spraying sea water to create a great abundance of strato-cumulus clouds which will also act as reflectors of the sun’s heat.
Geo-engineering is often seen as taboo because it creates a moral hazard. The fear is that if politicians and communities believe that global warming can be cured by building a great mirror in the sky, any serious political support for the sorts of difficult steps that are needed to reduce our communal carbon footprint will be simply abandoned. Gwynne Dyer does not ignore this issue but he does argue that geo-engineering solutions may be needed even when we have done everything possible to achieve a carbon free society.
At time of writing, it is almost 12 months since a Rudd led government was elected to replace the climate change deniers who preceded them. The impression that continues to gain ground is that Labor is not serious about taking steps to prevent climate change. Unsurprisingly, just like the State Labor governments in Queensland and New South Wales, Rudd’s government appears to spend most of their sleeping moments in bed with the Great King Coal.
If that is the leadership that a “don’t scare the horses” discussion of the dangers of climate change has produced, then it is time for Climate Wars and many more books like it. The future is, indeed, galloping upon us and it does not have either the innocence or the beauty of a Bill Henson photograph.3
Stephen Keim SC
Gwynne Dyer was born in Newfoundland, a maritime province of Canada. He has served in three navies. He is a freelance journalist columnist, columnist and broadcaster. He writes regularly on international affairs and has published a number of books on different aspects of war. His web address is http://www.gwynnedyer.com/.
Scribe is an independent Australian publisher founded and run by Henry Rosenbloom out of Melbourne. Scribe won best small publisher for 2008, a gong it had previously won in 2006. Scribe’s web address is http://www.scribepublications.com.au/.
The recommended retail price of Climate Wars is a reasonable $32.95.