Randy's Reviews > Climate Wars

Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer
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's review
Aug 05, 2011

it was amazing

The title "Climate Wars" hints at Dyer's contention that global warming will not be a benign phenomenon where things will continue as before. Rather like the human body, where a fever of only three and a half degrees Celcius is potentially fatal, an increase of only a few degrees can potentially cause massive changes in the earth's climate. The earth's biosphere appears to be more fine-tuned and fragile than we thought, and we have unknowingly pushed it far toward making the earth a far less habitable place for humans to live.

He believes that irreversible changes are coming at a rate higher than even recent generally accepted predictions, so that the goal, for example, of the U.S. and British governments to achieve 80 percent cuts to emissions by 2050, is not enough. To illustrate what may be coming, then, he creates a number of fictitious scenarios, set at various times in the relatively near future. These scenarios are possible futures he imagines in a world increasingly under stress from the effects of climate change. They illustrate his point that global warming is not the relatively easy problem that, for example, CFC's and the ozone layer was, where the world could simply rally together and deal effectively with it.

Though there are technological hurdles to be overcome, they are not insurmountable, and could largely be dealt with in the next couple of decades if the international community, with a single mind, made a decision to move away from oil and coal energy sources and develop alternatives. Of course that would include, among other projects, building five million wind turbines around the world in the next five years - quite an undertaking, but certainly doable, especially if you consider that the world builds 65 million cars a year. He believes that we could achieve 80 percent cuts in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, if the political will were there. And politics is the arena where the game will be decided. It is political will, not technological solutions, that that will limit our response to the coming crisis.

As the effects of climate change manifest themselves it will become clear why the international community will not be of a single mind. Developing nations, such as India and China, will not agree to curb their emissions to the same degree as the old, fully industrialized nations, at least not at first. They will consider it a matter of basic justice that they be allowed to catch up in economic development before making their cuts, and that the West will have to take the initiative and actually accept deeper cuts initially than if everything were across-the-board. This is going to be an extremely hard sell with voters in the developed countries, who will certainly object to paying for benefits that will be spread to countries that not only are not paying for them but are continuing to belch out greenhouse gases.

Another feature of climate change that can lull policy makers to inactivity is the huge amount of latency between cause and effect. There is roughly a 40 year lag in seeing the effects of current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. So at the time when we need to act (now), climate effects are only beginning to be felt, and we don't feel the sense of urgency that we ought. And to make it worse, thirty years from now when we're really working hard to address the problem, it will seem that it isn't helping, because things will actually be getting worse, even though we would then be mitigating the effects for a future generation. So the difficulty is not only in getting started, but in staying the course.

This forty-year lag in climate effect means that regardless of what we do now, there will be at least some negative changes felt in mid-century. These changes, including drought and sea-level rise, will cause some countries to suffer a lot more than others. The one critical, indispensable, sine qua non of reducing and then eliminating greenhouse gas emissions is international cooperation. And we see that even today, when things are relatively good, that is hard to achieve. But when climate change starts causing food shortages and mass displacement of people, any chance of international cooperation will vanish. Climate treaties will not be much of a priority for especially the developing countries as all their efforts will be focussed on maintaining order and feeding their people. Conflict over dwindling resources and access to food will intensify as, after all, Dyer notes grimly, "people always raid before they starve."

There is general agreement that we need to keep warming below 2 degrees Celcius so that feedbacks don't kick in that would make warming a self-sustaining process. Dyer thinks we won't make emissions-reducing deadlines to prevent that. So it will be necessary, today, to begin preparing, for future use, geo-engineering strategies which would produce a cooling effect, allowing us the time to stop carbon dioxide emissions and then bring atmospheric concentrations back to a safe level, while keeping the temperature from rising more than 2 degrees. One such technique, mimicking the action of volcanoes, could be the release of sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, producing a temporary "global dimming."

Dyer's dark forecast is more extreme than the views held by most policy makers and climate scientists, but it is not implausible. Plausibility factors much into of our lives, for example our decision to buy fire insurance even though it is not likely that we will ever experience a house fire. As so much is at stake in the uncertain predictions of climate change, to err on the side of caution can hardly be called foolish. And as worldwide oil resources dwindle and prices skyrocket, we are going to have to make massive changes away from oil-based economies anyways. We ought to consider ourselves fortunate that we are only now facing this coming crisis, and not fifty years ago when we had no alternatives to fossil fuels.
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