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The climate wars: Interview with Gwynne Dyer

Canadian journalist and military historian Gwynne Dyer talks to SchNEWS about the dire warnings for a post-climate change world in his book The Climate Wars.

13 December 2010

The year is 2027 and America is in turmoil as the US army guns down refugees trying to cross the border and escape a Mexico collapsing under the strain of climatic change... It is 2036 and Pakistan and India have been reduced to a radioactive wasteland after a nuclear water war... It is 2039, and countries in the Majority World are defying the West and pumping sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere in a desperate attempt to reduce global temperatures and halt the catastrophic climatic change ravaging their countries. The Toba super-volcano erupts and temperatures plummet...

In Climate Wars, Gwynne Dyer, a Canadian journalist, lecturer and military historian, presents a series of bleak futures, each portraying a world teetering on the edge of civilisational collapse as a result of climate change.

But these scenarios aren't merely fictional creations, they are part of Dyer's geo-political analysis of climate change based on extensive research and interviews with scientists, think-tanks, environmentalists, politicians and military analysts from around the world.

Throughout the book, Dyer also analyses the contemporary technological and political environment. He is a hardline pragmatist and his approach is focused entirely on the matter of survival.

“This isn’t about hugging trees,” he told SchNEWS. “It’s about staying alive.” He advocates an approach that will leave many in the environmental movement uncomfortable; he claims we must consider using technology such as geo-engineering, nuclear power and GM crops, and politically that it will be necessary to sideline issues such as human rights and social and economic justice in order to make it through the times ahead.

SchNEWS spoke to Dyer on these issues and his views on the problems we face now and in the future.

When you were putting the scenarios together how much was taken from data and off the record chats etc?

Most of it. There’s nothing there that some soldier didn’t either say outright or hint at - that is the sort of thing they are thinking about. The Americans especially have got quite a long way down the road in thinking about it. They all know these numbers on what is happening on climate change.

They all know, to a remarkable degree, what this is going to do to food production, what damage this is going to do to water availability, which countries get hammered hard, which countries get away easy - and they have been working through the military scenarios that come out of that.

To give you an example, I was in Washington when I first realised the Pentagon was involved in this stuff. The Pentagon admits privately – they can’t say this in public obviously – that Congress is going to order them to close the Mexican border – completely close it - in ten or fifteen years time.

By then, climate change will be hitting Mexico really hard; basically the rainfall halves – that’s the sort of median prediction for what happens in sub-tropic areas like Mexico. There is only enough rain in Mexico for one crop now - half the rainfall doesn’t give you half a crop, it gives you no crop.

So the farms dry up and the Mexicans start moving North in very large numbers – that’s where you go if you are Mexican and in trouble; North.

The American public will put up with half a million or so sneaking across the border but they won’t put up with five million. So the army will be ordered to close the border. It will do it. It can do it.

You build a wall and you shoot people trying to come over it. You have to be willing to kill people to really close the border; armies know that. It works - if you are willing to kill people.

Look at the iron curtain, forty years straight down the middle of Europe; they were killing people all the time, desperate people willing to take a risk. If the army gets ordered to do that, they’ll do it and they’ll end up killing Mexicans and Central Americans on the frontier.

They do think these things through; one officer said to me, “Look, we’ll do it and we can keep the border closed but what worries me is that by the time we’re doing that, ten or fifteen years down the road, a quarter of the American population is going to be recently arrived Mexican and Central American immigrants, or the kids of those immigrants, most of them perfectly legal in the United States.

What are they going do, what are they going to feel when they see people who look just like them, coming from the places their parents come from, being shot down by the US army at the border.” He said, “I think this will cause the greatest social divisions in the United States since the civil war.”

This is the sort of thinking that the military are doing. In some places it is more terrifying than that. In Pakistan they are staring at a war over water. They know it is coming; the glaciers are melting now, those rivers are going to be half full in summer in twenty, thirty years time and when there is not enough water to go around, things are going to get really ugly.

You spoke to a broad range of people; scientists, soldiers, policy makers, think tank people - was there any broad consensus of opinion or even a broad consensus of feeling about the issue?

The first thing is, regardless of the controversy stirred up in the press over this – is it, isn’t it, will it, won’t it – there is not a government on the planet that doesn’t take this (i.e. climate change) seriously. They all do.

In fact one of the interesting things that happened over the past year, although people scarcely noticed, is that every government on the planet has now signed up to pledge that we will not let the climate get more than two degrees hotter than it was in 1990 (average global temperature) – which doesn’t sound like a lot but actually would do a hell of a lot of damage. We’re at about 0.8 higher now than we were in 1990 and look what happened in Russia this summer [unprecedented heatwaves, droughts, smog and fires].

They didn’t explain why they chose two degrees but I know the answer because I talked to the scientists. Up to two degrees we are still in control of the process because it is our emissions that are causing the problem and if we turn them off, it stops.

It’s not easy to turn them off, obviously, but if we did then we would solve the problem. You go past two degrees and the positive feedback starts kicking in – the heat starts melting the permafrost, starts warming the ocean surface to the point where those begin to emit greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide and methane - and you can’t turn them off.

Then you are into feedback, a vicious circle, you can’t stop that. It causes more warming, then there’s more stuff coming out of the oceans and the permafrost then you are trapped on this escalator with no way off, taking you up to six degrees.

You don’t seem confident of getting it under control before we go over that point?

Well, I’m not, read the newspapers. There is a good deal of evidence in just the recent attempts to deal with this of how hard it is going to be to get agreement on it. We are not cutting our emissions.

Globally – where we should be cutting by about three per cent per year in order to come in under two degrees, we’re actually adding three percent per year to our emissions. The Chinese and the Indians and all those folks are industrialising - and you can’t just blame them because we’ve been doing this for a long time – but you add them to us and it’s really hard to see how you turn this thing around...

The Hadley Centre [the Met Office's climate research institute] said, look, actually guys, if we follow the current trend which says our emissions are not shrinking, not stable but growing as the economies in the developing countries grow, we’re going to hit 4 degrees by the 2050s – that’s game over, it’s way past game over.

Given that you advocate the use of geo-engineering projects…

I think that is probably our hole card, the get out of jail free card – if it works. In the long run we’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels. If we don’t stop soon enough we’re going to go past 450 parts per million and if that gives us two degrees then we’re screwed.

So how might you avoid that? The answer is, if you can hold the temperature down, you don’t get into runaway feedback – the oceans don’t start giving off carbon dioxide, the permafrost doesn’t melt because you held the temperature down.

Yes, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is still going up, you’re probably at 500 or 550 by the time it stops even if you really work at it. But in the meantime you’re not actually in full scale disaster yet because you are holding the temperature down.

Then, of course, in the longer run, you’ve got get your carbon dioxide emissions down to zero – carbon neutral – it is the only way you are going to get through the long term; but you have to get through the short term first. So if geo-engineering works, you’ve got to do it.

And better you start figuring out what it is going to have in the way of undesirable side effects – is this technique safe? No it is not. Is this technique safe? No, nothing is perfectly safe but that won’t actually kill anybody... All of this needs to be worked through before we absolutely have to make a choice to go or not.

One of the things you stress politically is how a retreat into nationalism would essentially be the end of the chance of resolving the crisis. How close do you think we are politically to that now and how could it be avoided?

No, we’re not there yet and I think probably we’ve got some time yet. The retreat into nationalism goes when the borders start to slam shut and countries are shooting other people’s citizens at the border because they are trying to get in; some regional wars are starting to break out and you get a general collapse in the will to do things globally.

That is probably ten or fifteen years away - I hope more - but I wouldn’t offer you any reassurance about it. At the moment we are still in negotiating mode and I think agreements are possible, they are difficult but they are not impossible.

You quoted Nick Mabey [director of E3G, a non-profit concerned with sustainable development) and one of the things he talked about was that we have to overcome our reservations about human rights issues in places like China, do you think these things have to be sidelined to deal with this issue?

Yes. There’s a blunt answer for you. Yes, I think they do. Do not confuse survival issues with political issues that are desirable. This is a survival issue for an awful lot of people. Not my generation and your generation here in England but for a lot of people it is already a survival issue, and eventually it will become a survival issue even for us.

It would be nice if we could put trade and human rights and climate change and three or four other desirable things all on the table together and bargain about them together. But you’ll never get anywhere like that. Don’t get confused. What is your priority here? And frankly my priority is to deal with this issue.

In an article refuting the recent channel 4 documentary (What the Green Movement Got Wrong) George Monbiot said: “The real climate challenge is not getting into new technologies but getting out of old ones.” That is almost exactly what you say in the book. But he was saying it in a call to reform social and economic systems; he was talking about corporate power, consumerism and economic growth – which is not something you mention. Is that because you think it is not possible, not necessary, not desirable or is it not relevant?

If it is possible in the long run, fine, we’ll discuss it in the long run, but we live right now in the short and the medium term and I don’t want to fight that battle at the same time. Pick your fights; you have only got so much time and so much energy. I think we are going to live or die with a solution to this problem achieved within the present political and economical context.

You are not going to change the corporate structure of the universe. You can on the other hand change the incentives, the tax structure and everything else to make it more attractive to corporations to behave responsibly about the environment. There is no point in trying to make the revolution happen next week, next month, next year, next decade.

But you look at what happens when you introduce market incentives – you look at cap and trade, you look at GM – and what tends to happen is they are manipulated and monopolised in economic interests rather than the interest of resolving the issue. Is it really possible to tackle climate change with market solutions?

Of course it is something we have to worry about. But by and large, if you do shape the incentives appropriately, corporations will respond. What corporations actually want – and it is quite interesting – is a predictable regulatory environment – tell them what the rules are and they will shape their strategies accordingly, including making a profit. You can actually go and talk to the corporations and they will say that to you.

The American automobile industry doesn’t care what the required fuel efficiency is – did you hear a great outcry when Obama announced through the Environmental Protection Agency that the required miles per gallon for American vehicle fleet was going up from 21.5 mpg to 35.5 mpg in 2016.

There was no outcry – we’ll pass the cost on to the consumer, we know what the regulatory environment is, fine we’ll get on with it.

You can do this sort of thing if you can give them some sense of where the future is taking them because they have got to work with five or ten years plans when they make their major investments.

You will never get the coal industry to go along with it because the coal industry is a dead duck in any real future we have got. But the gas and the oil industries could be made to go along with it, or rather those companies that are now making their money from oil and gas but could make their money from alternative sources of energy, because that is the field they are really in - if they would only wake up and realise it, which they are beginning to do.

Of course they will game the system, people always game the system. You and I do it every time we pay out taxes, but it doesn’t mean we get away without paying any taxes.

You mention in the book the current GM Crops, which you say don’t address the issue. Is that because if you leave it to business to develop these crops they are going to develop them based on profits and controlling markets, rather than solving the problem?

Sure they are. But if you were interested in doing so, then I could suggest a regulatory environment that would encourage them to develop the crops that would flourish in much hotter and drier conditions and would give decent yields but also would make it very hard to create the kind of monopoly structure that Monsanto was aiming at with its original GM crops.

You can make the conditions of sale such that they cannot exercise the kind of monopoly that people were trying to buy up ready for Monsanto. In the United States maybe you can’t because Congress is a very corrupt body and only responds to donations.

But most countries aren’t that corrupt, in the developed world. You can shape a regulatory environment that creates the right incentives and does not give people monopoly power to gore and to gauge the public.

But if I have to choose, I’ll go with whatever gets me through this crisis, frankly. It is like arguing about armaments industry profits when you are in the middle of a world war; yeah, ok, we’ll deal with it later.

In the book's scenarios you portray the left as quite rigidly ideological on issues such as nuclear power. Many on the left are reassessing nuclear as an option and are prepared to sideline some of their natural concerns, but very few seem to have been convinced by the argument for nuclear power yet.

I said in the book that the nuclear issue will split the greens down the middle because there is a generational issue here. The older generation are, by and large, people who were demonstrating against nuclear weapons in the 70s and the 80s and also remember Chernobyl and Three Mile Isle and all the bad stuff that happened in terms of first generation nuclear power plants not doing very well in the safety department.

Those people have been campaigning against nuclear for a long time and they don’t make the distinction that I think they should between civil nuclear power and nuclear weapons – it is all immoral, we’re tampering with things we shouldn’t touch.

I think the younger generation don’t have that baggage and they are much more open to considering nuclear in its merits – or demerits. So the split is likely to be on an age grade basis in the environmental movement.

As for how much nuclear should we do, I would say the real issue should be what is your cost per mega-watt, worked out over the life of the particular installation you are going to build. If it turns out that nuclear is competitive – build it, I don’t have a problem with that.

One scenario starts with a quote by Chris Abbot who basically seems to be suggesting that Animal Rights style activism and non-violent direct action are steps on the path to ‘eco-terrorism’. SchNEWS knows from experience that a lot of stuff that has come out discussing ‘eco-terrorism’ is lazy journalism reprinting self-serving NETCU reports. Everything we have seen mentioning ‘eco-terrorism’ seems to be from security forces trying secure more funding,

Absolutely, that’s the game at the moment. You must expect the security forces to talk up any alleged threat in order to build their budgets... On the other hand, if we do see a huge split in the environmental movement – and we may – first of all over nuclear power, a large scale return to nuclear power – I can imagine that having really serious political effects, not so much here but in Germany and Sweden and some other countries where it has been a far bigger issue than it ever has here; it could get quite ugly.

And the other issue, which isn’t on the table yet, is do we or don’t we geo-engineer. I can see that really splitting environmental groups down the middle in the years to come. Does that mean we get eco-terrorism? Not necessarily, but if you are making scenarios, not predicting the future, then you are saying that is possible and I think that is possible.

Throughout the book you give the impression that the future rests with decisions leaders take either quite autonomously or based on placating an irrational, desperate population. Do you think any sort of popular movement has a role to play in this?

Sure it does, because that creates the environment leaders operate in. I have always believed that politicians are quite willing to do the right thing if they think they won’t get punished. But we have a media set up to punish them for it; we have an adversarial political system that absolutely punishes anybody that steps out of line to do something bolder than usual.

So I think the role of popular movements, apart from autonomous goals such as getting your emissions down which doesn’t need any government blessing at all, is in terms of things like shutting down all coal-fired power stations in the next ten years, whatever we replace them with, shutting them down.

There’s a bold decision that has not been taken but needs to be. Why has it not been taken? Because there is an enormous coal mining lobby in this country? No, Margaret Thatcher finished that.

It is because if you get out in front of public opinion you will be savaged, by the press, by the opposition and of course, by the voters.

So in that sense, popular movements, popular mobilisation have a very significant role because you create the kind of permissive political environment in which politicians can take what are, at present, decisions too unpopular to be contemplated.

ClimateWars_DyerClimate Wars by Gwynne Dyer is published by OneWorld Publications (2010).

For more information on Gwynne Dyer, visit his website.

Listen to a radioshow version of Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer.

Interview by the team at Schnews. Reproduced here under a ‘copyleft – information for action’ permission.


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