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A terrifying global future in Gwynne Dyer's Climate Wars

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In an era marked by ever-decreasing attention spans, the problem of global warming, which requires a long view decades and even centuries into the future, has aroused a collective shrug from humankind.

The Pentagon, though, has already started planning for frightening scenarios that might arise on a climate-changed planet. Depending on your politics, you may view this as the sensible response to a new strategic landscape, or as a way to keep the tax dollars flowing by "militarizing" climate change. In either case, if conflicts over scarcity—like the fighting in Darfur, which began over rights to a dwindling water supply and which has been dubbed the "first climate war"—spread to wealthier, more heavily armed countries, keeping the peace could get dicey.

That's the message of Climate Wars, a worthwhile new American edition of a 2008 book by Canadian journalist and historian Gwynne Dyer. Dyer is the author of several books on international affairs, and his columns are regularly featured in The News & Observer. His first book, War, was made into a memorable eight-part miniseries that aired on PBS in the 1980s.

As with War, de-escalation is the plea of his book, but this time the hazardous element is not uranium or plutonium but carbon. It's a well-argued, eye-opening book that will convince you of the need for immediate action, if it doesn't keep you up at night.

Through interviews, quoted at length, with scientists and policymakers, Dyer sums up the current consensus on climate change. The numbers are telling: the pre-industrial atmosphere around the year 1800 was 280 parts per million carbon dioxide; as of 2010 we're at 390 ppm and rising steadily. No one knows the precise "tipping point" beyond which we'll get a calamitously warmer planet, but some of the leading experts in the field think we may have already passed it.

Last summer, at the G8 summit, leaders of most of the highest emitting countries agreed (non-bindingly) to a target of 450 ppm. The figure was arrived at more for political than scientific reasons, but it's a start. With the present course of inaction and at the current rate of increase of 2–3 ppm per year, we'll likely pass that number in the next 20–30 years. Scenarios that were judged "worst-case" a few years ago now appear to be the path we're on. The military and intelligence communities are taking the projections seriously and starting to assess how they'll affect our security.

Dyer cites a 2007 report by the Center for Naval Analyses, which involved recently retired generals and admirals, as the military's first serious engagement with climate change after years of denial by the commander-in-chief. For his chapter on the geopolitics of climate change, Dyer draws heavily on a study released the same year by collaborating Washington think tanks, written by formerly high-ranking government officials like John Podesta and James Woolsey. The Age of Consequences forecasts a dismaying range of disruptions, like widespread food shortages caused by crop failure, millions of refugees from flooded coastal areas and battles over water. All by 2040.

Dyer presents a series of hypotheticals of his own by interspersing the chapters of Climate Wars with eight fictional dispatches from the future. For example, "China, 2042" describes a diplomatic crisis when several Asian governments decide to unilaterally geo-engineer the atmosphere to boost crop yields and feed their starving populations (Dyer mentions another strategy, an "escape hatch," that could, but probably won't, be part of a global solution: "We wouldn't be facing a world food-supply problem soon if we all become vegetarians tomorrow—but we aren't going to, are we?"). Dyer is careful to point out that these scenarios "are not intended to be predictions, but only examples of the kinds of political crisis that could be caused by climate change," but they're plausible enough to make for chilling reading.

Predictions of any kind are a risky enterprise, though, and they can be made a mockery with the passage of time. One of Dyer's scenarios, "Northern India, 2036," has already come up a dud. It tells of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan over rights to the Indus River, which is fed by glacial meltwater from the Himalayas. In forecasting a shriveled Indus, Dyer probably drew on a 2007 working report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which said the shrinking Himalayan glaciers may be gone by 2035.

India and Pakistan may yet come to radioactive blows (God help us), but the problem here is that the IPCC's predicted date for when the glaciers might disappear was off by some 300 years; in an apparent mix-up, the original UNESCO glacier study postulated extensive retreat by the year 2350, not 2035. The error was acknowledged by the panel in January, so the persistence of this false meme in Climate Wars, which was republished in a new edition on June 1 and which includes reportage from the Copenhagen climate summit last December (by which time news of the error was circulating in the press), will be embarrassing for Dyer.

Conservatives seized on the IPCC error as proof that global warming is a hoax, but much as they'd like to paint scientists and writers like Dyer as alarmist Chicken Littles, the evidence is now too strong to ignore. The next IPCC report, due in 2014, will likely be more dire, based on recently observed phenomena. Maybe then the world will finally begin to address the problem in earnest.

Or not. If a healthy proportion of humanity decides to take action, Dyer still isn't optimistic about our chances of drastically reducing emissions in the short term. He dissects the failure of the Copenhagen conference and observes that, even if scientists and engineers come up with realistic, cost-effective plans to completely replace fossil fuels, "politics is what slows it down and screws it up, but no big thing can be done in the human world without a great deal of politics." Entrenched interests within countries, and competing interests among them, will make change extremely difficult, all the more so if large-scale social turmoil caused by climate change ends the present era of relative international harmony.

The last part of Climate Wars reads like science fiction, which isn't intended as criticism. In the absence of a serious course correction, the landscapes our descendents might find themselves in, and the geo-engineering methods they may resort to, sound otherworldly, because they are; they belong not to the world we live in but to the one we're creating. If humanity isn't reduced to a few million individuals huddled near the polar regions, it may be because we resorted to pumping the stratosphere with sulfur dioxide to dim the sun; or seeding the ocean with powdered iron, causing huge blooms of carbon-sequestering phytoplankton; or building fleets of ships that continuously spray a fine mist of seawater, enhancing the reflectivity of low-lying stratocumulus clouds.

Though he's convinced that none of these projects would work as a long-term solution, Dyer believes these or similar options are very likely to be employed as temporary stopgaps to keep the temperature down as we blunder through the next century. Such projects would, in essence, invert our species' relationship with the natural world. We would become its caretakers, "planetary maintenance engineers" (in a phrase Dyer quotes from earth scientist James Lovelock), struggling to keep the planet habitable by fiddling with the atmospheric thermostat. The question then becomes, how quickly can we figure out how to work the controls? And will we have the wisdom and courage to end the era of geo-engineering as quickly as possible, and return the planet to its ancient, life-sustaining rhythms?

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