The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

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JUNE 2010 Issue
Express In Conversation

WE AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET: Gwynne Dyer, In Conversation with Robert S. Eshelman

In Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats (Oneworld, 2010), international affairs journalist Gwynne Dyer offers bleak predictions—part futurology, part reportage—concerning the impacts of climate change. He envisions millions of climate refugees fleeing chronic drought and food-shortages, a scenario that, in turn, furthers the militarization of borders and ushers in an apocalyptic era of social breakdown, civil war, and international conflict. But the solutions to climate change that Dyer suggests are bleak, too. In the absence of adequate, international reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, Dyer envisions artificial volcanoes arising. I recently spoke to him about these dire scenarios.

Robert S. Eshelman (Rail): Much of the discussion around the impacts of climate change has focused on physical impacts to the ecosystem such as melting icecaps and rising sea levels. In your book, though, you speculate on geo-political shifts that will arise from climate change. Describe the impacts you foresee happening.

Gwynne Dyer: Well, the physical changes will have political impacts. The military has been aware of this. I mean, the trigger for me doing all this book was that the Pentagon was taking interest in the impacts of climate change and so were many other armed forces. And what they are saying all relates, in some way or another, to food supply.

The warming of the climate will cut into the food supply. And the more warming you get, the deeper it cuts, but not equally in all latitudes. If you live far enough from the equator it doesn’t hurt you very much at all, but for most of the world it hurts. As a result of this process, you will see three principal theaters for conflict. One of those is that you’re going to get a lot of climate refugees. You’re going to see people moving because they can no longer feed their families—their farms have dried up and blown away. So, they’ve got to go somewhere where they can either find food or find work and buy food. And so there are people moving north out of North Africa, people flooding south into South Africa, moving north and west out of the Middle East, people moving north out of Central America, people moving north out of China, and people moving south into Australia. Governments are going to say: Sorry, you can’t come and live here. So you’re going to see a real tightening up on borders and you’re going to see people getting very unhappy about borders being shut and a general militarization of those borders, which may in some cases trigger further unpleasantness—climate wars.

Rail: What are the militaries saying they’re going to do in terms of responding to these growing waves of climate efugees?

Dyer: Well, there’s what they’ll put down in print—for public consumption—and what they’ll say in private. I’ll give you an example. The U.S. Army, frankly, is convinced that it’s going to be ordered to close the Mexican border within the next 10 to 15 years. I mean, really close it, so it's not like the porous border we have now, but it's a border that doesn’t let Mexicans come through. That will, by definition, be a border that you can get killed on because you can’t close borders really if you’re not willing to use force. You know it’s not hard to close borders, but if you’re not willing to use force they’ll always come through, I don’t care how much of a wall you put up. I think the U.S. Army is sort of okay with that. I mean there’s no rooted, philosophical objection to killing people in the U.S. Army. But they do actually understand that actions have consequences. One source in the book—a colonel, working in the back rooms in the Pentagon for the Joint Chiefs—told me: Well, look we’ll shut up the Mexican border when we’re told to. We know how to do it. And then he described the kind of border you’d put up. It’s rather kind of like the one the Saudi Arabians are building along the border with Iraq right now. And we will, of course, have to shoot some Mexicans in order to persuade the rest that this is a border that other refugees really, really shouldn’t cross. And the problem is not Mexico; it’s the fact that when you do that, you’re doing it in front of a U.S. population, which, by then, will probably be 20 percent Mexican and Central American decent. This could, I think, cause the gravest social divisions in the United States since the Civil War.

Rail: Now in the book you lay out some specific scenarios for Russia, China, India, and the United States in the coming decades. Describe what the U.S. looks like, you speculate on the year 2029, as a result of the coming crisis.

Dyer: We just talked about Mexico—that Mexico is a mess—and you’ve created grave dissention on a new fracture line in the United States, but you probably deal with that. Beyond that, you are losing coastline in a big way along the Gulf Coast and in South Florida. Twenty years from now you probably won’t have more than six inches, eight inches of sea levelrise. But you’re also getting much more energetic hurricanes. A combination of a spring tide, six or eight inches of sea level rise, and a hurricane pushing it—and it doesn’t have to happen every year; it just has to happen once—and you lose a Mississippi coast or you lose all the farmland around Chesapeake Bay. So there are displaced American people—they can’t go home; their land is underwater and so they’re being resettled somewhere. And that probably will be a fairly orderly process because you’re talking low millions at worst. Additionally, though, you’ve got the equivalent of a dustbowl in the High Plains. Rainfall is due to decline catastrophically, probably more than 50 percent in the High Plains. We may be okay, more or less, east of the Mississippi, but in the High Plains don’t count on it.

One of the highly predicted functions of warming is that the areas on the edge of the subtropics also suffer really serious rain loss and that, you know, is rain-fed agriculture out there with some irrigation water pumped up from the aquifers. But that’s going to be pumped dry in a lot of places in 20 years. So it all hits at once. You can see it now if you fly east out of Denver. You can just see where they gave up on pumping the aquifer. And then the Southwest, including Southern California—and I think Steven Chu, the U.S. Energy Secretary, was right about this—I don’t see how you keep those cities going because there’s about 30 million people living in the desert down there. Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas—those cities shouldn’t be there. It’s insane in terms of water supply and if water supply, shrinks, and it will, then the only way you’re going to make it through is if you can import water from somewhere else. I think the U.S. will—by 20 years from now—have made a deal with the Canadians to ship water south on either pipelines or in tankers out of the big Canadian rivers that empty into the Pacific and Arctic Oceans because that’s the only way you’re going to keep those cities going. I don’t think you can keep the Central Valley of California going, because it depends on water coming down out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, off the snowpack that melts in the spring. Well, the snowpack isn’t going to be there, and even one degree higher average global temperature, which translates into about two degrees over land in the California area, that snow is not snow anymore it’s falling as rain in the winter time and running off right away. You can build a lot of dams and sort of eke it out a bit, but I don’t really think the Central Valley is going to be a-going in 20 to 25 years.

Rail: What are you basing these projections on?

Dyer: I start with the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports— its Fourth Assessment Report from 2007. They do one every five years or so, and it is almost universally regarded by climate scientists as seriously out of date. There is pretty well unanimity among the scientists that I talk to that it was an unfortunate time to have that assessment—you know, to start meeting in 2006, get it out in 2007—because that’s just when a number of climate phenomena accelerated. And that’s not captured in their stuff because they basically imposed a deadline of 2005. Anything published after that, we’re not looking at. The IPCC’s estimates on the melting of the Arctic Sea ice are way below what we already have.

Rail: These future scenarios assume that nothing will be done in terms of United Nations climate change negotiations and in each of the leading economies. What’s your take on international climate negotiations and, if a solution will arise from international agreements, what is to be done to alleviate the impacts of climate change?

Dyer: You’re quite right about these scenarios being based on less than adequate responses, though, not necessarily anything being done. A lot of them tend to come out of what’s called the A-1-B scenario, the middle of the six scenarios in the IPCC forecast, which assumes that there will be moderate efforts to curb emissions. It’s not no change but it’s not enough. I don’t have a whole lot of hope for what you might call the post-Kyoto process, which you saw fall flat on its face in December in Copenhagen. I think there will be a deal eventually, and what will create the deal is panic, is fear, because already changes are underway that are really scary and are hurting a lot of people and so, at last, you find the political will to do something. But, of course, you are then always going to be playing catch up.

Therefore I have really migrated—and have watched a lot of people migrate over the last couple of years—to the view that we are going to be doing some new engineering in order to contain the damage and win some more time to get our emissions down. So the idea of geo-engineering is coming up on the inside lane like gangbusters. It comes in a variety of flavors—some of them are not going to work as well as others and some of them you don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole.

Rail: Parse out some of those geo-engineering techniques. Which do you think are pie-in-the-sky and which do you think have some veracity to them?

Dyer: Okay, pie-in-the-sky is setting a billion, one halfmeter square, gossamer-thin lenses loose into the sky and lining them up between us and the sun, lowering the sunlight hitting the planet. And the response is: yeah great; we’ll do it in 2250. That takes too long. It’s untried technology. It may never work, and we’re not going to put money into it because there are quicker ways to get the same bang for the buck. Another one that has been suggested, and I think it’s a very high probability, is by Paul Crutzen, who proposed putting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. I mean we put huge amounts of it into the lower atmosphere all the time. It causes huge amounts of lung disease, acid rain, and all of that stuff. Put it in the stratosphere and it would cut the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth and lower the average global temperature by a significant amount, essentially mimicking volcanoes, because volcanoes—big ones—when they explode, do exactly this. They punch a large amount—megatons—of sulfur dioxide and ash into the stratosphere, where it stays for a long time, because there’s no weather up there to rain it out, and that drops the average global temperature. So, that’s one way; I don’t like it. I mean, let’s pollute the stratosphere doesn’t seem like a great solution, but it’s one of the ways you might do it. Another proposal, which I’m quite fond of, is by Dennis Bushnell, who is chief scientist of NASA’s Langley facility down in Virginia. He crunched the numbers on this past winter and sent me a triumphant email saying: Guess what? If we painted all the roads and the roofs in the world white, we’d get a degree Celsius of cooling. Just like that. I mean it’s a one-time offer. So there’s a variety of what’s called SRM—Solar Radiation Management—in the trade now. That’s what the geo-engineers call all of these approaches collectively, and they’re very serious about this stuff. However they are now actually meeting to discuss the governance of geo-engineering—not the science, or the engineering, but the governance. Who gets to do this, who gets to evaluate the research efforts on it that involve open atmosphere experiments? It’s a very new field that’s growing up very, very fast.


Robert S. Eshelman

ROBERT S. ESHELMAN is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Nation, and In These Times.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

All Issues