Climate Wars

Reviewed: May 4, 2011
By: Gwynne Dyer
Publisher: Vintage Canada
264 pages, $21.00

Climate Wars was published in 2008. About two years before that Gwynne Dyer, whose usual column fodder ran to wars and analysis of international affairs, noticed something odd. Well, it seemed odd, given that most of the governments in the world didn’t appear to be taking climate change very seriously. Some, like the Bush administration, were still arguing that the science was flawed, while others, like our own (pick any of the last several administrations) were paying the problem lip service but nothing else.

 Quietly, in the backrooms and through the plotting of scenarios, the world’s military were paying attention. In the USA this activity was very much off the books. In other places it was more obvious. It is the military’s job to assess threats against the nations’ security, and they were taking it seriously.

So Dyer added climate change to his list of regular topics. Columns about the world’s addiction to oil can be found in the archives on his website dating back to 2006.  During his travels he made sure he talked to military people and scientists concerned with this topic as well as others.

Dyer tends to be a fairly positive fellow. Even when outlining worst-case scenarios he likes to look for a silver lining. He has an abiding belief that the democracy meme is spreading throughout the world and that things are tending to get better. 

In the midst of the War on Terror, with fighting going on in several hot spots, he will not fail to point out that the world is actually more at peace than it has been in decades. 

Dyer delivers even the most sombre tidings with a touch of humour. In a talk based on this book he began by apologizing to David Suzuki for trespassing on his turf. His prose has the same tone as his speaking voice, but this book has more than just Dyer in it. There are a great many extended quotations from interviews and articles used to buttress his arguments. 

They are fourfold.

1. Climate change is real and is happening far more rapidly than anyone has predicted or than most agencies and governments will acknowledge publically, partly because they don’t want to scare us to death.

2. The military are correct to plan for problems related to refugees, food and water shortages and all out wars caused by these.

3. There is a point at which there will be so much carbon dioxide in the air that the average global rise in temperature will exceed 2 degrees Celsius. At that point nothing we do will have any real control over that happens next. The ecosystem of the planet will begin to adjust itself. We act within the next few years or it won’t matter, and the only sensible action is to switch from burning fossil fuels to using other forms of energy.

4. There are things we can do now to buy ourselves more time to kick the gas, oil and coal habit. These geo-engineering efforts are not solutions to the whole problem, but they will hold off the crisis point for a while.

Point four is where you realize that Dyer remains an optimist. Now, he says, while there is relative peace and our international institutions are still intact, while there are only a few failed states in the world instead of the many there will be once people begin to starve, now is the time to act on what we know. 

Thirty years ago only a few people were beginning to put forth theories relating to this problem, and most of them were considered eccentric or nuts. We’ve spent most of the time since the mid-18th century, the beginning of the industrial revolution, doing a lot of damage to the environment and not understanding that it all has long term impacts on a global scale. 

Only recently did we come to a consensus on the nature of the problem, one of those paradigm shifts that Thomas Kuhn wrote about in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where one way of looking at data is replaced by another, and new conclusions can be made.

Dyer deals with some of his hopes in a chapter called “Childhood’s End”. Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 SF novel of the same name had the human race being rescued and force-evolved by alien Overlords who serve as midwives to a cosmic Overmind. We have to hope it won’t come to that.