Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Gwynne Dyer: Climate Wars
Some of you may know I'm a journalist I write a column on international affairs. And so I've got the attention span of a butterfly which is what you need to be a columnist from one subject to the other eight hundred seventy five words and out. But once in a while I run across something that warrants a bit more attention.
That's what happened to me about three years ago in Washington I go there several times a year just to figure out what they're up to it's a requirement of the job I was staying with an old friend who's worked most of his life in the intelligence world and he just dropped into the conversation his recent discovery that the Pentagon particularly the precisely the joint chiefs of stuff were getting interested in climate change.
So I said why.
And he said I don't know but here some people there you might talk to. Which I did. And as long as you didn't mention their names they're quite happy to talk. This was of course under Mr. Bush's administration so it was definitely not a good career move to talk about it out loud. But the military are always looking forward to getting well.
The nice way of putting it is to detect emerging threats to security the less nice ways to say to find the next job to justify the existing budget.
And whichever it was they were deeply involved in thinking about climate change and what jobs it would provide to them so having sort of stumbled across that in Washington I went back to London and lo and behold the British military were up to their ears in it as well in fact that is where I first heard the word lifeboat phrase lifeboat Britain. Lifeboat Britain being it turned out shorthand for a country that in the general ruin of global warming is going to get off relatively lightly because it's surrounded by the ocean and mostly reasonably admirable land. And so you could just barely hope to feed 65 million people off that island. They would be eating much meat. But as in all lifeboats the condition of survival is that you don't overload it you don't let too many people scramble aboard think titanic.
And so already and this is what you know 2008 they're thinking about 2030 to say where in not only Africa but the northern side of the Mediterranean are beginning to produce large numbers of climate refugees because the Mediterranean gets hit very hard and working out how best to pull the drawbridge up. So we've got a live one here subject wise and I really threw myself into it and you know did a radio series wrote a book and I'm still deeply involved in it.
But here's what I learned and I'll try to give it in summary form because we've wasted enough of your time already basically four things first of all of course I began talking to the scientists as well as to the generals recently retired generals with wonderful value by the way they are suffering severe decompression nobody wants to talk to them anymore. So if you ring them up they're very happy to talk to you. And they're fairly up to date on what's going on.
But also the scientists have visited Boulder the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and talk to a couple of dozen people there Hadley Center in England and the Potsdam Institute in Germany which are probably the three premier sites for government funded clear research on climate change on the planet. And what was a striking in my conversations with the scientists was the current undercurrent of suppressed panic in many of the conversations there are beginning to talk more openly about it now but it's still really out there. The general view among the scientists I've talked to new to recognize good many of the names I suspect is that. We are going to go through 450 parts per million through two degrees Celsius which is by common consent including our government's consent.
The point of no return that is to say the point at which we lose control of the warming process up to there. Our emissions are causing the warming. So it is within our power at least theoretically to stop the warming by stopping the emissions and I know it's not easy but it's possible.
Once you go past two degrees you hit the feedbacks which is to say natural systems triggered by the warming which begin to put carbon dioxide methane other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as well particularly permafrost melting and warmer oceans giving up some of the carbon dioxide they absorbed early in the earlier in their history. So essentially passed two degrees you lose control and you have no idea where this escalator is taking you may be taking off two three four five degrees six degrees which is mass death.
And so you must not cope with the consensus was we almost certainly will.
We're at 395 parts per million now 450 is more or less These are fuzzy numbers 450 equal rights to two degrees Celsius higher average global temperature.
And until the recent recession hit we were going up at three parts per million a year so you're there in 20 years.
But drastic changes in our mission pattern in the next 20 years none of which seems highly likely particularly after the shambles in Copenhagen last December.
So an undercurrent of panic in the conversations and the military are aware of this.
The military are talking to the scientists all the time. I'll drop a couple of names into the conversation Jim Lovelock for example has flown to the Pentagon several times a year to talk to them. Amory Lovins is there practically all the time. He's doing the long march through the institutions.
And Jim Hansen also talks to them he's respected much more by them than his by his own bosses. They're paying attention.
And the problem with even two degrees is that it is an average global temperature which in practical terms is almost always higher when you come to the land surface temperatures produced by an average global temperature two degrees two thirds of the world's oceans oceans invariably are cooler than the land surface of the planet except in the High Arctic. So an average global temperature of 2 degrees warmer is in fact three or more degrees warmer over land.
The Hadley Center just before the Copenhagen conference last December. Published an estimate and they were going. I suspect against the wishes of the British government which does pay their budget.
Published an estimate of where we will be in 20 60 50 years from now and their estimate was that not on a business as usual basis but on this reasonably robust assumptions about how much we cut our emissions how fast.
A politically realistic assessment. They said four degrees Celsius average global temperature by 2016 and they published a map.
And the map showed what that translated into in terms of average land temperature rise in various parts of the world. You'll be pleased to know that Massachusetts is only five and a half degrees Celsius warmer so you might be able to grow something.
But the interior of all the continents including all of the United States more than 200 miles away from the coasts is seven degrees hotter seven degrees Celsius 12 degrees Fahrenheit in 2060 current policy trajectories.
So they're scared.
And the military look at this and they draw the following conclusion and this is second conclusion the military look at this and they think if that's going to happen or even some of it happens the major impact is going to be on the food supply and all of our problems are going to come from a rapid loss of food supply and a planet which is still is rather slowly now but still growing in population.
There is very little slack in the system unless we all go vegetarian in which case you get about a 20 percent bonus. But otherwise there's no slack in the system look what happened when you had the fires in Russia this summer. 30 percent of the Russian wheat crop got on well a big but you wouldn't think enormous and yet wheat grain prices already are going up very rapidly and may spike as high as they did two years ago when we had similar local events. Cutting into global supply by perhaps 5 percent but panic there isn't 5 percent slack.
So the problem says the military sees them are problems of the food supply.
Three principle consequences of growing shortages of food one waves of refugees coming out of the parts of the world that are more deeply affected by these losses by the global warming by the loss of food supply the closer you are to the equator the more it's going to hurt it far enough away from the equator like England for example. And you may have a chance of going on feeding yourself at four degrees hotter but you don't have any chance in Mexico in the tropics and the sub tropics get absolutely hammered.
The process that cuts the food supply in the tropics essentially has simply added heat because most of the major tropical food crops or rather most major food crops grown in the crust in the tropics are not tropical plants they are plants transplanted from the cooler parts of the planet mostly from the sub tropics or even the temperate zone Rice was domesticated in south central China which is about the same latitude as North Carolina.
So it's right at the top of its temperature tolerance range when you grow it in the tropics. Rice will not germinate if it's 35 degrees for more than about 24 hours during the key three week period when you actually get the formation of the grains of rice.
And in the subtropics The problem is loss of rainfall it's a dry part of the world anyway enough rain for one major grain crop a year and most of it. Winter rain summer dry the whole Mediterranean climate thing and you lose about half the rainfall. And so you're not growing those wheat crops anymore you're seeing this in Australia now by the way that Australia is the canary in the coal mine because it's the driest continent and you're probably aware that Australia is exporting virtually no grain this year though it was the second largest grain exporter we exporter in the world only 10 years ago the center of Australia the wheat growing in Inland Empire in Australia is basically shutting down. So you get waves of refugees from countries that cannot feed themselves. Desperate people willing to do anything to find themselves in a place where there is food or work that they could buy food with.
United States Army looks at this and says Our major problem is Mexico Mexico and Central America where we are going to be ordered by Congress they reckon in the next 10 to 15 years to close the border for real.
It is of course pretend closed at the moment they catch some they let some go and the ones they catch and send back come across again next week. This keeps American agribusiness supplied with cheap stoop labor. And it's a useful safety valve in terms of political pressures in Mexico stabilizing factor and that is a sustainable policy of not an admissible one. They don't admit it they just do it. So long as the numbers are let's say below a million a year.
Actually coming through. But if Mexico and Central America get hammered by climate global warming which they will do then those numbers will triple quadruple quintuple And at that point popular pain in the United States is going to say enough and Congress will order the US Army to close the border. The Pentagon is convinced this will happen in the next 10 or 15 years.
They can of course do it it's sheer poppycock that you can't seal a 2000 mile border though you were told it all the time. Two words. Iron Curtain.
It can be done but you have to be willing to kill people.
That's the dirty little secret doesn't kill a lot of people because the word gets round. But you've got to be willing to kill people in order to really seal the border. The United States Army is not I think professionally or philosophically opposed to killing people. But he does understand that actions have consequences. Very interesting when you talk to officers who have been involved in terminal discussions about what do we do about the Mexican border.
They actually think another step ahead. Yes of course we can close the border. Yes we will have to kill people.
And what will that do to domestic politics in the United States given that by the time it happens about 20 percent of the American population will be of really relatively recent Mexican and Central American descent most of them legal citizens. But how do they going to feel when they see what you might call you know spiritual relatives being shot down on the American Mexican frontier one colonel said to me he thought that this would cause of serious severest let me get the phrase right he said he thought it would cause the severest tensions in the United States since the Civil War.
They'll do it if they're ordered to or they're not actually straining at the leash on this one. The second implication of loss of food supply is failed states governments that cannot feed their populations do not on the whole survive very long. And so we may expect a proliferation of failed states particularly in Africa and the Middle East where they're pretty close to failed in some cases anyway and consequent military expeditions to safeguard resources in those places the rest of them go hang. And of course again you know a rise in terrorism piracy all that sort of stuff stuff that will provide the military with some work.
Finally we may expect to see interstate wars where countries have to share the same river system.
Now we're getting there on the Nile as it is without global warming.
And I reckon that Iraq would be at war with Turkey today if Iraq wasn't flat on its back because the Turks basically have shot off the Euphrates they built twelfth unit enormous dams in eastern Anatolia and they're filling the reservoirs and using them for power and the Euphrates of one of the two rivers of Mesopotamia is basically dry this year of alcohol or should I add alcohol. Agriculture You can see I desperately need a drink. Agriculture has basically shut down in western Iraq this year now Iraq can get through this because it's got oil and it can buy food in.
But a lot of countries aren't in that position.
Also of course run this down the road 20 or 30 years and there's very little market for international grain market left. I mean they are the countries that used to furnish it are half of them out of the exporting business.
So war is the worst the most dangerous the most frightening being along the Indus River shared by India and Pakistan but it all runs through India before it reaches Pakistan. I won't go into the gory details on this you asked me to afterwards but I both the Indian and the Paks time son the general stuff are looking at what's likely to happen when the in this is about half the volume it is not because it's glacier fed and the glaciers that feed it are melting. So when it's when the water is scarce and it's all being used now the Indus doesn't reach the sea. And when it's down to half the issue of sharing what's left is going to be very difficult to go to address and could well cause a war between you will recall nuclear powers.
So that's the military dimension in a very small nutshell.
Failed states interstate wars particularly in countries that share the same river system and refugees refugees refugees European Union is looking at this of course coming out of Africa in the Middle East. The Australians are looking at a coming south out of Manila out of the out of the Philippines in Indonesia.
The Russians are looking at China. They're always paranoid about China but now they are super paranoid about China.
And certain military dispositions but military plans are always already being made. Interesting little byplay here inside the European Union where there is currently freedom of movement for all citizens of the older members of the European Union the so-called Schengen Treaty. So if you're Italian and you feel like moving to Sweden and setting up in business there you don't have to ask anybody's permission. Is that going to survive when all of the Mediterranean members of the European Union are suffering immense losses in food production and general discomfort and probably loss of power as well because their hydro is not working anymore. In Spain in Italy in Greece in the Balkans when a lot of them start heading north I think the same issue crops up. I don't know I think the Schengen Treaty has got maybe 10 or 15 years to run but the European or Northern Europeans are like anybody else willing to accept incomers Innes in moderate numbers. You know if the Netherlands gets a half a million Italians it means better food.
But if the elevons gets three or four million Italians it means virtual civil war and it's never going to accept that I was in the Netherlands recently and already this is being discussed by the Dutch.
So the European Union is liable after the church to shrink or at least to go to tier and the North will send the south food aid so long as it can but it won't let the Southerners come north.
Enough of that latest move on to the third conclusion. The third conclusion is that when we go through two degrees which we will.
There is a way to cheat and you two years years three years ago you couldn't find any reputable scientists who would talk about geo engineering. Now they are coming out of the closet in droves.
I went to a conference in California Monterey last March first ever conference of people working with geo engineering 200 scientists from very respectable institutes there who were meeting not to discuss their work which they do all the time but to discuss setting up a governance regime for research and experimentation in climate change in geo engineering to fight climate change.
Geo engineering is vilified of course by those who argue with some justice that we have screwed the climate up with everything else we have done.
How dare we imagine that we can now fix it by further intervention. But when the situation is that if you leave it alone you loose and you lose drastically and quite possibly permanently. Then other options must be considered and that's where the scientists are right now. Many many of them I would say that of the scientists I've mentioned in Thai and others I've talked to. The large majority are willing to countenance experimentation in geo engineering because the alternative is we lose.
Geo engineering comes in various flavors the one that got most attention earliest was a proposal to put sulfur dioxide basically into the stratosphere to form a kind of sunscreen that would diminish the amount of sunlight reaching the earth's surface not not enough to cause Darkness at Noon Arthur Kessler can rest easy but enough to cut incoming sunlight by one or two percent and therefore hold the temperature rise below two degrees.
Even though we have passed through the 450 parts per million that normally would give you two degrees.
This is. Horrifying stuff in a sense I mean you know we've polluted the rest of the planet I know let's pollute the stratosphere. But actually the amounts involved are known enormous.
It would involve something like a 20 it's as much sulphur dioxide as we dump into the lower atmosphere every week the troposphere. And you don't have to keep dumping it because in the stratosphere it doesn't wash out there's no rain there's no weather. So you put it up there and it'll stay about two years on average. So you don't have to continuously replenish what happens that basically is the sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere under the impact of sunlight changes into tiny droplets of selfish self Yorick acid which reflect a lot of sunlight and therefore you get a diminished amount of sunlight reaching the surface doesn't turn the sky yellow doesn't result in anything like the amount of acid rain we get out of what we normally do in the lower atmosphere.
The one question that was on everybody's minds was what does it do to the ozone hole.
But the guy who proposed it was actually the guy who got the Nobel Prize for his work on the ozone hole and he says it'll be OK.
Solar radiation management is the catchphrase SRM you'll be hearing it I imagine within a year.
Most geo engineering techniques are SRM.
Another one more popular among those who are a bit too sensitive to go with the initial the software side model. By the way the way you get sulfur dioxide up there is you simply use their mid air refueling aircraft the Air Force already has got you substitute you know pressurized tanks of sulfur dioxide for the tanks of aviation fuel and somebody cost it doesn't aircraft three sorties a day one year and you can put in over sulphur dioxide in the stratosphere to lower the temperature at the surface by 1 degree Celsius average.
And evenly distributed around the planet so you don't get you know spotty cooling you get mobile cooling. The less noxious one and I choose my words carefully here involve spraying low lying maritime clouds with a fine mist of seawater to thicken them up.
And this is less difficult than it sounds because there is a layer of cloud it's called maritime strato cumulus.
Which covers about a quarter of the world's oceans at any given time and it's low it's between 1 and 200 meters above the ocean surface. I mean I used to be in various navies not you were under this stuff a lot of the time you can see through it quite often you know it's rather like ground fog except it's above your head forming dissipating reforming.
Now what you do is you get you build yourself fleets of unmanned wind powered satellite directed vessels maybe a kilometer separation between them which sail into the areas where the clouds are and spray a fine mist of seawater about 10 meters into the air they don't have to blast up a hundred meters and then the you know sea level turbulence will carry much of that up into the clouds where it will stick thick in the clouds and they will reflect more sunlight.
That's Plan B.
Nobody's tried it any more than anybody has seriously tried the stratospheric thing the only reason we can be reasonably confident that the stratospheric sulphur dioxide works is that that is actually what volcanoes big volcanoes do when they explode I mean minutes when Pinatubo exploded in 1991 it pushed about a half a megaton of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere and the next two years we had a half a degree Celsius cooler.
Average global temperature so we we sort of know it works and people weren't falling over dead in the streets but we'd still like a lot further experimentation before we buy into this.
So there's going to be a huge political fight over the next few years about whether these guys are going to be allowed to experiment on a local scale with the techniques that they believe we will desperately need not to solve the problem because it doesn't solve the problem you still got the oceans acidifying you've still got a widening gap between what the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stands at and the temperature that you're artificially keeping low in it for any reason you interrupted that process of you know. Geoengineering a cooler planet you would then have a sudden rise in temperature that would probably kill every crop you planted.
But as a way a buying time if we aren't on the shit Jule the track we should be for getting our emissions down.
This could give you 20 years the 20 years we should have use between 1990 and now. And you don't get them back except maybe you could steal them back if you geo engineered for 20 years so that's the context in which this is being approached.
First the good news. No sorry First the good bad news and the worse news. Then some good news.
But there is a fourth and final observation which is back to the bad news. Geo engineering is cheap.
Zero process of putting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere for example. I told you how they think they would do it a dozen aircraft. Three missions a day for a year.
They costed it out it cost a couple of billion dollars which is chicken feed for government it means that it's not just the Russians and the Americans and the Chinese who can do this Bangladesh can do it and is much likelier to want to do it early in the game than any of the above. So that there is a seed of discord in the very possibility of Jew engineering which could bring states including great states into conflict.
I think I should stop now don't you.
If I had any more bad news a cup my own throat. But I will say this having gone through all this and I'm still going through it and the latter the last topic is what I'm doing at the moment and doing research for a piece for Harper's only.
But having gone through this for two or three years now I'm actually a little bit more optimistic than I was at the start which must may just tell you how pessimistic I was then but no I mean there are ways through this which we may or may not manage to take. We're going to take casualties too. I think that's certain.
But the kind of six degrees hotter dieback half a billion human beings clean to the shores of the Arctic are the only vestiges of civilization left the kinds of thing Jim Lovelock has resigned himself to are not necessary consequences they're just possible consequences of the current crisis.
No I realize that now your. This is why if possible some limited experimentation would be desirable before anybody feels compelled to jump in with both feet. And that was one of the things that came out repeatedly in this conference about the governance of research. They actually held it at the same place. See Lamarr which is where the. The gene splicers first held their conference on how do we manage the research here. Let us write the rules before Congress does it for us and give them a template that was the same game again with the geo engineers last spring.
But they were very aware that they don't fully understand the system and that it isn't linear and that interventions. It's like pushing a spinning top that doesn't necessarily go in the direction you push to do so. Early small scale experiments would add a little bit to the confidence levels but there's really no way of being confident when you do it on a large scale that you won't get something else.
You know OK how desperate you have to be before you. Go ahead and try and the answer is when you're standing up to your knees in water starving to death which is Bangladesh. I actually spoke to the guy who runs the Bangladesh Institute for Strategic Studies You didn't know there was such a thing did you.
And I said have you been thinking about you know engineering he said we think of little else. It's very and the guys who you'd expect all the usual suspects are on to the case.
I mean there are so many components going into what the average global temperature is that you just fiddle with one of them like getting your acid rain out of the system by cutting on your low level pollution and you get a sudden jump in temperature indeed.
And now the legislation in place is going to give us a further jump. Europe is really cleaning its act.
I had a fascinating conversation with a guy called who's not Schickel Gruber but it's.
The head of the Potsdam Institute shown here Bill.
About this subject.
And I said you know how are you going to deal you know he was offering us offering fairly wooly suggestions about how you might actually get emissions down on a rapid enough Should you will to avoid going past two degrees of warming or at least go void going past 450 parts per million and I was you know quoting him numbers that come out of various other reports it's just 550 is a likelier stopping point by far.
If you look at current trends and then we got onto this whole question of pollution and as a sunscreen and of course pollution in the troposphere historically as a sunscreen.
And we had this bizarre almost surreal conversation where he began to explain that where his optimism really came from was that as the Western European and North American countries cleaned up their pollution the Asian countries would take up the slack and put enough brown shit in the sky that it would block incoming sunlight there and give us more time to get our emissions down oh yeah right.
But it may be true.
The folks who are throwing iron filings off the sterns of ships were all basically venture capital outfits and I don't think the experimentation they did was very scientifically valid and basically they were just trying to create algal blooms such as you get when you know dust iron rich dust blows out over the oceans which it doesn't do as much as it used to because the Chinese particularly Pacific is the Chinese of change the kind of crop cover they've got on their land.
But the the general approach to to basically clawing your way back down from 550 parts per million if that's where you ended up. And you know your geo engineering your way across the tightrope in managing not to have runaway warming in the permafrost has melted How do you get that you know get down below 450 maybe 350 If you believe Jim Hansen which I do and I don't think you do it with just carbon sequestration and the oceans you can get about 50 parts from million out. If you allow the half of all the tropical forests that we've cut down over the last century and a half to grow back which it will do pretty quickly on its own if you actually let it. Bio char is a bit of an unknown quantity but a very promising one in terms of sequestration I mean just take your crop residues. You turn them into a kind of charcoal plow into the soil and sequester all of that carbon which would otherwise bird or rot and put all the carbon dioxide back into the air so you know how do you get 200 parts for million out and the answer is not easy.
But the first hundred is probably doable which would take you down to 450 and and you do have a certain leeway in the sense that the consequences of a heightened concentration of carbon dioxide in the air tend to lag by about 20 years. The actual insertion of that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere so you've got some room some wiggle room there.
Not a lot I don't like going that close to the edge but that's where it is yes or I think that I don't know if this applies to your particular situation but the general problem as I see it getting deals between developing and developed countries on anything to do with climate change is that we in the developed countries have to acknowledge our historical responsibility for the problem which is not yet on the table we wouldn't do it at Copenhagen which is why Copenhagen broke down.
90 percent of the crap that's up there now was put there by a relatively small number of Western countries developed countries. We didn't mean any harm but we did it and we left no room in the atmosphere for them to come up the ladder the way we did because their emissions hadn't thought of ours. Screw everybody.
So the deals that can be made have to acknowledge that which means actually that what what was being discussed but never got done at Copenhagen was a deal where the whole developed countries would first of all take deep cuts really deep cuts like 40 percent in 10 years in their emissions while the developing countries would at best cap their emissions about where they are now. Even having done that the developed countries still wish to get rich they want to develop and so now they're trapped into a situation since they have agreed to cap their emissions where all of the new power generating capacity they put in has got to be non emitting. Has got to be carbon free. It's more expensive. Who pays the difference. And the answer is the developed countries do.
Now until we have buy in from the developed countries and I say this one is probably the biggest obstacle to big cuts here. And you know no cuts but maybe they kept it in China. And to shipping a hundred billion dollars a year so that they can go on developing their economies with clean power. Now the hundred billion was on the table virtually at Copenhagen I mean all of this stuff most of the people at Copenhagen knew that if there was going to be a deal this is what it would look like. But it didn't get done because basically even the politicians who do understand and I think Obama does for example cannot possibly do this until the public understands and the public is a long way from understanding it.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
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- Journalist and historian in war studies Gwynne Dyer explores the cultural and political ramifications of climate change and discusses his book, "Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats." Dwindling resources. Massive population shifts. Natural disasters. Spreading epidemics. Drought. Rising sea levels. Plummeting agricultural yields. Crashing economies. Political extremism. These are just some of the expected consequences of runaway climate change in the decades ahead--and any of them could tip the world towards conflict.
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