Gwynne Dyer: Four harsh truths about climate change

Food will be the key issue as temperatures rise more quickly than expected.

About two years ago, I realized that militaries in various countries were starting to do climate-change scenarios in-house—scenarios that started with the scientific predictions about rising temperatures, falling crop yields, and other physical effects, and then examined what that would do to politics and strategy.

The scenarios predicted failed states proliferating because governments couldn’t feed their people; waves of climate refugees washing up against the borders of more fortunate countries; and even wars between countries that share rivers. So I started interviewing everybody I could get access to, not only senior military people but scientists, diplomats, and politicians.

About 70 interviews, a dozen countries, and 18 months later, I have reached four conclusions that I didn’t even suspect when I began the process. The first is simply this: the scientists are really scared. Their observations over the past two or three years suggest that everything is happening a lot faster than climate models predicted.

This creates a dilemma, because for the past decade they have been struggling against a well-funded campaign that cast doubt on climate change. Now, finally, people and even governments are listening. Even in the United States, the world headquarters of climate-change denial, 85 percent of the population now sees climate change as a major issue, and both major presidential candidates promised 80-percent cuts in American emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.

The scientists are understandably reluctant at this point to announce publicly that their predictions were wrong, that it’s really much worse, and that the targets will have to be revised. Most of them are waiting for overwhelming proof that climate change really is moving faster, even though they are already privately convinced that it is.

The second conclusion is that the generals are right. Food is the key issue, and the world food supply is already very tight: we have eaten up about two-thirds of the world grain reserve in the past five years, leaving only 50 days’ worth in store. A 1 °C (1.8 °F) rise in average global temperature will take a major bite out of food production in almost all countries that are closer to the equator than to the poles, and that includes almost all of the planet’s “breadbaskets”.

So the international grain market will wither for lack of supplies. Countries that can no longer feed their people will not be able to buy their way out of trouble by importing grain from elsewhere, even if they have the money. Starving refugees will flood across borders, whole nations will collapse into anarchy—and some countries may make a grab for their neighbours’ land or water.

These are scenarios that the Pentagon and other military planning staffs are examining now. They could start to come true as little as 15 or 20 years down the road. If this kind of breakdown becomes widespread, there will be little chance of making or keeping global agreements to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and avoid further warming.

The third conclusion is that there is a point of no return after which warming becomes unstoppable—and we are probably going to sail right through it. It is the point at which anthropogenic (human-caused) warming triggers huge releases of carbon dioxide from warming oceans, or similar releases of both carbon dioxide and methane from melting permafrost, or both. Most climate scientists think that point lies not far beyond 2 °C (3.6 °F) hotter.

Once that point is passed, the human race loses control: cutting our own emissions may not stop the warming. But we are almost certainly going to miss our deadline. We cannot get the 10 lost years back, and by the time a new global agreement to replace the Kyoto accord is negotiated and put into effect, there will probably not be enough time left to stop the warming short of the point where we must not go.

So—final conclusion—we will have to cheat. In the past two years, various scientists have suggested several “geoengineering” techniques for holding the temperature down directly. We might put a kind of temporary chemical sunscreen in the stratosphere by seeding it with sulphur particles, for example, or we could artificially thicken low-lying maritime clouds to reflect more sunlight.

These are not permanent solutions; they are merely ways of winning more time to cut our emissions without triggering runaway warming in the meantime. But the situation is getting very grave, and we are probably going to see the first experiments with these techniques within five years.

There is a way through this crisis, but it isn’t easy and there is no guarantee of success. As the Irishman said to the lost traveller: “If that’s where you want to go, sir, I wouldn’t start from here.”

Gwynne Dyer will be speaking on his new book, Climate Wars, at the Park Theatre (Cambie and 18th) in Vancouver on December 6 and 7 at 1 p.m. Tickets available from www.festivalcinemas.ca/ or at the door.

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12 Comments

dobermanmacleod

Dec 3, 2008 at 12:24am

http://www.myspace.com/dobermanmacleod
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"Few seem to realise that the present IPCC models predict almost unanimously that by 2040 the average summer in Europe will be as hot as the summer of 2003 when over 30,000 died from heat. By then we may cool ourselves with air conditioning and learn to live in a climate no worse than that of Baghdad now. But without extensive irrigation the plants will die and both farming and natural ecosystems will be replaced by scrub and desert. What will there be to eat? The same dire changes will affect the rest of the world and I can envisage Americans migrating into Canada and the Chinese into Siberia but there may be little food for any of them." --Dr James Lovelock's lecture to the Royal Society, 29 Oct. '07

Here is what Climate Code Red says:

--Human emissions have so far produced a global average temperature increase of 0.8 degree C.

--There is another 0.6 degree C. to come due to "thermal inertia", or lags in the system, taking the total long-term global warming induced by human emissions so far to 1.4 degree C.

--If human total emissions continue as they are to 2030 (and don't increase 60% as projected) this would likely add more than 0.4 degrees C. to the system in the next two decades, taking the long-term effect by 2030 to at least 1.7 degrees C. (A 0.3 degree C. increase is predicted for the period 2004-2014 alone by Smith, Cusack et al, 2007).

--Then add the 0.3 degree C. albedo flip effect from the now imminent loss of the Arctic sea ice, and the rise in the system by 2030 is at least 2 degree. C, assuming very optimistically that emissions don't increase at all above their present annual rate! When we consider the potential permafrost releases and the effect of carbon sinks losing capacity, we are on the road to a hellish future, not for what we will do, but WHAT WE HAVE ALREADY DONE.

"The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state." --Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

crabbygramma

Dec 5, 2008 at 3:02pm

crabby.gramma
So much for the deniers. They and lot of scientists seem to forget that in nature, very little is linear. Processes and changes increase geometrically. We have already exceeded the earth's ability to sustain us; it may be too late even to implement the Chinese 1 child per family attempt to reduce our population. I'm afraid our great grandchildren will stand at our grave and curse us for the inheritance we have left them.

RickW

Dec 5, 2008 at 5:10pm

Logic isn't a strong point in the climate deniers lexicon...........I honestly am of the opinion they think they can accumulate enough wealth (as most of them seem to be of the right-wing persuasion) to buy their way out of this!

Antonio San

Dec 5, 2008 at 5:45pm

Gwynne Dyer is a master at selling fear but in the process is tripping on his own tail. Let's examine this: "About 70 interviews, a dozen countries, and 18 months later, I have reached four conclusions that I didn’t even suspect when I began the process. The first is simply this: the scientists are really scared. Their observations over the past two or three years suggest that everything is happening a lot faster than climate models predicted."

That's a blanket statement and means nothing. But there is more:

"This creates a dilemma, because for the past decade they have been struggling against a well-funded campaign that cast doubt on climate change. Now, finally, people and even governments are listening. Even in the United States, the world headquarters of climate-change denial, 85 percent of the population now sees climate change as a major issue, and both major presidential candidates promised 80-percent cuts in American emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050."

I wonder where the pope of Global Warming, Hansen and his faithful Gavin Schmidt work? Oh yeah, these work in a US GOVERNEMENT ADMINISTRATION CALLED NASA, USA. The infamous Michael Mann "hockey Stick" fraud is from a US University... So exactly, Mr Dyer how are they funded? And we are not even talking about Al Gore and his campaign of $300 million over 3 years, his training of Gorites all over the world, the Desmogblog delationist website run by Mr Hoggan, the Chairman of the Suzuki Foundation, their Climate Action Canada that infiltrates governments with unelected lobbyists, that push Carbon taxes etc...

"A 1 °C (1.8 °F) rise in average global temperature will take a major bite out of food production in almost all countries that are closer to the equator than to the poles, and that includes almost all of the planet’s “breadbaskets”."

Woaw even plate tectonics has not yet made Europe, Ukraine and the US Midwest and our own Canada tropical countries yet and 1 degree will? How about the extension of the Grain belt north?

"The third conclusion is that there is a point of no return after which warming becomes unstoppable—and we are probably going to sail right through it. It is the point at which anthropogenic (human-caused) warming triggers huge releases of carbon dioxide from warming oceans, or similar releases of both carbon dioxide and methane from melting permafrost, or both. Most climate scientists think that point lies not far beyond 2 °C (3.6 °F) hotter."

All reconstructions that have not been deemed fraudulent -iunlike Mann et al, 2008- show that the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than today. Moreover, during Roman times evidence show that little glaciers existed in the Alps. Furtehr 5,000 years ago, the Holocene Optimum was at least 2 degres above todays AND YET humanity survived, got much colder until Gwynne Dyer started selling his books.

Sadly for Mr Dyer and his alarmism, the globe temperature do not follow Hansens' apocalypse despite Hansen's GISS constant tweeking of data.
The only reason Gore and these little helpers are getting more alarmist is because time is running out, not for the climate as pressure field show that since the 1970's we have entered a rapid mode of atmospheric circulation incompatible with "global warming", but for the business of fearmongering catastrophies that do not happen. Worse, when colder temperature will prevail for years to come, their business will be finished.

"So—final conclusion—we will have to cheat. In the past two years, various scientists have suggested several “geoengineering” techniques for holding the temperature down directly. We might put a kind of temporary chemical sunscreen in the stratosphere by seeding it with sulphur particles, for example, or we could artificially thicken low-lying maritime clouds to reflect more sunlight"

Worse Mr Dyer wants to back the doctor strangeloves who want to experiment...
BUT "There is a way through this crisis, but it isn’t easy and there is no guarantee of success. "
So the unstoppable, runaway train CAN BE STOPPED if we listen to these wonderful prophets...
Really Gwynne Dyer, really, your Goebbels impersonation is full of its own contradictions and it is insulting to this scientist intelligence to read such garbage.

RickW

Dec 6, 2008 at 12:56pm

Antonio San:
Ever heard of Andrew Weaver?

Antonio San

Dec 6, 2008 at 3:13pm

Dr. Weaver is a computer modeler not a climatologist. Another fellow in his lab is Nathan Gillett who published a poor paper on Antarctica...
Finally he seems to be appreciated at desmogblog the delationist site from journalists activists Hoggan who campaign for Gore. "denounce a denier and get his house" is the kind of sprit this detestable site spews... hardly a reference.
Big Green is alive and well...
"An advocacy group founded by former Vice President Al Gore plans to launch a $100 million advertising campaign next month aimed at pushing government and business to take action against climate change. An Alliance for Climate Protection spokesman said the ads are being produced by the Martin Agency of Richmond, Va., known for creating GEICO insurance television ads starring a talking lizard and Neanderthal cavemen." $100 million for ONE campaign!!!

RickW

Dec 6, 2008 at 11:10pm

Time will tell, won't it? If you are wrong, what do you propose as a penalty? Thou dost protest too much, methinks..........

Antonio San

Dec 7, 2008 at 11:04am

Fearmongering is not science: Study meteorology and climatology, paleoclimatology in order to understand for yourself and critically appreciate various studies. A peer reviewed paper is no guarantee of truth or exactitude, especiallyin this field and in these days. eom.

1940pontiac

Dec 9, 2008 at 11:04am

Dyer’s sensational column has set a new low in self-indulgent and fearmongering journalism.

To reach his scare-tactic conclusions, Dyer interviewed USA military generals. A few years ago the US military convinced the world there were Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq. There were no WMDs, showing that American military intelligence was not able to establish facts about the present time. Yet Dyer is gullible enough to believe American generals know what the climate will be in the future.

Dyer tells us that climate change is moving faster than predicted. Climate is indeed doing something the generals, climate modellers and the IPCC didn’t predict. The earth’s temperature stopped warming about ten years ago after the warm 1998 El Nino event. Dr. Richard S. Lindzen (Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, MIT) recently wrote, “There has been no warming since 1997 and no statistically significant warming since 1995.” (An inactive sun is considered to be one cause.) Global temperatures have stopped increasing and this refutes Dyer’s nonsensical cries of “crisis.”

Dyer’s dire warnings about food supply have no basis in fact. Food production has steadily increased in the past few decades and shows no signs of abating. Today, the biggest threats to global food output are, and will continue to be, political unrest, increased urbanization of farmland and the nonsensical rush to biofuels which is ironically (and shamefully) fed by fanaticism which is spawned by the likes of Dyer.

World temperatures are stable, global ice volumes are near constant (temporarily less in the Arctic and way more in the Antarctic), sea levels are rising slightly (as they have for centuries) and there is no more extreme weather today than decades ago—it is just that every thunderstorm gets sensational coverage.

Fossil fuels are a finite resource and attempting to reduce consumption is a worthy goal. But it is immoral to destroy economies and also fail to meet the basic health and nutritional needs of millions worldwide in an effort to reduce emissions.

Manmade carbon dioxide is a miniscule player in climate change. Its effects are dwarfed by the omnipotent sun and its influence on the world oceans and ocean currents—the true drivers of climate.

Dyer cannot predict the future. Worse yet, current world climate shows he does not even have a grasp of climate today.