Gwynne Dyer: Losing control of climate change

My youngest daughter is 17, so she will have lived most of her life before the worst of the warming hits. But her later years will not be easy, and her kids will have it very hard from the start. As for their kids, I just don’t know.

It is the Met Office’s job to make forecasts, and its forecast for the 2060s is an average global temperature that is as much as 4 degrees C warmer. Speaking this week at a conference called ”˜4degrees & beyond’ at Oxford University, Dr. Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts at the Meteorological Office’s Hadley Centre, one of the world’s most important centres for climate research, laid it all out.

“We’ve always talked about these very severe impacts only affecting future generations,” said Dr. Betts, “but people alive today could live to see a 4 ° C rise. People will say it’s an extreme scenario, and it is an extreme scenario, but it’s also a plausible scenario.”

All we have to do is go on burning fossil fuels at the rate we do now, and we’ll be there by the 2080s. Keep increasing our carbon dioxide emissions in pace with economic growth, as we have done over the past decade, and we’ll be there by the 2060s. “There” is not a good place to be.

At an average of 4 ° C warmer, 15 percent of the world’s farmland has become useless due to heat and drought, and crop yields have fallen sharply on half of the rest: an overall 30–40 percent fall in global food production. Since the world’s population has grown by two billion by then, there will be only half the food per person that we have now. Many people will starve.

In western and southern Africa, average temperatures will be up to 10 ° C higher than now. There will be severe drying in Central America, on both sides of the Mediterranean, and in a broad band across the Middle East, northern India, and South-East Asia. With the glaciers gone, Asia’s great rivers will be mostly dry in the summer. Even one metre of sea level rise will take out half the world’s food-rich river deltas, from the Nile to the Mekong.

So there will be famines, and massive waves of refugees, and ruthless measures taken to hold borders shut against them. The bitter irony is that the old-rich countries whose emissions did the most to bring on this disaster will suffer least from it, as least in the early stages. By and large, the further away you are from the equator, the less you are hurt by the changes.

In Britain, at 4 ° C hotter, there would doubtless be severe food rationing, but the country could still just feed itself if it farmed every available piece of land: the heat would not be lethal, and it would still be raining. That’s one advantage of being an island surrounded by sea; the other is that it’s easier to avoid being completely overrun by refugees. Britain would be almost unrecognisable, but it would be seen as one of the luckiest places on the planet.

The trouble is that 4 ° C is not a destination. It is a waystation on the way to 5 ° C or 6 ° C hotter, where all the ice on the planet melts and the only habitable land is what’s still above sea level around the Arctic Ocean. Once we have passed 2 degrees hotter, we are at an even greater risk of triggering the big “feedbacks” that take control of the warming process out of our hands.

At the moment, we are in control of the situation if we want to be, for it is our excess emissions of greenhouse gases that are causing the warming. But if melting permafrost and warming oceans begin to give up the immense amounts of greenhouse gases that they contain, then we find ourselves on a climate escalator that inexorably takes us up through 3 ° C, 4 ° C, 5 ° C, and 6 ° C with no way to get off.

The point where we lose control, most scientists believe, is when the average global temperature reaches between 2 ° C and 3 ° C warmer. After that, it hardly matters whether human beings cut their own emissions, because the natural emissions triggered by the warming will overwhelm all our efforts. If we don’t stop at 2 ° C, our current civilization is probably doomed.

That is why the leaders of all the world’s big industrial and developing countries, meeting in Italy last summer, adopted 2 ° C as their joint “never-exceed” goal. (Interestingly, they didn’t explain the reasoning behind that goal to the rest of us. Mustn’t frighten the children, I suppose.)

Meanwhile, the people tasked with negotiating a new climate treaty at Copenhagen in December struggle bravely onwards, but show no signs of coming up with a deal that will hold us under 2 ° C. Global emissions must start dropping by three percent a year right away, but over the past decade they have been rising at three percent annually.

Everybody involved in the process understands the stakes and agrees on the goal. Almost everybody knows what the treaty will eventually look like, but they don’t believe they can yet sell that deal to the folks back home, so it probably won’t happen this year. Or next. Tick tock.

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, Climate Wars, was published recently in Canada by Random House.




Sep 30, 2009 at 2:52pm

Alarmist drivel, try some info from here regarding the work that has been done on behalf of the Met Office,

I'm proud of Steve McIntyre, and the day will come when the rest of Canada is proud of him too.

Not convinced, how about the UNEP using a graph from wikipedia in it's last release that was done by an ecologist from Norway,

PS. Buy a snow-blower with a 10 year warranty, it's gonna be a cold decade or so,

Gary Rumor

Sep 30, 2009 at 7:15pm

The Club of Rome reports were predicting this stuff back in the 1970's with about the same timetable.

Jock Shockley

Sep 30, 2009 at 9:28pm

The Hadley Centre is so dependent on Climate Change funding it can't afford to be anything but alarmist. Ask them about their climate database - it seems to have become "unavailable" - I wonder why.
If that's the best you have Dyer, I suggest you start to check your sources very carefully. "Scientific fraud" is a popular new term for good reason - perhaps you should think about that.

Eric Chris

Sep 30, 2009 at 11:04pm

Meanwhile, we have a damn transit company, TransLink in Vancouver, operating hundreds of diesel buses spewing out millions of kilograms of CO2 every year on hydro-electric trolley bus routes.

On just the 99 B-Line route to UBC alone, TransLink has displaced 80 trolley buses or added the equivalent of 2,500 cars with non-road worthy soot blowing diesel buses which are exempt from the AirCare program because the junk diesel buses can’t pass. If you can’t play by the rules, cheat, that’s TransLink’s motto.

Next time you get on a stinking diesel bus operating on a trolley bus route, think about it. How are you reducing GHG emissions when you’d probably be living closer to work or school without TransLink?


Oct 1, 2009 at 12:02am

Canada could easily join India in showing the world the way to a green house gas free future.

If we are to eliminate Canada's green house gas emissions and prepare for peak oil, we would need to increase our electric capacity by 400% with more than one hundred and fifty new gigawatts of baseload 24/7 cheap clean and green nuclear power. India is planning to build 450 gigawatts of nuclear to greatly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions

The estimated cost for mass produced nuclear is predicted at about a $1000 a kilowatt, and it is by far the cheapest energy source available to Canadians. The cost of these builds would be paid for by eliminating virtually all of Canada's domestic oil usage increasing oil exports by roughly $50 billion annually. As electric car usage slowly builds, Canadian vehicles would be fueled by abundant supplies of cheap natural gas made available by replacing tar sand and power utility natural gas usage with nuclear steam. Natural gas as a vehicle fuel could easily be made available at less than 30 cents a liter equivalent with the difference from the current $1.10 gasoline cost available to finance nuclear construction, auto gas, service station and home electric heat conversions. Nuclear produced methane would gradually replace natural gas making that product increasingly available for export as well.

Canadian nuclear tech showed the world the way in the 1970's. With mass production of Atomic Energy Canada's proposed ACR-1000, we could show with India the way to a GHG free industrial society at a lower cost than then coal gen. An enormous job boosting domestic and export market would be created.

Unfortunately Harpo is bathed in Big Oil/Coal bathwater and stupid Chicago school economics and refuses to support AECL or any other Canadian HiTech (read Nortel). It was another stupid Con that wiped out Canada's super hi tech aviation industry by shutting down the Avro Arrow.

Eric Chris

Oct 1, 2009 at 12:53pm

"Seth" what are you going to do with the nuclear waste and what is the cost to store it to perpetuity? This cost is an infinite sum which taxpayers will eventually have to pick up after the corporations producing nuclear energy have made their profits. Nuclear energy is not the answer.

The Green Hornet

Oct 1, 2009 at 2:24pm

Despite record and increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, the planet continues to cool for the 8th/9th year in a row – effectively falsifying the Anthropogenic Global Warming hypothesis for any and all who care to actually take a cursory glance at the data.

But for brevity... let’s just take a sampling of the so-called lead, AGW indicators shall we?
- Arctic Sea Ice extent is today, 26% greater than 2007 levels and has in fact, now crossed back over the 2005 mean.
- Global Sea Surface Temperatures are cooling – that’s right COOLING – according to the ARGO network and satellite measurements.
- The Antarctic Sea Ice extent has since 2000, been increasing 1% per decade not to mention temperatures for the continent as a whole – not just the active volcano covered western penn.– has been getting colder.
- Polar Bear populations have never been stronger! But don’t ask me, ask one of the world’s foremost experts, CDN Researcher Mitchell Taylor... the guy who was banned from the Polar Bear Specialist Group this year because quote, “Nothing I heard had to do with your science on harvesting or your research on polar bears - it was the positions you've taken on global warming that brought opposition.”
- If a climate model falls in woods, would anyone hear it? All UN IPCC climate models – ALL OF THEM – are failing! From increased temp predictions to CO2 concentrations to sea-level rise... all of them have been completely destroyed by real-world observations.
- Oh and then there’s the master stroke of death handed out just this week by the now famous mathematician Steve McIntyre. Yet another Canadian who, after 6 years of stone-walling from the Dendrochronologists, finally received the tree-ring data sets used to produce the infamous, catastrophic 20th century warming hockey sticks and found upon closer inspection that low and behold... the trees were cherry-picked and packed in chicanery.

Indeed, the music has stopped for team AGW and nary a chair can be found.

Hooray for science! Hooray for Schadenfreude as Gwynne Dyer and the alarmosphere panic; struggling to re-package Global Warming (no wait!) Climate Change (no wait!) CO2 = Pollution people and we’re all gonna die... into something more easily digested by tweens.

Gwynne, do yourself and your family a favour. Buy land far south of here. The Sun is gearing up to show all of us just how insignificant man’s contributions on climate really are.


Oct 1, 2009 at 7:56pm

The Nuclear waste problem is blown well out of proportion by propaganda from Big Oil/Coal. All of it can be reused as reprocessed fuel in Gen 3.5 nukes,or as fuel in generation four nukes like Sandia's new product. The tiny bit of Gen 4 nuclear waste is no more dangerous than the original uranium. Mid Ocean clay deposit storage has also been proved in as more effective than ground storage except for the reuse factor. All of France's nuclear waste after producing 80% of its power for the last 50 years with nuclear, would cover a soccer stadium one foot deep and all of it is reusable as fast reactor fuel.

Of course we could just take all the waste to the nearest coal plant and meter it slowly into the smoke stack. The nuclear waste would increase the coal plants already radioactive emissions by only a tiny percentage and wouldn't add any more lead, arsenic or mercury to the air.

Or lets store the nuke waste under a half acre or so of the thousands of square miles of desert solar greenies were planning destroying forever by covering them with toxic solar cells.

Note that because Nuclear power is so cheap, pollution free,
and would provide a excellent job creating economic boost even global warming deniers like " The Green Hornet" herewould be on board with it. A win- win for all

Eric Chris

Oct 2, 2009 at 10:17am

Really "seth", I'm a chemical engineer who has worked on the Hanford nuclear clean up in Washington State for BNFL, and the nuclear waste problem doesn't seem to be blow out of proportion to me. In fact, this problem is very grave and doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as trivial.

Perhaps you can invest in some land in Chernobyl if you don't see the problem with contaminating land, water and air for millions of years. What makes you so qualified to enlighten us with your words of wisdom concerning the merits of nuclear energy?


Oct 2, 2009 at 1:21pm

I alway's get a kick of commentators, who claim some sort of expertise in the subject matter but whose comment reveals no knowledge at all. While it is remotely possible Eric here was working as an engineer on the Hanford cleanup, his comments indicate his specialization was most likely custodial with broom in hand.

A chemical engineer would know that the Chernobyl reactor was a 1940's technology unit with as much in common with a modern gen 3.5 reactor as a Model T has with a Tesla Roadster.

Despite that fact that Bhopal killed hundreds of times more people than Chernobyl (now a forest full of wildlife) No Nukes types like Eric never seem to protest the presence of massive and deadly chemical complexes in our cities.

A chemical engineer would have something to say about fuel rod burnup rates, fuel reprocessing, Generation 4 reactors, the tiny amount of nuclear waste compared to solar wind and fossil fuel materials and waste and mid ocean clay deposit storage. My advice for Eric is to get his town librarian to teach him how to use G O O G L E. Together they can research nuclear technology.