Reviewed 3/03/2011

Climate Wars, by Gwynne Dyer

Access to this book courtesy of the
San Jose, CA Public Library
The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats
Gwynne Dyer
Oxford: Oneworld Publications, June 2010




ISBN-13 978-1-85168-718-3
ISBN-10 1-85168-718-1 296pp. HC $24.95

Climate Wars is a very refreshing book. Its author approaches the subject of climate change from an unusual perspective: that of the longtime observer of global geopolitics. Gwynne Dyer, a Canadian, presents a variety of scenarios in an unvarnished, pull-no-punches manner. Also refreshing is the fact that he based these on interviews with relevant experts, often quoting them at length, and the experts he chose are those most other books on climate change do not mention. (At least I have not found many of their names in the climate-change books I have read.)

There are eight chapters, and eight scenarios precede them. His scenarios depict various regions of the world, with each suffering some degree of devastation due to changing climate. Even the one he calls 'A Happy Tale" is grim: it involves a series of highly destructive cyclones, an Israeli-Iranian war, and major coastline flooding. It ends with commentators in the twenty-second century doubting much the history of the previous century they find inscribed on a computer hard drive they recover from a ruined house in North London Bay. It is merely less grim than the others; and I gather that Dyer means the title to be ironic.

"People chatter gaily about 'creative destruction' as the fundamental virtue of capitalism but, in the real world, it is remarkable how the 'sunset industries' use their cash and their political clout to stop the Sun from going down on them. Wartime-style mobilization and government controls might enable us to create alternative, non-fossil-carbon energy industries to meet all the demands of a high-energy civilization within ten or fifteen years, but the experience of Amory Lovins in this respect is instructive."

"For thirty years, the most prolific originator of carbon-saving, climate-friendly technologies in the United States has been Amory Lovins, cofounder, chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. It is fair to say that, if all his ideas had been put into practice across the American economy, the United States would now be producing less than half the carbon dioxide than it actually does. In reality, however, the U.S. automobile fleet still runs almost entirely on oil and gets some of the worst mileage figures in the world, and now biofuels are all the rage and nuclear power appears to be making a comeback."

– Page 129

One thing I do question is why Scenario Seven has the mere discussion of geoengineeering provoking terrorism, and why this deters (indeed, paralyzes) the Western powers while China and Indonesia press ahead with injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere. (I guess Lowell Wood had retired...)

The book is noteworthy for two things. One is Dyer's clear-eyed assessment of our progress to date in responding to the climate crisis. This is evident in Chapter Six ('Real World Politics') where he dissects the negotiation process behind the Kyoto Accords and (especially) 2009's COP15: the conference at Copenhagen. And, like all others I have read on the subject, he is properly cautious about geoengineering but wants experimentation to be done so we will know what we're doing if we have to use it — an eventuality he deems likely. Indeed, the whole thrust of Dyer's narrative echoes Churchill's dictum that humanity can be depended on to do the right thing — but only after trying every other alternative. The other is his hopeful view of our chances to keep some level of civilization going through the privations to come — and for the fact that, as filled with foreboding as its scenarios are, and as readily as he dismisses the effectiveness of efforts to date, he holds on to hope in our ultimate success. He refrains from showing us the final tromp: complete extinction by means of a Canfield Ocean; he merely alludes to it in Scenario Eight: Wipeout. He follows this with a clear description of the conditions that create a Canfield Ocean, and their role in the great extinctions of the past. In his final chapter (Chapter Eight, "Childhood's End') he argues that we will, finally, accept the job of "planetary maintenance engineer" and preserve some five billion of ourselves along with a majority of other species (though perhaps not the polar bear.)

"It would be a world with much greater equality of wealth between the old-rich countries and the Majority World, because this is a precondition for making it through the crisis. Even with the most stringent population controls, there would probably still be five to six billion of us, although there might be a gradual downward trend. Since most of those five to six billion would have access to the fully industrialized lifestyle, enormous emphasis would have to be put on learning to 'live lightly on the planet.' Given the right technologies it is not improbable that most people would still have personal transportation devices of some sort, that long-distance travel would continue to be possible for more than the privileged few, that those who wished to would still be eating meant (although, in many cases, ethically produced, vat-grown meat). This is not a wish-fulfillment dream; it is what we would probably get if we pass the test."

"Various metaphors for our present situation come to mind, but the one that really sticks is the final exam. For more than ten thousand years, human beings have built a civilisation that is now global in extent, but for most of that time we were really semi-barbaric children. Only two centuries ago, slavery was almost universal, women were an inferior caste almost everywhere, and war was the normal way of doing business. Resources were always scarce, so competition was usually a better strategy than cooperation. And, until the very end of that period, we had no real comprehension of the workings of the planet we lived on."

– Page 274

I have reviewed many good books on climate change. This is one of the few I would put on a list of the ten most vital for the general public to read. Its text is very accessible and free of jargon. There is a set of endnotes (References) and a good index. And there are very few grammatical errors.

1 One of these experts is Sir Crispin Tickell, a British diplomat who in the 1970s wrote a book about the environmental and political implications of climate change, and advised Margaret Thatcher on the subject.
Valid CSS! Valid HTML 4.01 Strict To contact Chris Winter, send email to this address.
Copyright © 2011-2016 Christopher P. Winter. All rights reserved.
This page was last modified on 19 April 2016.