While some humans choose to deny the existence of climate change, many have responded by changing the way they live. However, as freelance journalist and specialist on international affairs and geopolitics Gwynne Dyer warns, it's gonna take a lot more than recycled toilet paper to deal with the mess we've created. "We are heading for the brink very fast," he warns, and that's why his new book is required reading. "Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats" has been called "a truly important and timely book," but I'd go much further than that. In fact, I'll declare that this may be the most important book you'll read this year.
To help spread the urgency, I recently spoke with Dyer and the results are below.
Mickey Z.: Just as it seems Americans are finally catching on about greener living, more and more folks like yourself are warning that CFL bulbs, recycled toilet paper and bringing your own bag to the store is not exactly going to turn things around. What do you feel an eco-minded person can learn from "Climate Wars"?
Gwynne Dyer: Most of the things people do to be eco-minded are useful in various way - fewer trees get cut down, less electricity is used, local pollution is cleaned up - but the problem of climate change is global and it can only be dealt with on the global scale. Changing the light bulbs reduces the amount of electricity you use, but if that electricity is coming from a coal-fired power plant you are still pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every time you turn the light on. Unfortunately, there is a limit to the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we can put into the atmosphere before we reach the point of no return and we are getting close.
MZ: What do you mean by "point of no return"?
GD: The "point of no return" is where we lose control of the process and the warming goes runaway and most climate scientists reckon it is around +2 degrees C (+3.5 degrees F). Once the warming passes that point, the warmth itself triggers various natural "feedbacks" like the melting of the permafrost around the Arctic, which would release huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So long as it is mainly our own carbon dioxide emissions that are causing the warming, we are in control, at least in theory, because we could stop the warming by stopping our emissions. Past the "point of no return," nature takes over and cutting our own emissions would no longer stop the warming. Stopping our own emissions is not easy, of course, because the fossil fuels we burn - coal, oil and gas - currently provide about 80 percent of the energy we use. Alternative energy technologies are available, but they are not being put into use fast enough to make much difference. At the moment, human greenhouse gas emissions are still RISING at between 2 and 3 percent a year, where they should actually be falling by about 4 or 5 percent a year if we are to have any hope of stopping before we hit runaway warming.
MZ: And governments seems unwilling to do anything, huh?
GD: All the world's major governments, including the US government, agreed last year that we must never let the warming exceed 2 degrees C (though they didn't tell the public exactly why that is so important). But they have absolutely no plan for how to achieve that goal and there is little chance that they will come up with one soon. The Obama administration's decision not to even try to get a bill on climate change through the Senate this year probably means, in practice, that the United States will not agree to any limits on its emissions for another three years. If the US won't do that, neither will China and between them they account for about half of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.
MZ: What do you see as the price for such inaction?
GD: There's another three or four years lost, at least and meanwhile we get closer each year to the point of no return. Once we have passed it, there is no obvious stopping point short of +5 or +6 degrees C (9 to 11 degrees F) and remember that that is a rise in average global temperature. Temperatures over land are typically a good deal higher than they are over the oceans, so increase those numbers by fifty percent or more for the interiors of the continents. At those temperatures things dry out and it becomes impossible to grow food in large parts of the world. There will be global food shortages, not just local ones, because the rising temperatures will be killing the crops in many places at once - and so there will be famines and waves of refugees and regional wars over what little water is left. That is the real problem we face and it can only be dealt with by switching from fossil fuels to other sources of energy. Changing the light-bulbs is not enough; you have to close down the coal-fired power plant and build something else in its place. Driving less is not enough; we have to find alternatives to oil for fueling our vehicles. We need deep cuts in fossil-fuel use right away and we must virtually eliminate fossil fuels in the next fifty years. That is technically and financially possible, but it is probably not politically possible. In which case we will pay a very high price for our failure.
MZ: I read where, despite the grim prognosis you lay out in this book, writing "Climate Wars" actually provoked a bit more optimism in you. Is that true? If so, please explain.
GD: I know a great deal more about the problem than I did three years ago, when I started the research and interview for this book and so I know that there are probably ways of getting through this without suffering massive losses in human lives. Even if we don't cut our emissions fast enough and deeply enough to stop short of the +2-degree limit, there may be ways of holding the actual temperature rise down (they're called geo-engineering) that would let us avoid runaway temperature rises and give us more time to work on the problem. We need to start doing research on these techniques now, because we may need them quite soon. We are in very deep trouble, because the fuels we built our civilization on are destroying the climate in which that civilization has flourished. But human beings are smart and tough and we are capable of cooperation on a global scale, which is what is needed to get us through this crisis. Success is not guaranteed, but we do have a chance.