Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Climate Wars

Tonight at the University of Waterloo, Gwynne Dyer launched a world-wide lecture tour. The title of his tour is "Climate Wars." Dyer's a great speaker, speaking completely off the cuff with as much first-hand knowledge of the world as anyone I've ever seen, and I recommend that you get to his lecture if he's appearing near you. It's must-hear. This post is from my notes.

Dyer argues that the effect of uncontrolled global warming will be:

- mass starvation
- mass population movement
- war

He says if we let climate change go to the tipping point we will face dire changes in rainfall distribution that will change agricultural production that will in turn destabilize world politics. He says many governments and institutions are studying the implications of climate change on the world food supply and other factors, but they're keeping it quiet.

The way it works now is that water is absorbed into the atmosphere at the equator and then comes down, in most part, at around the same latitude north and south of the equator. This results in a band of desert at about 20-25% latitude north and south of the equator, and just past that desert band there is a breadbasket. Global warming causes the rain to shift further away from the equator.

Dyer talked to a researcher in India who recently did a study for the World Bank on the effect on Indian agricultural production if the mean temperature rises by 2 degrees and 5 degrees Celsius. (These are the lower and upper limit on what is expected to happen this century.) Her conclusion: at a 2 degree increase, India's agricultural production will decrease by 25%. I didn't quite get what he said about a 5 degree increase but it seemed to be close to no agricultural production. The World Bank has not made this study public.

Other studies predict that if the temperature rises by 5 degrees, the world will lose 50 to 70% of its agricultural production. The US agricultural breadbasket, the Midwest, will be hit hard. At a 5 degree increase, the US will lose more than half of its agricultural production. Greece, Italy, Spain and southern France will also do very badly. Australia, China and India will lose almost all their agricultural production.

Canada (with the exception of southern Manitoba), Britain, Russia, Japan, Scandinavia, Tasmania and New Zealand will be fine. Some of those countries might even become a bit more productive. It might be difficult to bring agriculture online in the far north, however, because the land will be water-logged.

When Dyer was born, in 1943, there were 2 billion people. There are now 6.5 billion. The prediction is that the population will plateau at 8.5 billion. That is already pushing to the limit our ability to feed ourselves. Dyer says that about the only way we have left to increase our agricultural productivity is to stop diverting so much grain to meat production. But currently there is very little slack in the system. The world has less than a 45-day reserve of grain.

Dyer says that Britain is one of the most knowledgeable countries in this area because, in part, Margaret Thatcher was a trained chemist and she understood what the climatologists were talking about. Britain is conducting massive research on the issue with the idea that they may become "lifeboat Britain" - an island with food surrounded by countries without. Russia, too, faces a problem because of its border with China. In China, only Manchuria will retain agricultural productivity if the temperature rises by 5 degrees.

Dyer stressed that his figures, which largely come from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are conservative. The Panel works by consensus, so tends to low-ball figures. Their predictions also take into account that many countries are lowering emissions. Their predictions don't take into account unknowns such as methane gas being released when the permafrost melts or other possible types of ecological collapse.

Over the 150 years since the industrial revolution, 95% of man-made green house gas emissions have come from the wealthy northern countries. At the start of the industrial revolution, atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was 285 parts per million. Now it's 380 parts per million, and rising 4 ppm per year. The point of no return is thought to be 450-550 ppm.

Dyer thinks that we can still avert disaster. He says that outside the US and Canada, emissions are stabilized. Northern countries have significantly improved the amount of GDP they get from a ton of emission.

The reason we need a framework like Kyoto is that emissions/GDP and overall emissions are increasing in southern countries as they industrialize. He said, "They may be adding the bit that makes the cup overflow but we filled the cup." Climate change initiative must be global and must address this issue.

Northern countries need to make deeper cuts so that southern countries can grow. Dyer said that developing countries like India are very aware of the dilemma they're in of needing to industrialize to meet their citizens' basic needs, but the planet being in a precarious situation. He said they're extremely bitter about the level of pollution caused by the north.

Dyer thinks that the US is finally coming around - that the coal, gas and electricity industries had flooded the media with PR and junk science to deny global warming, but that now even they have cut it out and the government is acknowledging the need to do something. The good news, he said, is that once the US gets going they can be very effective.

He said this is about the best time in the history of the world for us to have to deal with a problem like this. It's a golden age: we're at peace, unified, and have strong international agreements.

But, he says, we won't be able to deal effectively with global climate change if we slip into another cold war. And another cold war is what the Bush administration has been heading us towards.

According to Dyer, the Bush government is in full-out panic about the rise of China. He said the buzz at the American Enterprise Institute (a think tank that is enormously influential to the Bush people) is that the US is currently facing what Britain faced in 1900.

In 1900, Britain had been a global superpower for about 50 years. There were two countries who threatened Britain's position: Germany and Russia. (Britain's traditional enemy was France, but it was not then a threat.) Germany was stronger, so Britain chose to isolate it. Britain made treaties with countries surrounding Germany, including Russia, and so squeezed it. Britain's tactics were successful (except for the two world wars), and it retained its position for an extra 50 years.

The position of many at the American Enterprise Institute is that the supremacy of the US is threatened, and it should follow a similar strategy. The two main economic threats are India and China, but China is the bigger threat so the Bush administration has made significant moves to isolate it.

The US has pressured Japan to remilitarize. The US has moved the 7th fleet into the area. They have made a number of treaties and pacts, including with Singapore, but the main one is with India.

India was non-aligned since its independence, but that changed with the 2005 military cooperation agreement it signed with the US. The Bush administration has been wooing India for years to reach this agreement. India gets all sorts of things out of it: full technology transfer (which the US doesn't even give to its NATO allies), missile defense, military training. Congress has voted to take India off the nuclear blacklist (which it has been on since its 1998 nuclear tests) and allow it to trade in nuclear technology.

Dyer cited an official visit made to India by Condoleeza Rice. A state department spokesperson announced at a press conference that the US would help make India into a great power by the 21st century. Someone asked: Do you mean in all aspects, including military? The spokesperson answered yes. Dyer said he has heard this exchange quoted at least 20 times in India.

Dyer says that for now, China is taking the high road on this, pretending to ignore what the US is doing so as not to provoke them further. But if the Chinese population find out about it - an ironic twist given the west's demands for greater freedoms for the Chinese populace - then they will demand that China take counter-measures.

And at this point, an international incident, such as something happening in Taiwan, could drive the US and China into cold war. If that happens, we won't have the kind of international agreement on climate change that we need to avert disaster.

Note: If there are any poorly argued statements in this post or any incorrect facts, it's much more likely to be due to my note-taking than mistakes by the speaker.

See also:
Global Warming Report
UN Predicts 50 Million Environmental Refugees by 2010
Unsustainable Growth
America's Indian Ally

Reprints:
Vive Le Canada
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