A dark forecast of climate change rooted in the preference of safety over sorrow


BOOK OF THE DAY: Climate WarsBy Gwynne Dyer Oneworld 297pp, £12.99

FOR SEVERAL decades, climate scientists have been warning of the dangers of global warming. The theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) suggests the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation are causing a change in the Earth’s atmosphere, leading to a gradual increase in its temperature and that of its oceans.

This warming is predicted to become more pronounced as nations such as China and India industrialise.

Despite significant scepticism in the media and the wider public (particularly in the US), the issue of global warming is taken seriously by most of the world’s scientists and policymakers.

A rise of a few degrees in average global temperature has the potential to cause significant changes in climate around the world, leading to chronic food and water shortages in some regions and permanent flooding in others.

Back in 1988, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up to collate and summarise studies of global warming worldwide and help plan mitigating action.

Recently, the IPCC has been heavily criticised for alleged irregularities in the collation of this data.

But what if the world’s climate scientists are right? And what if international efforts to slow global warming are too little, too late?

In Climate Wars, Gwynne Dyer, a geopolitics analyst and military expert, considers the socio-economic consequences of this twin premise. Drawing on IPCC projections and government studies in the US, UK and elsewhere, he is led to a grim forecast: a world with widespread drought, famine and migration, teetering on global conflict.

Dyer casts a critical eye over previous international agreements to slow global warming, and his analyses of the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Copenhagen Accord (2009) leave little room for optimism. He lays bare the basic problem, that developing nations such as India and China will not agree to curb their fossil fuel emissions to the same degree as fully industrialised nations. And the latter may not be able to persuade voters to accept the deep cuts required. A further difficulty may be the breaking of existing agreements as the effects of cuts impinge on national economies.

An unusual feature of Dyer’s book is that each chapter is preceded by a short futuristic scenario, depicting a world increasingly under stress from the effects of climate change. These scenarios are based on the predictions of military strategists and may seem dramatic – but they reflect the author’s opinion the IPCC may have underestimated the change.

(There is some justification for this view, because the data used in the reports is several years old by the time of publication, and because the process of achieving a consensus prediction tends to favour the most conservative estimates, contrary to what many journalists believe.)

Is there any escape? Like many commentators, Dyer believes it’s possible in principle to arrest global warming by developing alternatives to oil, coal and gas.

But this would require urgent, co-ordinated, large-scale investment in renewable energy (and possibly the development of some audacious geo-engineering solutions as well).

Sadly, such action is likely to be limited not by technology, but by realpolitik.

Dyer’s dark forecast is more severe than the views of most scientists and policymakers, but is not outside the bounds of possibility.

Hopefully, his lucidly written book may help raise awareness of the potential crisis.

As he points out “the cost of doing too little, too late . . . is vastly greater than any costs incurred by doing more than might have been strictly necessary”.

Cormac Ó Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and is a science ambassador for Discover Science and Engineering