Climate Wars: A not-so-hot book on global warming

Gwynne Dyer: Climate Wars. Random House of Canada (2009)

reviewed by John Bell
Socialist Worker (Canada) June 10, 2009

International affairs analyst Gwynne Dyer is fired up about climate change. He called on his extensive connections to military policy-makers and strategic think tanks to find out how governments are planning to deal with a climate change future. His conclusions are deliberately frightening.

Climate Wars is not about the science of global warming; he begins by accepting as given that climate has been changed and will be changed more by human activity. Dyer foresees a nightmarish future resulting from climate change as inevitable. The only questions are how quickly the catastrophe will be upon us.

Dyer took up the climate change theme when he realized that our ability to feed ourselves is already declining because of climate change. “Eating regularly is a non-negotiable activity and countries that cannot feed their people are unlikely to be ‘reasonable’ about it.” And he realized that climate change scenarios are playing increasingly big roles in military planning.

After a year of studying the problem and interviewing strategic planners, Dyer came to four conclusions:

First, catastrophic climate change is coming faster than predicted.

Second, individual lifestyle changes are “practically irrelevant”. “We have to decarbonize our economies wholesale, and if we haven’t reached zero greenhouse gas emissions globally by 2050–and preferably, 80 per cent cuts by 2030–then the second half of this century will not be a time you would choose to live in.”

Third, it is unrealistic to think we will meet those deadlines. As a result “we are going to need geo-engineering solutions as stopgaps to hold the temperature down while we work at getting our emissions down, and we should be urgently examining our options in this area now.”

Finally, mass displacements of population caused by climate change will lead to wars, which will undermine the international cooperation needed to deal with the problem in the first place.

The nightmare scenarios recounted in Climate Wars are based on the belief that little or nothing will be done to stop climate chaos. But if Dyer’s intent is to scare people into action, the result is far more likely to create depression and resigned passivity.

Dyer’s view of history is that the agrarian revolution itself led us inevitably to this disaster. “The crisis we face was foreordained from the moment that that first woman planted a seed, but it wasn’t obvious to us.”

Here is the implicit human nature argument, that it is in our nature to keep expanding our population until we spoiled our own environment. So nobody is “to blame” because we are all to blame.

And because conscious human agency—a mass movement to save our planet—is not in Dyer’s crystal ball, he puts what little hope he has in fanciful “geo-engineering” ideas which would likely do more harm than good.

It is this ahistorical, human nature approach that is the fatal flaw in Dyer’s book.

The climate crisis we face is rooted in the particular logic of capitalism, which demands growth and accumulation for its own sake and which puts the pursuit of profit ahead of human interests.

The damage to our climate has been done in a remarkably short period of time, over the past 200 years or so—the time where capitalism has spread over the whole globe and broken the direct connection between the vast majority of the population and the environment it is part of.

Because Dyer doesn’t recognize the particular role capitalism plays in creating this environmental crisis, he can’t see another of its features: it inevitably creates a global army opposed to all its pernicious characteristics.

Newly industrialized workers in India or China will fight back against their gross exploitation, the very thing that makes these economies the shining stars of 21st-century capitalism. As they do, they will inevitably see their worsening environment a rallying point.

If we allow governments and corporations to carry on with business as usual—which for all their green rhetoric is just what people like Stephen Harper intend—Dyer’s nightmare future of mass starvation and perpetual war may unfold. But there are millions around the world, millions either ignored or distrusted by Dyer and his military friends, devoting their efforts to make sure a different future unfolds.

How to focus and organize that global power is the crucial issue today.

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Jeff White
7 years 1 month ago

I thought Dyer’s book was not bad, for someone who lacks a critique of capitalism. The human nature arguments and the bogus technological fixes are pretty much what you would expect from Dyer, but his “four conclusions”, enumerated in the review above, are not really that far off the mark, in my view.

Even if he doesn’t foresee a solution based on ecosocialism, he manages to convey a plausible and scary look at the barbaric alternative if we fail.

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