Our options as a humanity may be dwindling in the face of climate change. The coming changes may completely alter the world as we know it with collapsed ecosystems, mass immigration of climate refugees, and more devastating wars over basic necessities such as food and water. Maria Armoudian speaks to veteran journalist Gwynne Dyer about the scenarios we face with climate change and the options for humanity.
Gwynne Dyer is an author and journalist. He is the author of Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Maria Armoudian: First of all, let’s start off with what you say which is we may be better off. You are saying Scandinavia is a little better off in some ways, Russia might be, Canada might be, Britain might be, they are the winners potentially, but the losers are the south, China – why?
Gwynne Dyer: Well the closer you are to the equator the more trouble you are in in a warming world. Essentially the trouble is food. The major impact of warming on human populations is it is going to cut into the food supply quite seriously. But that does not happen equally all over the planet. The further you are away from the equator the less pronounced the warming and the less the impact on food production. So even most of the United States can expect to go on producing food in much the way it does now though not the southern bits because the southern bits in the US are in the subtropics, and the subtropics get hit very hard by this. Essentially, they dry out, they suffer great loss of rainfall and basically without rain you can’t grow crops. So we are looking at places like southwestern US, Mexico, Central America, both sides of the Mediterranean, right across the Middle East. Same story in the southern hemisphere, most of Australia is in the subtropics, southern Africa, these are places that dry out and can no longer produce a lot of food which is kind of non-negotiable, you either eat or you die and so your first impact is on populations who simply can’t feed themselves anymore.
The further away you are from the equator the less you are hit by that sort of thing. If you live say, north of the great lakes in North America you are probably far enough away until we hit two or three degrees of higher average global temperature which is a good twenty or thirty years away. So it is very much positional, it depends on where you are how bad this hurts. The major problem the soldiers see, and I have talked to a lot of soldiers about this, is this problem is going to produce a lot of refugees. Refugees who are trying to get out from where they are like Mexico and up to somewhere where there is still food or at least jobs that you can buy food with like the United States. Same coming out of North Africa, the Middle East, into Europe, coming out of China up into Russia, coming down from the Philippines and Indonesia into Australia, things like that. And of course, borders being closed against them and you can really only close borders if you are willing to kill people trying to cross them, so the world gets a lot uglier. Failed states, governments who can’t feed their own people do not survive on the whole, what is the use of them if they cannot feed their own people. So failed states are pretty ugly things, if you think about Somalia times twenty and in some cases wars. Wars between countries that have to share the same river system because when the going gets rough and there isn’t enough rain to go around, the country that is upstream on the river would be tempted to hang on to the water and feed its own people and let the downstream country go hang. The downstream country has no recourse except war so the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Ganges, Indus, Mekong, all those rivers are places where wars could happen between the upstream and the downstream states when things get bad because they probably will, and over the next twenty years we can determine the outcome to the extent it could either be very, very bad or only bad in terms of what the next generations got to go through. But some of this stuff is going to happen. It’s too late for there to be no bad consequences.
MA: It seems as if also that it is not going to follow a very particular pattern, for example Russia was faced with huge droughts and wildfires, as was Australia and these are very different parts of the world.
GD: When you have a warming world, what you have got is a more energetic climate. There is more energy in the system which means more extremes both of heat and of cold, which is why you get extreme winters as well as extreme summers. And it is also highly unpredictable as weather. I mean, you can say about climate or the average global temperature it is going up by two degrees in the next thirty years, but you can’t say what the weather is going to be next week. In fact it is harder now to say what the weather will be than before because extreme events in both directions are quite possible. And just to add a further degree of complication, you cannot actually assume that warming will take a gradual, predictable, incremental path. We will get one-tenth of a degree warming every two years and then in thirty years we will have a big problem. Ans it can lurch which means that suddenly it is half a degree warmer all over the planet which although doesn’t sound like much is actually a lot. I mean when you are talking about global temperature you ought to think about it not like is this a nice day or a slightly nicer day, you ought to think about it like the temperature of the human body: 98.6 is fine and 100 isn’t a lot more than 98.6 but you have got a fever. It could get quite ugly all of a sudden, this is by no means guaranteed, but you can’t discount the possibility.
MA: You mention that you thought that the collective efforts of individuals really would barely dent the problem?
GD: Well, if you mean by our collective efforts such as light bulbs and driving less, then yes, I am afraid so. It is not that it is useless, it just isn’t the solution. It is a way of winning time in order to get to the solution but the solution is to stop burning fossil fuels. There is no other solution. Saving energy as long as your energy is still being generated by fossil fuels simply postpones the evil day when you put so much of this stuff in the atmosphere you get into runaway warming, and that evil day is generally defined as when we hit about two degrees of warming average global temperature. Because at that point we lose control, natural sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases kick in, the permafrost starts to melt and releases enormous amounts of this stuff. You can’t turn the permafrost off, you can stop burning fossil fuels yourself but if you get to the point where the permafrost starts emitting, you are finished, you can’t refreeze that. Same with the oceans, you warm the oceans and warmer water contains less dissolved gas, they have got a lot of carbon dioxide in them and if you make them warmer they are going to give some of them back to the atmosphere, it is like warm beer going flat. Just conserving energy providing that you are still basically providing your energy with fossil fuels only postpones the evil day.
MA: You have talked about some of the solutions that are being explored now. Worst-case scenarios we look at geoengineering types of things although what we are doing now is already a form of geoengineering. Walk us through what seems to be feasible?
GD: Your solution in the long run is to stop burning fossil fuels. But the problem is that it is really hard to turn this civilisation on a dime. It is like a supertanker, you can’t do a tight turn on a corner, it takes a long time to turn the damn thing around. Are we going to run out of space, are we going to hit that two degrees and unleash runaway warming before we actually get our emissions under control? And most of the people I know think the answer is yes. If you look at the way politics goes, most countries have got a commitment to cut their emissions but it is not nearly big enough to stop short of the two degrees. And you look at those big international conferences and you do not feel inspired. Most of the scientists I have spoken to think that we are actually going to go past the point where you would normally get runaway warming, and here we have to do something slightly scientific, which is stop saying two degrees and talk about the actual amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that would give you two degrees, and that is 450 parts per million. We are now at 390 parts per million so we are not that far away and 450 gives you two degrees. There is, by the way, almost complete consensus among governments to keep us under two degrees higher average temperature.
If you are going to go through 450 parts per million are you doomed to hit the two degrees that that would normally give you and into runaway warming? And the answer is not necessarily, because there are ways that you could actually hold the heat down even if the parts per million go past 450. Intervene artificially in the climate system to hold the heat down by reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the planet surface, and so you win yourself some more time to deal with your emissions. And that may take you another generation but in the meantime we don’t get runaway warming because if you don’t go through two degrees the permafrost doesn’t melt, the oceans don’t warm, these natural processes don’t kick in and add to the warming the ones that you can’t turn off. So can we somehow divorce that two-degree target which we must not pass from the 450 parts per million that we probably are going to pass through? The answer is geoengineering. Geoengineering is a way of uncoupling two degrees simply by holding the temperature down. And it is absolutely taboo for scientists to talk about geoengineering, even two or three years ago you could lose all your status in the scientific community, nobody would talk to you, people had nervous breakdowns from the flack they got when they opened their mouths on this issue because the scientists reckon that if you tell the public there are ways to hold the heat down the public of course will get the wrong end of the stick and go ‘Oh well look why don’t we just hold the heat down and skip all this hard business of cutting our emissions?’ and the answer is no.
The one that has got the most traction is an idea put forward by a guy called Paul Crutzen. He got the Nobel Prize for his work on the ozone hole. And he said ‘Look we are going to go through 450 parts per million, we must not go through two degrees, how do we separate these things? I propose that we copy what big volcanoes do.’ Because when a big volcano explodes it will push a lot of gas up into the stratosphere and the gas that the volcanoes tend to put out in huge quantities is sulfur dioxide which, when it gets up there in the sunlight with little droplets of water around, combines with them to form tiny droplets of sulfuric acid which will reflect sunlight. They do reflect enough sunlight after big volcanoes blow to cut the amount of sunlight reaching the surface and lower the temperature. Take Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines for example. For two years after that eruption we had an average global temperature one half degree Celsius, almost one degree Fahrenheit lower thanks to the sulfuric acid in the stratosphere. There are still some questions, you would not want to do this globally right now, you would want to do small tests to make sure there are no real ugly side effects you haven’t thought of.
MA: Wouldn’t it be far more feasible and less expensive to actually build these wind turbines all over windy areas?
GD: Of course, it would. You are absolutely right, but do you really think it is going to happen? And if not, where is your fall-back position?
MA: Let us just think about this for a moment pragmatically because the financial end of it seems to be the argument against developing the infrastructures and the capacities. So when we look at it and think ‘It just seems like these geoengineering ideas really pale in comparison to doing the very pragmatic things.’
GD: They will happen eventually but we are going to come up a day late and a dollar short as human beings often do when faced with a big problem. We will get there in the end but the end will be a bit too late. Nobody plans to geoengineer until we are there, but if it is 2030 and we are at 450 parts per million and it is absolutely clear, although we have moved over a lot to renewables, that we are going to hit 500 parts per million before we get the thing stopped, what do you do? And the answer is you geoengineer because that is the last option you have got left. Politics is the killer and if you get the politics right and you can get all those renewables built and you are not burning fossil fuels anymore nobody is going to want to geoengineer. But I look at the world as it is and I say to myself this probably isn’t going to happen in time and this is the sort of answer I also get back from the scientists and the soldiers, all of whom want it to happen in time.
MA: Let’s look at a couple of things. One is we look at the actual issue of climate change and the potential solutions and the very emotional responses that happen especially from conservatives when you are talking about regulation for example. You cited this sociologist Donald Bruemmer, can you talk a little bit about his findings and how we might apply that?
GD: He is a Professor at George Washington University, and what he did was get a number of people who were self-described conservatives and he gave half of them a description of the problem of climate change and a proposed solution which involved a great deal of government intervention and regulation, and compulsion. And of course, they hated it, and furthermore they didn’t believe that climate change was a problem. This is not necessary, the government shouldn’t be doing this, it’s not a problem anyway and if it is a problem it is a natural problem not caused by us, this is nonsense. You give the other group of conservatives the same description on what the climate problem is, but now you offer them instead a set of solutions that involve unleashing private enterprise, investing in nuclear power, a full on technological solution which is largely in private hands, and they love it. And not only do they love it but now they believe the climate science. It folds into how they think the world should work. He did this with liberals to and they were just as predictable.
MA: You mentioned also that there are all of these enterprises exploring various types of alternatives, even ExxonMobil which was the chief campaigner against the science, and now you say they are pouring money into these new technologies such as biofuel for airlines.
GD: Oh yes, six hundred million over five years, which is serious money even for ExxonMobil. More than half a billion dollars to develop a source of liquid fuel which you can use in cars, aircraft and so on which is carbon neutral. When you burn it, sure it puts carbon in the air, but it is only the carbon you took out of the air when you grew the plants which you take the fuel from. And the plant in question is actually pond scum – algae. The beauty with this compared to growing corn is you don’t need to use land, open ponds will do it or you can grow this stuff in vats, your only inputs are sunlight and carbon dioxide, the water you use can be wastewater or even saltwater so you are not using valuable water, and when you grow this stuff you crush it, and out of the algae you get somewhere between one third and two thirds of the mass is actually oil. And it is a vegetable oil but if you can push it through an ordinary refinery and crack it and you get gas off the top, diesel in the middle, bunker at the bottom, all of which will go through the existing distribution systems and will run existing engines, you don’t have to change the systems. So that’s the kind of solution ExxonMobil is working on, a lot of other people are too. They have finally realized they are not oil companies they are energy companies, and we are not going to give up our cars but we do have to stop burning fossil fuels in them. So if you can get ahead of the pack and come up with fuel that will run these cars and that is carbon neutral, you have just assured yourself two generations of market leadership.
MA: So when you point out that the largest funder of the denial campaign ExxonMobil is actually trying to develop this new technology and in the same breath you also wrote about these other consortiums for example Desertech which has designed a plan to power fifteen percent of Europe through solar power in the desert, and then there are the efforts for geothermal and wind. I mean does that give you any hope that we are not going to have to geoengineer and we are not going to have to build new nuclear power plants.
GD: A little bit, but the task is immense and the timelines are not good. I mean we wasted the last decade, I would have been a lot more optimistic if we had been working away at it ten years ago but by in large we weren’t, although we understood what the problem was by then.
MA: Well why don’t you tell us a little bit about for example Deserttech and these kinds of things that are being developed?
GD: Well this is a proposal of a consortium of really big European energy companies who are making a deal with the countries of North Africa: Algeria, Tunisia and so on. The idea is they have ninety-eight percent of their territory is desert and it is the Sahara Desert which is a fairly sunny place. So why don’t you use that vast expanse of desert with very energetic sunshine, put in your solar arrays, you know the little cells you collect electricity from sunlight, and then there is not much market for it in Algeria which doesn’t have a huge power demand, but run a cable under the Mediterranean Sea and plug it in the other end to the European energy grid and now you are cooking because there is a market. And why would the Algerians do this? Because they depend on selling oil now but they know that oil is going to become less and less popular, and if we get ahead of the problem a lot of it will be in the ground forever because we stopped burning it and even if not, they are going to run out of it. So here is an export that will go on giving the next generations, a long-term future. Why would they not do that and in fact they would love to do it. So there are these deals to be made and people can make money at it and conservatives can rest easy because private enterprise will do lots of this and in fact most of it.
But here is the thing, why am I a pessimist about us getting all the way to there in time? It is this. We need a global deal in order to get this happening because if any country starts investing in a big way in these technologies and spending the money and its trade rivals don’t then it is at a huge disadvantage. We are spending the money to fix the atmosphere for everybody but nobody else is carrying their share of the load and their products cost less than ours because we are spending that extra money. So we need a global deal where everybody puts there shoulder to the wheel or nobody will. Why can’t we make a global deal? Why can’t they just say ‘Okay that is a problem here is the solution sign here’? And the answer is that there is a real historical problem and the historical problem is this: eighty percent of the greenhouse gases that are in the air are now of human origin, the excess stuff that is causing the warming, was put there by a very small group of countries of which the US is one. You know it is the old industrial countries: America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Russia, Japan. They account for about one-seventh of the world’s population and they put eighty percent of that stuff up there because they started putting it up there two centuries ago. They had their Industrial Revolution and got rich because they were burning fossil fuels and they have taken up almost all the space in the atmosphere that is available in terms of dumping extra carbon dioxide in there before you go past 450 parts per million and crash through the two-degree barrier. So now all these other countries come along, China, India, Brazil, and the rest who want to industrialise, who are well on the way to doing it, but if they do it the way we did it, burning fossil fuels, then we will all go over the cliff together. So make a deal that somehow lets them go on growing their economies but stops them from growing their emissions because it is mainly them whose emissions are increasing now.
MA: It would make sense for them to then develop the technology that would take us out of this mess.
It would indeed, except they are still relatively poor countries so someone’s got to pay for that and it probably isn’t them. When you go to these big conferences everybody knows what the deal is, I mean it doesn’t get signed but everybody knows what it would work like if it was made, and it looks like this: The developed countries because they are largely responsible for the fact we are so near the edge now take really big cuts up front. The numbers that were being kicked around in Copenhagen were three percent cuts in ten years in our emissions which is a big bite. It wouldn’t be cheap, but it is doable, you wouldn’t have to mobilise like we did in the second world war but you would definitely feel the pain. We take forty percent cuts in ten years that slows down the process and gives a little breathing space and then we can do it a little bit less vigorously in the next decades. The developing countries don’t take cuts. They cap their emissions where they are at now, don’t expect them to take cuts, they are still poor, we are rich. We have been burning this stuff for two hundred years, they have been burning it for twenty. They still do per capita maybe a quarter of what we do per capita in terms of emissions. You mustn’t expect them to take cuts, the most you can ask them is to cap their emissions where they are at now, we will take the cuts. And if they cap their emissions that means they can’t put any more fossil fuel sources of power in, they can’t put any more coal-powered plants in, the vehicles have to be fuelled by something that isn’t gasoline. Who pays the difference between the cheap and dirty coal-fired plant that China puts up every week now, and the solar arrays, the wind farms, the nuclear power plants, whatever it is that they put up instead, once they have signed that deal and they have agreed to cut their emissions? And the answer is we do. That is the deal and it is fair but it looks very lop-sided. I mean if any Western leader came home having signed that and said we have saved the planet here is the deal we are going to cut our emissions by forty percent, the developing countries won’t raise their emissions anymore they are going to cap them, and we are going to be shipping one hundred billion dollars a year collectively to them so they can go on growing their economies without growing their emissions, you wouldn’t survive a week in office. That is why the deal doesn’t get done. It will get done eventually but it may get done a little too late.
This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.
For more of our audio and visual content, check out our YouTube channel, or head to the University of Auckland’s manuscripts and archives collection.
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.
You might also like:
Q+A: Do we need to radically change our lives to stop climate change?
What are the politics of climate change, energy, and disasters? ▶