Publisher's Note — July 14, 2010, 4:37 pm

Dyer’s Convincing Global-warming Vision

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the July 14, 2010 Providence Journal.

Until very recently, global warming never struck me as the great issue of the day. I avoided Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” because it seemed too much like homework, and when I finally forced myself to watch it at home on DVD, I fell asleep. Then, last November, after e-mails were leaked from England’s University of East Anglia that made their scientist authors appear high-handed and disingenuous — which came to be known as “Climategate” — I figured maybe I didn’t need to wake up.

Still, the scientific evidence strikes me as largely convincing, and the critics of global-warming projections, like George W. Bush, considerably less so. It’s just that, as bad as they sounded, the awful environmental consequences of climate change always seemed less urgent than, say, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the growing gap between rich and poor.

However, a new book, “Climate Wars,” by the London-based journalist Gwynne Dyer, has abruptly changed my mind. For if Dyer’s warnings are correct, the greatest dangers from global warming are the ones that most concern me in the present: more destructive wars with higher casualties and an even greater widening of the divide between rich and poor, with the former able to buy protection and the latter unable to do so. Certainly, America’s Wilsonian military ambitions (in the guise of a “war on terror”) need to be reined in; and yes, Wall Street’s “free-trade” war against giving decent-paying jobs to the American working class needs to be stopped. But if we don’t get the climate under control, any one of Dyer’s eight imagined scenarios might well dwarf these more immediate calamities.

I don’t know the acceptable concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, now at 390 parts per million and heading up. I’ll leave to such scientists as James Hansen whether the target for reduction should be 350 parts per million — to keep the polar ice caps from melting — or if 450 ppm is a realistic aim. And I’m not qualified to respond to such respectable climate-change critics as Alexander Cockburn who exhibit seemingly reasoned skepticism about the human contribution to global warming.

But if even half of what Dyer describes actually happens, we’re in for social and economic Darwinism that will make the mindless U.S. military adventures in the Mideast look like humanitarian interventions and Wall Street’s larceny look like a social-welfare program.

Consider the most optimistic of Dyer’s dystopias, “Scenario Five: A Happy Tale.” Looking back from the last quarter of the 21st Century, we learn that in 2013 a storm surge overwhelmed the Nile Delta, leaving 10 million people homeless; that in 2015 a terrible heat wave killed 75,000 Midwestern Americans; and that in 2016 devastating floods occurred in the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Brahmaputra river valleys. Happily, these catastrophes provoked a largely rational response from humankind, but there were painful side-effects. Since oil was rapidly replaced by other sources of energy that didn’t add CO2 to the atmosphere, demand for petroleum fell steeply and bloody revolutions ensued in such oil-exporting countries as Nigeria and Iran, where only the rich and connected continued to prosper.

Still, there was good news: When Israel flattened Iran in 2021 in a pre-emptive strike (in the process losing Haifa), nuclear war didn’t spread because nobody cared about Mideast oil anymore.

Despite the successful effort to reverse the growth of CO{-2} in the atmosphere, however, it was already too late to prevent more ecological disasters. Because so much tropical rainforest had been destroyed; because so much Arctic sea ice had melted; and because higher summer temperatures had melted the permafrost in Siberia and Alaska, leading to huge releases of methane and CO{-2}, semi-permanent drought had ruined agriculture in Mexico and Central America, killer cyclones repeatedly hit Bangladesh, and low-lying islands had to evacuate their entire populations to escape rising sea levels.

Unlike Al Gore (whose steadfast support of “free trade” has helped drive manufacturing farther from its biggest markets, thus wasting more fuel in shipping), Dyer is not hypocritical: By 2075, he writes somewhat ironically, it could be said that “this generation has done its job” and “saved civilization.”

If readers find “A Happy Tale” depressing, I encourage them to delve into Dyer’s other scenarios in which “this generation” doesn’t do its job. “People always raid before they starve,” he notes, but “raiding” doesn’t guarantee you’ll get food, water, or work. On this point, Americans should pay special attention to Scenario 3: United States, 2029.

In the good old days, at the beginning of the 21st Century, “only a couple of million Mexicans and Central Americans tried to cross into the United States each year, and American agribusiness needed at least half of them to make it through in order to replenish the supply of cheap illegal labor that made the farms profitable.” As Dyer explains, this “was all done with a nod and a wink” by Congress colluding with business while making a show of trying to halt the flow. But by 2029, with their crops drying up, tens of millions of Latinos were leaving their land and a million a month were trying to get into the U.S., half of whom were making it through.

With border states’ social services overwhelmed, the U.S. public demanded action and immigration control finally got serious. Mines were laid in a moat dug between new border fences, nearly 10 feet high and topped with razor wire and automated machine-guns. There “were very ugly incidents early on when groups of would-be immigrants tried to cross the completed sections of the ‘Big Fence’ and were practically wiped out by the automated weapons and mines.” But the new system worked, and “old-style” illegal entry virtually came to an end.

Sounds preposterous? Not when you observe Arizona’s current political climate and not when you learn that India is already building an eight-foot fence along its entire border with Bangladesh to protect itself from a massive influx of refugees from global warming.

Dyer and the scientists he interviews say it’s not too late to stave off mass starvation and resource wars. Geo-engineering the atmosphere to reflect more of the sun’s heat back into outer space seems to offer some promise. But if we don’t reduce population and consumption and don’t switch to solar, wind and geo-thermal energy, and if we don’t start building pump-storage electrical generators and ban coal-burning plants, “then,” as Dyer says, “we really are screwed.” I don’t think Al Gore could say it any better, or in fewer words.

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