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.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note December 13, 2017, 7:25 pm

McCain’s War

“Although McCain participated in a morally unpardonable war in which the United Sates killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, one can’t help sympathizing with him in his reduced state.”

Publisher's Note November 10, 2017, 5:29 pm

Industrial Tourism

NAFTA is an investment contract that protects American and Canadian goods and interests against Mexican expropriation, regulation, and pestering by local authorities.

Publisher's Note October 5, 2017, 11:31 am

A Sad Heritage

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2017

Destroyer of Worlds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Crossing Guards

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I am Here Only for Working”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dear Rose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Year of The Frog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dead Ball Situation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Destroyer of Worlds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman, and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option. Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity. In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.

Illustration by Darrel Rees. Source photographs: Kim Jong-un © ITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy Stock Photo; Donald Trump © Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Article
Crossing Guards·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ambassador Bridge arcs over the Detroit River, connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, the southernmost city in Canada. Driving in from the Canadian side, where I grew up, is like viewing a panorama of the Motor City’s rise and fall, visible on either side of the bridge’s turquoise steel stanchions. On the right are the tubular glass towers of the Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, and Michigan Central Station, the rail terminal that closed in 1988. On the left is a rusted industrial corridor — fuel tanks, docks, abandoned warehouses. I have taken this route all my life, but one morning this spring, I crossed for the first time in a truck.

Illustration by Richard Mia
Article
“I am Here Only for Working”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

But the exercise of labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. . . . He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.

— Karl Marx

Photograph from the United Arab Emirates by the author. This page: Ruwais Mall
Article
The Year of The Frog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas
Article
Dead Ball Situation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, by Simon Critchley. Penguin Books. 224 pages. $20.

Begin, as Wallace Stevens didn’t quite say, with the idea of it. I so like the idea of Simon Critchley, whose books offer philosophical takes on a variety of subjects: Stevens, David Bowie, suicide, humor, and now football — or soccer, as the US edition has it. (As a matter of principle I shall refer to this sport throughout as football.) “All of us are mysteriously affected by our names,” decides one of Milan Kundera’s characters in Immortality, and I like Critchley because his name would seem to have put him at a vocational disadvantage compared with Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, or even, in the Anglophone world, A. J. Ayer or Richard Rorty. (How different philosophy might look today if someone called Nobby Stiles had been appointed as the Wykeham Professor of Logic.)

Tostão, No. 9, and Pelé, No. 10, celebrate Carlos Alberto’s final goal for Brazil in the World Cup final against Italy on June 21, 1970, Mexico City © Heidtmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Minimum square footage of San Francisco apartments allowed under new regulations:

220

A Disney behavioral ecologist announced that elephants’ long-range low-frequency vocal rumblings draw elephant friends together and drive elephant enemies apart.

The judge continued to disallow the public release of Brailsford’s body-cam footage, and the jury spent less than six hours in deliberation before returning a verdict of not guilty. The police then released the video, showing Brailsford pointing his AR-15 assault rifle at Shaver while a sergeant asked him if he understood that there was “a very severe possibility” he would “get shot.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today