Monday, December 10, 2012

It Is As Bad As It Seems - Ask Gwynne Dyer

When he wrote Climate Wars, military affairs oracle Gwynne Dyer accepted the Pentagon and Brit MoD take on global warming, namely that it meant war, an awful lot of war, throughout this century.

A couple of years later Dyer wrote another book in which he said he had it wrong.  His gut instinct was that we'd somehow find our way out of the global warming death pit.

Now it seems Dyer has concluded he was probably right the first time as he explains in his latest column, Coasting toward Climate Change Disaster.

In the first phase of these [U.N. summit] talks, which concluded with the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the emphasis was on “mitigation”; that is, on stopping the warming by cutting human emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases”. That made good sense, but they didn’t get anywhere. Fifteen years later, emissions are still rising, not falling.

So gradually the emphasis shifted to “adaptation”. If we can’t agree on measures to stop the average global temperature from going up, can we learn to live with it? What’s the plan for developing new crops to withstand the droughts and high temperatures that are coming? What’s the plan for coping with massive floods that drown river valleys and inundate coastlines?

Well, there are no such plans in most places, so the emphasis has shifted again, to compensation. Terrible things will happen to poor countries, so who pays for them? In principle, says the new Loss and Damage mechanism, the rich countries that are responsible for the warming pay. But the “mechanism” has no method for assessing the damage or allocating the blame, so it will become a lawyers’ playground of little use to anybody else.

Besides, the rich countries are going to be fully committed financially in just covering the cost of their own damages. Consider, for example, the US$60 billion that President Barack Obama has just requested from the U.S. Congress to deal with the devastation left by Superstorm Sandy. In practice, there will be very little left to compensate the poor countries for their disasters, even if the rich ones have good intentions.

So if mitigation is a lost cause, and if adaptation will never keep up with the speed at which the climate is going bad, and if compensation is a nice idea whose time will never come, what is the next stage in these climate talks? Prayer? Emigration to another planet? Mass suicide?

There will be a fourth stage to the negotiations, but first we will have to wait until rising temperatures, falling food production and catastrophic storms shake governments out of their present lethargy. That probably won’t happen until quite late in the decade—and by then, at the current rate of emissions, we will be well past the point at which we could hold the rise in average global temperature down to two degrees C (3.6 degrees F).

We will, in fact, be on course for three, four, or even five degrees C of warming, because beyond plus two degrees, the warming that we have already created will trigger “feedbacks”: natural sources of carbon dioxide emissions like melting permafrost which we cannot shut off. 

So then, when it’s too late, everybody will really want a deal, but just cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t be enough any more. We will need some way to hold the temperature down while we deal with our emissions problem, or else the temperature goes so high that mass starvation sets in. The rule of thumb is that we lose 10 percent of global food production for every rise in average global temperature of one degree C.

Dyer concludes that probably, toward the end of this decade, we'll be immersed in the impacts of global warming sufficiently for world powers to dabble in geo-engineering which will probably lead to enormous conflicts and, finally, major war.

And, in Ottawa, the band played on.

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