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Radical means required

By Dr. Murray Rudd

Gwynne Dyer recently gave the inaugural Green Books public lecture on his book Climate Wars. Dr. Dyer, a military historian by training, has interviewed scientists, politicians, and senior military officials around the globe about the potential security implications of global warming.

The picture he presents in Climate Wars is bleak. Even if we can rein in our greenhouse gas pollution quickly, we are likely to see a two-degree rise in average temperature globally. That, Dr. Dyer contends, will lead to crop failures, water shortages, sea level rise, forced migrations, and armed conflict, quite possibly including regional nuclear wars.

If we go beyond a two degree temperature rise, and odds are good we will, there are a host of environmental feedbacks that could spin global warming out of human control. In the popular media, global warming is often presented as an unsettled matter, still under scientific debate. Dr. Dyer is very clear that the science is settled and that past predictions of global warming have been too conservative.

Assuming that global warming is real, what are its potential implications? Dr. Dyer delves into the frightening possibilities in Climate Wars through his stories about potential human futures.

Many people at the Corner Brook lecture were shocked at Dr. Dyer’s scenarios. But shock has its virtues – surprises make us think about the future, what matters in life, and what type of world we want our children to inherit.

Global warming will impose costs on us all. Senior military officials made it explicit to Dyer that if we don’t invest in solutions to global warming now, then we will certainly pay the price in human lives and economic disruption in the future.

Newfoundland might be a good place to be in a warming world but no island on our networked globe is immune from the impacts of short-term choices made by desperate people in faraway places. As Dr. Dyer stressed, “eating is a non-negotiable activity.” When people are hungry and thirsty, their governments will use all strategies and tools at their disposal to secure food and water.

There is a danger that some people will become so depressed by Dr. Dyer’s cold, painful realism that they simply withdraw and let others deal with the impacts of global warming come what may. Collective denial would be a huge mistake, however, because it will inevitably lead to even more dangerous futures being realized.

Climate Wars should make each of us ponder the question: if the military believes that global warming is real and is willing to act on that belief, would it not be prudent for me to also accept its reality and act accordingly?

Dr. Dyer was very clear that individuals driving less, saving energy, and buying “sustainable” products will help buy valuable time to fight global warming but that those actions are not solutions. Even risky geo-engineering projects to slow warming are only stop-gap measures. We need, he contends, a radical move to wean our societies entirely off fossil fuels as quickly as humanly possible.

Our political leaders are not stupid. They are aware, Dr. Dyer emphasized, of the potential severity of global warming. Politicians do, however, need to be in office to effect change and this poses a problem.

During elections, voters routinely punish political leaders who frankly discuss tough choices. The policy questions we need to address now are vexing. Should we curb oil production and impose carbon taxes at the expense of jobs and the economy? Should we use nuclear power to displace oil and coal as our primary energy sources? Should we negotiate water sales to thirsty Americans before, as Dr. Dyer puts it, they “kick the door in?”

Tackling global warming will require political sophistication, realism, tough choices, lots of money, and concrete action. Unfortunately the timing is such that we needed all of those yesterday.

If Canadians are not really willing to allow political leaders to openly discuss the tough options needed to combat global warming, how can we expect real action from them? Perhaps the single most important thing that we, as citizens, can do to fight global warming is to allow our political leaders to take their responsibilities seriously and do their jobs without penalizing them for speaking frankly about some very unsavoury policy options.

Every Canadian can immediately accept real thinking, reward real leadership, and embrace serious political deliberation about our dilemma if we each believe, as the global military community now seems to, that global warming is real and that its consequences could be truly appalling.

Dr. Murray Rudd is the Canada Research Chair in Ecological Economics at the Environmental Policy Institute at Grenfell College.