Gwynne Dyer

In Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats, London-based journalist Gwynne Dyer forecasts a none-too-rosy future for our warming planet: nations go to nuclear war over shrinking water supplies; famine is widespread; anarchy reigns. Dyer likens this moment in history to a “final exam, with the whole environment that our civilisation depends on at stake,” and assembles a battery of sources—including military officers, scientists, and policy makers—to back up his argument that either the fossil-fuel status quo goes or we do.

How did the book come about?

About three years ago I was in Washington, D.C., staying with an old friend who was part of the intelligence world. He dropped in conversation that the Pentagon was getting interested in climate change. He gave me a few phone numbers for some contacts there, and I talked to a couple of them. They wouldn’t give me any quotes—just background—but I learned that yep, they were seeing that they will be called on to engage in all sorts of operations, including armed conflicts, that are triggered by the warming. It’s their job to foresee that sort of thing and plan for it. They’re doing it.

This was under the Bush administration, which was accused of trying to suppress and distort the science on climate change.

Right. Even under Bush, the Pentagon was looking at climate change—it just wasn’t politically wise to talk about in public if you were a federal employee. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were doing this research and not publishing it. They could see that this was where their future business was going to come from. I cast my net wider and discovered that military people all over the world were looking at the issue. It’s their job to detect emerging threats, and, by God, they were doing their job. So now I had a live one for a book—a subject worth devoting some time to, because no one else was chasing it.

I made a list of people I wanted to interview and found some generals, both serving and retired. The retired ones are not constrained—they’re grateful when you call. The scientists are also a grateful group.

I assume they don’t get many calls.

Yes, and you can work with that. It gets you through a lot of doors.

I spent about 18 months gathering research and did a radio series on climate change as I wrote the book. The book started coming out last year. It’s already been translated into Chinese. You’re getting the second edition, which has an update.

The chapter about the Copenhagen climate conference in December 2009?

Yes, and some of the stuff about more recent military developments and geoengineering.

Geoengineering involves controlling the environment to slow the pace of climate change. It’d probably strike many as controversial.

Two years ago you couldn’t get scientists to talk about geoengineering. Everyone knew you could do it, but they didn’t want to talk about it because they’d be ostracized. The public would get the idea that we can hold the temperature down, and then we’d go on burning fossil fuels. Now all of the scientists are talking about it. At a big conference in Monterey, California, in March about 200 scientists came out of the closet because they reckon that we’re going to need to hold the temperature down so that we don’t go into runaway warming. People have done their sums and realized, “Oh shit, we’re way over our heads.” So we have to start thinking about anything we can do to get through this.

Why do you think it’s so hard for people to talk openly about climate change?

Both the military and the governments and also some scientists agree that we don’t want to scare the children. So not everything they think may or could happen is in public. But governments are really up to speed. In the U.S. or even British media, it still looks like there’s a debate going on, but there’s no debate going on in the governments. There’s no doubt. They’ve all signed up.

Your assessment of the Copenhagen conference isn’t too flattering.

Well, it was a train wreck in that they didn’t get much done. But one thing everyone signed up for there was a commitment that the world can’t get more than two degrees [Celsius, or 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit] warmer than the average global temperature was in 1990—we’re at about .8 degrees Celsius now, or 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. More than two degrees warmer, and we’re not just dealing with emissions but also with feedbacks: melting permafrost in the high north, on land, which causes methane to bubble out through the melt ponds on the surface of the tundra. And when the ice melts off the Arctic Ocean, then the open, dark water absorbs the heat that the shiny white ice would have reflected back into space. You lose control. If we can turn the emissions down, we can stop the warming. Every government signed up for that. Not even the Saudi Arabians refused.

Nevertheless, many Americans continue to politicize climate change.

The U.S. is kind of an island universe in this regard. The American media is pretty disconnected from the rest of the world. When I go to the States it feels like five years ago, because people are debating things that I’d thought were resolved. You go to Germany, France, or Japan and this debate isn’t happening.

The propaganda machine is self-sustaining. One one hand, you have Exxon Mobil no longer pouring money into discrediting climate science but actually producing ways to get us off fossil fuels. On the other, many people are still making a living off the denial industry. It’s remarkably emotional in the U.S. It’s been lifted out of its scientific context and become a kind of badge of membership: if you deny the climate scientists then you’re one of us. And being one of us is a big emotional thing. It’s a whole deck of cards—you’re against abortion and gay rights and climate change.

What’s your thought about the green trend—organic clothing and the like?

I don’t do that stuff. I don’t want to shit all over people who do, because gestures are important—but don’t mistake the gesture for the reality. You don’t change things by wearing green clothing but by not building coal-fired power plants. Not building one plant is worth wearing all the green clothing on the planet. This is a big problem, and it has to be addressed at the government level. You can help a little bit by changing your lifestyle and by being aware that when you ride your bicycle or put the extra insulation in the roof you’re buying more time for us to get out of fossil fuels entirely. But the goal is to get out of fossil fuels entirely, because sooner or later you’ll be hit by the feedbacks and lose control. . . .

Do people ever call you an alarmist? How do you respond?

I’m not an alarmist—I’m an optimistic person. I think we can get through this thing, and do so without even having to change our lifestyle fundamentally. But it’s a very big thing, and we need to get it right. No second chances.

I’ve watched quite a few things in my life turn out OK that I thought wouldn’t. I knew the old USSR—I used to work there, and I would’ve bet you my house that the situation there wouldn’t crack without violence. But it did. You look at a couple of things like that and you realize that people can actually turn things around once they get the idea, and things can happen that you never expected. So I haven’t cut my throat yet.