Prudence or Terror?

February 16, 2011 at 11:46 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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A while back I read a book about climate change by the journalist Gwynne Dyer. It’s scared the be-Jesus out of me. Here’s the review I wrote, which was originally published in Kerux, the newsletter of Pax Christi Metro New York, the local branch of the international Catholic peace movement:

Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats, by Gwynne Dyer. Oneworld Publications, 2010. 288 pp. $24.99.

As Christians, we strive to consider the burgeoning environmental crisis in the light of God’s gracious gift of creation and in the hope of redemption.  This is not the approach Gwynne Dyer adopts in Climate Wars. Instead, Dyer, an internationally-known  geopolitical analyst, deploys ten grim scenarios likely to play out over the next fifty years as a result of climate change.  As one on-line reviewer observes, if you woke up this morning wanting to read a book that will “scare the living  #$! out of you,” Climate Change is it.

Included among Dyer’s scenarios are the death of three-and-half million Bangladeshis from cyclones between 2022 and 2025; the installation in 2025 of a fence armed with land-mines and remote-controlled machine guns along the entire US/Mexican border to keep out  millions of “climate refugees” fleeing unremitting drought and famine;  the cessation of agricultural production in California’s Central Valley and the high plains of the American West by  the mid-2030s; and in 2036, a six-day nuclear war between India and Pakistan over the water in the parched Indus River.

Following each scenario is an analysis of the climate change factors that make it likely. Dyer begins by explaining the “feedback mechanisms”–the melting of polar sea ice, methane release from thawing permafrost, the disappearance of heat-reflective glaciers–that make it likely that by 2050 the CO level will actually be higher than is currently predicted. Next we learn that biofuels are no solution to global warming because their production has already massively reduced world grain reserves; soon, according to Dyer, millions of people will face starvation so that some of us can have eco-friendly fuel for our cars, with wars inevitably following (55).  Neither will cap-and-trade alone solve our problems, for reversal of the levels of carbon emissions we have already reached demand at least a concomitant massive restoration of the rainforests .  Finally Dyer details the obstacle to carbon reduction posed by the conflicts between developed, developing, and almost permanently impoverished nations. Only a colossal assumption of responsibility (and cost) on the part of the developed nations can possibly resolve them.

Christians may object to the cynicism of Dyer’s world-view, as when he asserts, early on, that “the (climate change) crisis was foreordained from the moment that the first woman planted a seed” (44).  And many environmentalists will loathe his advocacy of geo-engineering solutions to the climate change crisis–spraying droplets of seawater into the air to make clouds more reflective of sunlight, fertilizing the oceans with trace elements to foster growth of CO2 -eating phytoplankton, or  in the worst  case, shooting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to block solar radiation (232).

In one way, however, Dyer’s argument sounds almost Catholic.  In 2001 the US  bishops issued a letter, “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good.” In it, they  acknowledge what most scientists say: that the earth is warming and human activity is causing it.  Our response to climate change, then, must be  “rooted in the virtue of prudence.” Despite some remaining uncertainty about the extent of climate change, according to the bishops, “it seems prudent to take steps now to mitigate possible negative effects in the future.”

Gwynne Dyer does not speak of prudence, but of something similar. Confronting climate change now, he writes, is like taking out insurance. Few homeowners reject buying insurance because there’s no proof that their home is going to burn down. They buy insurance because their house could burn down, and without insurance, such a fire would ruin them.  In Climate Wars, Gwynne Dyer demonstrates that our planet may very well burn up, and sooner than we thought.  Like sensible homeowners, we need to determine the coverage we need and write that check quickly.

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