“Climate Wars” & “The Green Zone”* Reviewed

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Intellectually speaking, discovering the work of Gwynne Dyer was the best thing that’s happened to me in the past several years.

Dyer is a Canadian military analyst and columnist. He’s worked with the navies of Great Britain, Canada and the US, gained a doctorate in Military and Middle Eastern History from the University of London, and taught at Oxford, Sandhurst, and other major schools. Lucky for me, though, he left academia to become a keen, plain-spoken public analyst of international military and strategic issues.

Dyer is plain-spoken enough that he’s had to operate independently, syndicating his weekly columns himself to over a hundred newspapers in forty-five countries. In a better world, Dyer would be on your TV screens every week, taking down some of the top pundits. But he’s too independent for that, particularly on Middle East issues; so he operates on his own, and is making it work. I’ve set a google alert for him on my computer, and watch eagerly for his weekly columns.

He has also published numerous books.  His War, The Lethal Custom, which I read first, is a stunning and incisively revealing history of warfare, well-deserving of its own review. It served up a searching, clear-eyed, yet often grimly witty look back at the clues to war’s origins left by the most ancient human settlements Then he pushed beyond them into the combative behavior of our closest anthropoid ancestors. (The upshot: apes don’t exactly do “war,” but they still kill each other off with depressing regularity; no missing link there.)

Then Dyer pursues his analysis of warfare down through the millennia, to and through the mutual madness of the Cold War, to our own day. Hardly a pacifist, he still shows how the record, particularly of the last century, makes clear that even from a military-friendly perspective, war is a “lethal custom” we have to learn to live without, if we’re going to live at all. Dyer’s War is a tour de force, which ought to be basic reading for any would-be pacifist willing to replace sentimental platitudes with actual thought.

But Dyer’s work on military conflict, superb as it may be, is only a prelude to our subject here: his latest book, Climate Wars. (Not to be confused with The Climate War, another new book by Eric Pooley, which we will not deal with here.) In Climate Wars, Dyer makes a daring leap: he’s no scientist, but like a top journalist he’s a relentless researcher and interviewer, and a quick study. He spent much of a year interviewing many of the world’s top climate scientists, mastering heaps of data and then processing it through his military analyst’s perspective, both to assess the likely strategic implication of global warming, and to critically assess potential responses. Many of the names of those he cross-examined are familiar to climate geeks: James Hansen, Amory Lovins, Lester Brown, top Russian military forecasters, German and British scientists, Nobel prize winners, and so forth.

The result is fully up to his high standards, and easily the most informative (and sobering) look into the climate future I have yet come across. There are many books, essays and movies which offer up dire, but typically cryptic predictions about the impact of climate change on world politics and conflict. But few if any put the forecasts in an informed military-strategic context. Dyer’s background and ability to handle new data yields a uniquely revealing analysis.

Yet, before turning to a brief survey of his main points, it needs to be pointed out here that Climate Wars was published in Canada in 2008, but did not find a US publisher till June 2010. This was a major loss to American readers. Dyer deserves a much larger US audience; perhaps this book will open the way to it.

Here are some of his key points, which have, despite his relative isolation, been leaking into wider circles of attention:

“First, this thing is coming at us a whole lot faster than the publicly acknowledged wisdom has it,” Dyer writes. “When you talk to the people at the sharp end of the climate business . . . there is an air of suppressed panic in many of the conversations. We are not going to get through this without taking a lot of casualties, if we get through it at all.” (xii)

This point will not be news to many of our readers; but it helps to have a no-nonsense observer like Dyer saying it. There are some irreversible climatic turning points coming, and if we miss them, as Dyer delicately puts it, “we are really screwed.” (239)

To avoid this fate, the key task is to replace carbon for energy use. This too is hardly news, but Dyer’s outline of how the job will get done was, at least to me. “Getting through it,” in Dyer’s phrase, depends on making a global deal:

“The outlines of the deal have been obvious for ten or fifteen years, but the political obstacles are huge. . . .To suggest that the developing economic giants accept the same curbs as the fully developed countries while there is still such a great gulf between the living standards of their citizens is simply to invite a punch in the face, so the deal has to include two key elements. First, the rich countries have to accept even deeper cuts in their emissions in order to leave the emerging economies some scope for expanding their emissions. Second, there has to be not only technology transfer, but direct financial subsidies from the developed countries on an extremely large scale, in order to give the developing countries adequate resources for the task of switching their power-generation capacity from fossil sources to (more expensive) non-fossil technologies.” (74)

Let’s repeat this, in other words: We (the rich countries) are called to make a deal with the BRIC nations (BRIC = Brazil, Russia, India and China), which are now “poor” but rapidly developing.

The terms of the deal: As they grow, the BRIC countries agree to switch from a carbon-emitting industrial base for their development to a carbon neutral technology; and the rich countries, while making a similar switch, pay for the BRIC’s transition.

Simple. But of course, not easy.

“Governments on both sides of the fence understand the shape of the deal that must be done, but the politics of it is very hard to manage in the developed countries . . . .Negotiating such a deal – a global deal, with everybody included – will be the second-hardest political enterprise ever undertaken. The hardest will be selling the completed package to the political audiences back home. . . . .[Yet] If that deal cannot be made, then we must live with the consequences. Or die from them.” (74-75)

Note that the BRIC countries are not asked to give up their quest for more affluence and gadgets. That’s because they’re not about to, in any case. For that matter the rich nations, while taking the big financial hit, won’t de-industrialize either.

While there is an eco-faction that believes industrial society is the problem, and a return to a dispersed hunter-gatherer remnant culture is the path to salvation, Dyer doubts they will ever win any elections (or revolutions) in the rich countries, and certain of that in the BRIC world:

“[The deal] does not mean that we de-industrialize,” he declares, “–this global society will live or die as a high-energy enterprise.” (240) After all, most of the needed technology already exists, and more is coming; the key obstacles are summed up in that catchphrase “political will,” the hardest part.

It’s not a surprise that many in our society find this idea of the worldwide deal too much to comprehend. Instead, too many have recoiled into a privatized stance of personal righteousness, “lowering my carbon footprint,” and “living lightly on (my piece of) earth.”

Dyer is not having it. His assessment of this individualized approach is frank: “all the stuff about changing the lightbulbs and driving less, although it is useful for raising consciousness and gives people some sense of control over their fate, is practically irrelevant to the outcome of this crisis.” (xii)

This burst of astringent plain-speaking almost made me cheer. This is so important, it is worth repeating: all our obsessing about fiddling the thermostat and air-drying the laundry and so forth “is practically irrelevant to the outcome of this crisis.”

How can that be? Two main reasons: first, the BRIC population is several billion more than the US and Europe. Yes, the rich countries polluted first and foremost, but as the BRIC nations continue their emergence from poverty, their energy use will vastly outstrip ours (China already produces more emissions than the US). Controlling this rapidly expanding surge is much more important to the carbon transition.

And second, the central task of this transition is not about you, me and our lightbulbs. (Hard to believe for us self-centered Americans, but there it is.) It’s about the work of building the “political will” that can make possible an unprecedented deal, a worldwide negotiated agreement, the scale and content of which has never been seen before.

And to get that deal done, your lightbulbs or mine hardly count one way or the other.

(I realize this declaration is rank heresy; I hope shocked readers will be willing to finish this article anyway.)

But then, how does that “political will” get built? There’s certainly little sign of it on the current horizon. For instance, the high hopes many had for the climate summit in Copenhagen in late 2009 evaporated as soon as the smoke cleared, the mirrors were covered and the bigwigs flew home.  For that matter, this task doesn’t seem very high on the priority lists of many major figures in the climate field. Take Lester Brown, for instance. Dyer interviewed him and calls him “a hero” of the climate change concern. Yet even he seems to do much better at describing what a transformed society might look like than figuring out how to get the transformation done.

The Quaker environmental groups are not much better. There are voices like that of Friend Keith Helmuth (cf. “The Angel of History, the Storm of Progress, And the Order of the Soul,” in our Issue #12; and my partly critical response, “Melting Icebergs Don’t Scream,” in Issue #13), who have grasped the outlines of the deal (but then, Helmuth lives in Canada and has been reading Gwynne Dyer for years). But at the 2009 FGC Gathering, in a major plenary address, the Clerk of the Quaker Environmental Witness focused almost exclusively on the lightbulbs and laundry approach, as if everything hung on the personal habits of a few thousand liberal Quakers. There’s something troublingly myopic, even escapist, about this level of self-absorption.

Dyer, on the other hand, looks this crisis straight in the face. The impetus that “persuaded me that it was time to write this book” came from his main “beat,” covering “wars and rumors of war.” Specifically, “a dawning awareness that, in a number of the great powers, climate change scenarios are already playing a large and increasing role in the military planning process. . . .”(x-xii)

The current US administration would appear to share many of the right ideas on climate change. But they face roadblocks manned by a currently impregnable alliance of military self-interest plus potent oil, gas, coal and other lobbies. Thus far the combination has stymied any bold actions the White House may have contemplated. So Dyer’s “political will” doesn’t look much closer in the U.S. than it did in the darkest days of the previous administration, stocked as it was with climate change deniers.

How can the logjam get broken? Dyer cites

“what Winston Churchill said about Americans [but which now] actually applies to the whole human race: you can count on us to do the right thing in the end, but only after we have exhausted all the other alternatives.” (167)

Dyer suggests that multiple disasters could do it. He spells out what this could mean in a scenario, looking only a year or so ahead, at a hypothetical

“series of regional climate-related calamities – the storm surge that inundated most of the Nile Delta and made ten million Egyptians homeless in 2011, the summer-long heat wave that caused at least seventy-five thousand deaths in the American Midwest in 2013, and the catastrophic floods on the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Brahmaputra rivers in 2014 – served to mobilize public opinion on the issue of climate change, not just in the most severely affected countries but all around the world.”(189)

No doubt the scenario’s potential catastrophes are plausible enough; but I’m not at all sure that they would bring the key lobbies and populations to their senses; rather, they might as easily spark a series of fratricidal wars.
Dyer agrees. The shift required “is akin to changing the engine, the driveshaft and all four wheels of a moving car without ever stopping it.”(72)

Sounds tricky.

But what’s the alternative? Is it possible to stave off reaching the no-going-back carbon turning points until momentum for the global deal gets built up, one way or another?

Maybe. If so, it will involve an option that’s being talked about more and more among the key figures involved, but in hushed tones, as if it’s too dangerous or too seductive for the public ear. But Dyer, reporter that he is, lifts the veil on it.

The “magic” unmentionable word is “geo-engineering.”

Geo-engineering would involve pumping enough chemical dust, mainly sulfates, into the upper atmosphere, to become a kind of planetary umbrella. “We are going to get the miserable job of planetary maintenance engineer for a while,” as Dyer says. A vast cloud of such particles, reflecting some of the sun’s heat back into space, could produce a “global dimming” that would hold back the warming trend, perhaps long enough to get the global deal done and sold. Then “. . . the goal must be to work ourselves out of a job” (238) as this global veil slowly disperses and lets the sun shine in again, on a cooler, de-carbonized world economy.

Geo-engineering is now a term being spoken more openly, but it is obviously very controversial. It’s untested; the unknown risks are –well, unknown. Dyer rightly regards it as an emergency measure; but the burden of almost every page in Climate Wars is that we are facing an emergency situation, calling for extraordinary measures.

At this point we can summarize the key points Gwynne Dyer has brought into sharp focus. For those with ears to hear, they portend a dramatic reshaping of climate change and environmental discussions, among Quakers and the public generally.

First, the Quaker and other environmental groups would do their members and the public a great service by undertaking a fully informed debate on the merits of this geo-engineering, and, if it is deemed too risky, some other comparable emergency measures. (Even if these debates require putting lightbulbs and laundry on the back burner for the nonce.)

Second, place an equal emphasis on ways to help build the momentum for “the deal,” in the last-chance interval that geo-engineering’s “global veil” opens up.

And third, pay parallel attention to the impact of militarism, mainly U.S. militarism, on global warming itself, and the mechanisms that make it hard for our policymakers to do “the deal.”

This latter, in my view, is the great unadmitted elephant in the room. In fact, the U.S. military has long been a major player in this whole volatile energy use mix, though few environmentalists seem to have taken this into account: the Pentagon is the largest user of oil, and simultaneously the enforcer of US control of oil resources. Only one of the activists Dyer interviewed – Robin Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute – mentions this connection; but Dyer gets it:

“There is a flourishing industry in the United States promoting the idea that a long military confrontation with China is inevitable. It has considerable tacit support from those branches of the U.S. armed forces that can only justify their large investments in high-tech military hardware by the existence of a ‘peer competitor’ . . . . The only conceivable candidate for this role is China . . . .[Yet] it is absolutely clear that global cooperation on dealing with this most global of problems will only be possible in a relatively peaceful and non-confrontational environment. . . .If the great powers get into a desperate race to nail down dwindling oil supplies . . .or if the U.S. and china tumble into a new Cold War, there will be no global deal.” (109-110)

I will say it again: in these pages, Dyer puts at our service a unique and formidable combination of military knowledge, top journalistic abilities, keen analytic skills, independent analysis, and clear writing. Climate Wars shows us how the work of thinking our way to survival in this crisis can be done.   

Unfortunately, Barry Sanders, in The Green Zone, shows us how not to do it.

His topic, as indicated earlier, is a crucial one: plumbing in depth the role of the U.S. military as an environmental actor: a vast consumer of energy and other resources; a polluter of land, earth and water; the imperial enforcer of oil policy – and a major force in shaping that very policy. We desperately need to know more about all these aspects of the military’s role, in the kind of detail and with analytic skill on a level with that displayed by Gwynne Dyer.

We need it – and unfortunately, Barry Sanders is not the one to deliver it. Where Dyer has a doctorate in military history and strategy, Sanders spent his career teaching English and the history of ideas.

Here’s the difference this difference makes: The Green Zone began as a projected series of lengthy blog pieces for the Huffington Post, a progressive-leaning website, in October 2007.

However, by the time the second installment appeared, the right-wing blogosphere was lit up with derisive posts pointing out numerous factual errors in Sanders’s efforts to outline how much fuel and other energy resources U.S. military planes, ships and other equipment actually use. After seeking a response from Sanders that “confuses as much as it clarifies,” Huffington Post proprietor Ariana Huffington killed the rest of the series.

Huffington’s decision was both defensible and unfortunate. Defensible because Sanders’s work does not stand up to factual scrutiny. But unfortunate in that a better course would have been to do it over, with a different team.
Sanders himself said of the project,

“Sometimes, it takes a military expert to find the facts. Sometimes a chemist is needed. . . .That is why at the outset I said:

“I write as a citizen. . .as a layman, not a scientist; as an outsider from the academy, not an insider from the Pentagon.. . . I am not a mathematician, not a military person, not a trained climatologist–and it would be wonderful to put together such a team and reach an absolutely authoritative version of this essay, if such a thing is even possible.”

We’ve already seen that it is indeed possible for an “outsider” to do related work of high quality. But expertise is indispensable for rigor and credibility.

To be sure, Sanders also pointed out, rightly, that when it comes to dealing with the military, and not only on this issue, “so much of the data that one needs to make an argument is hidden and obscure.” And, “As a friend told me from the outset, one cannot take on the military in this country, without getting knocked about.”

All true. But all the more reason why this project needed to be undertaken by a researcher (or better, a team) with both the requisite expertise, and the experience of being “knocked about”  –and having survived–in the rough-and-tumble of military policy debates.

This said, it is still the case that Sanders makes some important points. Take the matter of basic information: “Finding answers for virtually any question about the military, in general, or the war in Iraq, in particular, is not easy. Finding exact answers is next to impossible.” (28)

Partly this is simply a matter of scale: our military establishment is so vast, girdling the globe, that as one astute observer, Chalmers Johnson, put it, “the Pentagon itself may not know the answers to many of the questions”; I have no doubt that is the case.

But then, beyond the ignorance and incompetence that make good research difficult (and which it unwise to underestimate), much information about this war machine is intentionally kept secret.

For instance, I am writing this next door to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a large and well-known installation. Much data (though not all) can be retrieved about it. But a few miles west of its far border, in the pine forests, there is another sizeable base, Camp Mackall. It is publicly known that thousands of troops train there, for the secretive Delta Force and other clandestine units. Almost nothing else about it is public information; and the army isn’t telling.

Good luck making an accurate environmental or energy assessment about Camp Mackall. A researcher with enough background in Special Forces operations could work up an educated guess; but only a guess. And there are many other bases like Camp Mackall.

As for keeping track of the Pentagon’s trillions, the situation is equally murky. Sanders says tartly that, “As taxpayers, we own stock in a nefarious corporation that cooks the books until they are well done. When they get audited, they typically tell the auditors to go to hell.” (37)

Reflecting on what he was able to learn, Sanders comes to one conclusion that will now be familiar from our visit with Gwynne Dyer:

“Public service announcements, advertisements, politicians, and celebrities, all with the best of intentions, urge every American to recycle and reuse . . . .Those in charge make us feel that the [global warming] crisis remains in our hands to fix or fumble. But the military numbers reveal a very different, perverse truth.

“Even if every person in America decided to stop driving today, and even if every polluting factory in the country voluntarily shut down, the land and the animals and the water and the air . . .would still face a most serious assault. And, ironically, that greatest single assault on the environment, on all of us, around the globe, comes from one agency, that one agency in business to protect us from our enemies, the Armed Forces of the United States.” (77-78)

Lightbulbs and laundry, in short, don’t cut it. All this is discernible from even the incomplete, less-than skillful research Sanders was able to undertake. And it underlines the value of assembling a team of experts to get closer to these hidden truths than he was able to. Filling in the blanks about military energy use can be done – not completely, but better. It needs to be done, if we are to be adequately equipped for doing our part in helping make “the deal” that will get us through these next dangerous decades.


*Climate Wars. Gwynne Dyer. Random House Canada, 2008. (U.S. edition from Oneworld Publications, June 1, 2010)
*The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism. Barry Sanders. AK Press, 2009

Leave a comment