Theology -- Issue #17
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
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 til
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
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 a, 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
“[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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.”
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.
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