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British Nukes: Taking the Long View

17 March 2006

British Nukes: Taking the Long View

By Gwynne Dyer

Last November, when Britain was having a public debate about the government’s intention to proceed with a whole new generation of nuclear weapons that would last the country into the mid-21st century, I wrote a column in which I mocked Defence Secretary John Reid for not even knowing why he wanted the weapons. How could he possibly justify such a major expenditure and such a provocative policy, I asked, with the lame excuse that “It is impossible in most cases to predict where your enemy will come from….Whether we might have a nuclear enemy in 15 years’ time is a difficult question to answer, other than to say history probably suggests we will.”

I think I owe John Reid an apology. I think I now understand why he wanted the nuclear weapons, and why he was not willing to get specific about it.

Some time this month or next, the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change will send a draft report to the world’s governments in which it drastically raises its prediction for the amount of global warming to be expected in this century from the anticipated rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In its last report it suggested that the average global temperature might increase as little as 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees F) over the course of the century, which would have a significant but still manageable impact in terms of wilder weather, coastal flooding and changing rainfall patterns.

The IPCC’s experts now know that merely raising the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere by 30 percent over the pre-industrial level (270 parts per million) is already producing major simultaneous changes in sea ice, glaciers, droughts, floods, ecosystems, and ocean acidification. They have redone their calculations on the amount of warming to be expected from doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere (the level we will reach by 2050 if we stay on our present course), taking into account some positive feedback effects that they had not previously allowed for. The results are disturbing, to say the least.

The IPCC’s new estimates for global warming during the 21st century range from a minimum of 2 degrees C (just under 4 degrees F) to a maximum of 5.8 degrees C (over 10 degrees F). The planet has not been that hot since the start of the Eocene era 55 million years ago, when a huge release of carbon gases of uncertain, perhaps volcanic origin drove global temperatures up for about 200,000 years. Natural processes eventually sequestered most of the carbon and restored a normal climate, but during the long hot spell, both the equatorial regions and most of the mid-latitudes where the bulk of the world’s population now lives were barren semi-deserts.

These revised estimates, in other words, are very bad news for most countries. If you are Spanish or Brazilian or Thai — or American, for that matter — most or all of your country is going to turn into a desert unless we all cut CO2 emissions radically starting yesterday. Indeed, at least two-thirds of the world’s existing farmland would become sterile, and billions would have to move or die.

These estimates will have no immediate impact in the United States, where disbelief in climate change is still strong. President Bush’s principal adviser on these matters, James Connaughton, recently expressed the view that we may be able to double the atmospheric concentration of CO2, perhaps even triple or quadruple it, without changing the climate. (Physics and chemistry work differently on his planet.) But elsewhere, some governments are paying close attention to the implications of all this.

Within the scenario of general climate catastrophe, some countries come out relatively unharmed, mainly because they are in the high latitudes. Ironically, they are mostly the older industrialised countries that bear the largest share of the responsibility for setting the disaster in motion: Canada, Britain, Germany, Russia, Japan. Some of them, with long land borders, can expect to be overwhelmed by more numerous refugees from the south if this disaster actually comes to pass, but Britain is an island — a very crowded island with little room for refugees.

The British government makes lots of mistakes, but there is no government in the world that puts as much effort into building long-term scenarios and thinking them through. I would be astonished if there were not some cell in London that spends much of its time modelling the future consequences of extreme climate change and feeding its conclusions to its political masters.

The first duty of British politicians is to protect the British people. If the worst comes to pass, that could well involve a capability to stop too many refugees from swamping Lifeboat Britain. In a world where nuclear weapons would almost certainly be more widespread than they are now, a credible British nuclear deterrent would be an indispensable part of such a policy, and I’ll bet next month’s mortgage that exactly that argument got made last year somewhere in Whitehall.

So apologies to John Reid for not taking him seriously enough. And apologies to the rest of you for ruining your breakfast.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“These estimates…all this”; and “The British…masters”)