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Risky Territory

16 June 2011

Risky Territory

by Gwynne Dyer

“We are getting into very risky territory,” said Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, last week. But she acknowledged that we may have to go there anyway.

She was talking about geo-engineering, the manipulation of the world’s climate to avoid catastrophic warming. Nobody actually wants to do that, because we don’t understand the climate system well enough to foresee all the possible side-effects. But a large number of people think that in the end we’ll have to do it anyway, because we’re not going to get the warming under control in time without it.

Geo-engineering might involve putting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere (to reflect some incoming sunlight), spraying fine droplets of seawater into low-lying marine clouds to thicken them up (and reflect more sunlight), or painting the world’s roads and roofs white. There are also proposed techniques for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for slowing the acidification of the oceans. In fact, there are dozens of proposals in all.

The topic is now on the table because sixty scientific experts are meeting in Peru on 20 June to begin an exploration of geo-engineering options that will probably end up in the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014. This has caused outrage in some sections of the environmental movement, and 125 organisations wrote an open letter to the IPCC head, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, condemning the whole concept.

“The IPCC…must take great care not to squander its credibility on geo-engineering, a topic that is gathering steam precisely when there is no real progress on mitigation and adaptation,” said the letter. “International peasant organizations, indigenous peoples, and social movements have all expressed outright opposition to such measures as a false solution to the climate crisis.”

Then came a sly suggestion that scientists in this field are a bunch of greedy frauds: “Asking a group of geo-engineering scientists if more research should be done on the topic is like asking a group of hungry bears if they would like honey.” This is clearly a subject that inspires passionate opposition on the left, although the geo-engineers themselves spread right across the political spectrum.

The overwhelming majority of the open letter’s signatories are organisations you have never heard of – Terra-1530 Moldova, the Dogwood Alliance of North Carolina, and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, for example – but they include a few well-known organisations like Friends of the Earth International. Their goal is not just to ban large-scale geo-engineering. It is to ban even small-scale experiments in geo-engineering. Why so angry?

Part of the problem is that there has indeed been “ no real progress on mitigation and adaptation” in recent years, and the enemies of geo-engineering are afraid that efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions will be abandoned in favour of just trying to hold the temperature down artificially. I have never met a geo-engineer who thought that would work, but there is profound suspicion of them among the Greens.

There has been a remarkable reversal of roles in environmental issues over the past century. The old left loved industry, modernity, man “conquering” nature, whereas the old right believed in tradition, conservation and preserving nature. The new left, or large parts of it, hugs trees and romanticises peasants, while the new right, at least in the United States, denies climate change outright.

They are both wrong, and it is not an ideological issue at all. The problem the scientists see, and many other people too, is that an industrialising world of seven billion people poses a grave threat to the very environment it depends on, notably in terms of changing the climate.

Ending greenhouse-gas emissions, reducing population, and adopting sustainable patterns of consumption are the necessary long-term responses to the threat of runaway warming, but they are not happening fast enough to avoid catastrophic changes and mass death. At the moment, in fact, they are not happening at all. So we had better come up with some stopgap measures that give us more time to make the long-term changes.

That is what geo-engineering is about: holding the global average temperature down below the tipping point at 2 degrees C (3.5 degrees F) higher after which we get runaway heating, while we work frantically to get our emissions down and restore the self-regulating, comfortable climate that we have already destabilised. We have not yet begun to work on that agenda seriously, let alone frantically.

On our current course, according a study released by the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research eighteen months ago, the average global temperature will be 4 degrees C (7 degrees F) higher by 2060. If that happens, billions will probably die. If it stays below 2 degrees C hotter, on the other hand, most of them will probably live.

So do the research on geo-engineering now: what works, what doesn’t; what are the side-effects? Do it on a small scale, in local areas, as safely as possible. Because when we are passing through plus two degrees C and the famines are spreading, there will be overwhelming demands to DO SOMETHING NOW to halt the warming.

At that point, we had better already know the answers to those questions, because the technologies will then be deployed, ready or not.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Then…angry”)

An updated version of Gwynne Dyer’s book “Climate Wars” is distributed worldwide by Oneworld.

Peru’s Bad Boy

29 May 2006

Peru’s Bad Boy

By Gwynne Dyer

Ollanta Humala is plotting “a coup d’etat with a democratic face,” warned the president of Peru’s Congress, Marcial Ayaipoma. “Maintain democracy or go to dictatorship: that is what is at stake in these elections,” declared Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s most famous writer and a former presidential candidate. “[Humala] is going to govern with the military, close Congress, have a confrontation with Washington, permit free cultivation of coca, and he won’t sign the free trade pact. He’ll persecute the press….It’ll be a dictatorship, there’s no doubt about it,” predicted former Foreign Minister Fernando Rospigliosi.

How fortunate, then, that Ollanta Humala is not going to win the run-off vote for the Peruvian presidency on 4 June. Humala came in ahead of everybody else in the first round of voting in April, but the most recent large opinion poll, conducted on 24-26 May by Apoyo, showed former president Alan Garcia leading Humala by 55 percent of decided voters to 45 percent. So that’s all right, then. Only….

Only the voters may be lying to the opinion pollsters. When Apoyo let the people it interviewed fill in their voting preferences on a secret ballot, the numbers changed, and Garcia led Humala by only 52 percent to 48 percent. Then there’s the one-fifth of all voters who say they’re “undecided”: are they all truly undecided, or are a lot of them just embarrassed to say that they’re going to vote for Humala? This race is not over yet.

But why would anybody in their right mind vote for Ollanta Humala? He is a 42-year-old ex-army officer, suspected of human rights abuses when he commanded counter-insurgency forces in the highlands in the 1990s, whose only claim to fame is that he and his brother led a failed military coup in 2000. At least that coup attempt was against former president Alberto Fujimori, not a man noted for his love of democracy, but Humala’s younger brother Antauro is now in jail for having led a bloody uprising against the democratically elected government of President Alejandro Toledo last year.

The whole Humala family is noted mainly for its extremism. Although the family is both white and very well off, Humala’s father Isaac founded an ultra-nationalist, authoritarian movement called “etnocacerismo” that proclaimed the ethnic superiority of Peru’s Indian and mixed-race majority over the white descendants of Spanish immigrants who still dominate both business and politics. Ollanta Humala’s pitch is basically the same, appealing to the economic and ethnic resentments of Peru’s mostly Indian and mixed-race poor.

Peru’s economy has grown at a strong 4.5 percent during the past five years under President Toledo’s administration, and last year it reached 7 percent. So why is Toledo the least popular leader in the Americas, with less than 10 percent popular support, and why is an untried, unstable, eccentric dark horse like Ollanta Humala within a few percentage points of winning the Peruvian presidency?

Because “trickle-down” doesn’t work in Peru: all that economic growth raises the living standards of the rich and middle-class minority, and almost none of it gets to the half of the population who live on less than $1.25 a day. A majority of Peruvians feel that the democratic system has failed them utterly: a poll conducted by the University of Lima found that 92.2 percent of people do not trust political parties, 89.4 percent do not trust Congress, and 83.1 percent don’t trust the judiciary.

The popular belief is that everything is corrupt, the game is always fixed, and the poor never win. The popular belief is not all that far wrong, either, so voters are willing to take a leap in the dark and choose someone from outside “the system”, whether it’s Alberto Fujimori in 1990 or, perhaps, Ollanta Humala this month. Will he be authoritarian? Who cares? According to a recent United Nations study, more than 70 percent of Peruvians favour a more authoritarian government.

Could an Humala presidency actually do some good for Peru’s poor? Probably not, because he doesn’t have a political programme at all, not even a real political party behind him. Like presidents Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, he prefers populism to the hard slog of traditional left-wing politics. Both men warmly back him, of course, in Chavez’s case going so far as to say that he will break diplomatic relations with Peru if Humala doesn’t win, but they are not serious left-wingers themselves either.

There is much loose talk these days about how South America has “slid to the left” while the US government, preoccupied with the Middle East, took its eye off its own “back yard,” but it’s more complicated than that. Politically sophisticated countries with fairly developed economies like Brazil, Argentina and Chile have elected genuine left-wing governments (or, in Argentina’s case, a Peronist government that shares many of their concerns), and serious changes are occurring. Their economies are growing, and some of the changes are clearly positive.

In Venezuela and Bolivia the process is crudely populist and “long-term” means next year. Alan Garcia hold little attraction for most Peruvians — the last time he was president, in 1985-90, inflation hit 7,000 percent — but if he doesn’t make it, Peru will join the “awkward squad.”

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To reduce to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“The whole…poor”; and “The popular…government”)