5 December 2009
By Gwynne Dyer
Japan is a lucky country. When the global average temperature has gone up by 2 degrees Celsius
and most of mainland Asia is ravaged by famines, when civil wars and failed states and waves of climate
refugees are the norm from Tehran to Hanoi and from Madras to Beijing, Japan will still be at peace
and eating regularly.
However, the desperate people of the rest of Asia will all know that Japan is among the industrialised
countries that created the disaster with their greenhouse gas emissions, and that it has nevertheless
largely escaped the consequences of its actions. Maybe they will be in a forgiving mood, but maybe not.
This is an extreme scenario, and it may never happen. If the climate summit that opened in
Copenhagen on Monday agrees on early, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide,
global warming may never reach plus two degrees.
Few people believe that the Copenhagen conference will produce a treaty that adequately addresses
the reality of climate change, but more serious measures will doubtless follow a few years later, so
let’s be optimistic. Let us suppose that global heating is halted before we reach the two-degree level,
and that the warming never goes runaway.
Even then, the average global temperature will still rise by at least one-and-a-half degrees. The
greenhouse gases to produce that effect are already in the atmosphere or will be put there in the
next ten years, before we can hope to cut our emissions radically enough. They won’t produce
their full heating effect right away, but it will arrive in due course.
No matter what we do from now on, the amount of greenhouse gases that we have put into the
atmosphere will eventually raise average global temperature by 1.5 degrees, and average temperatures
over land by more like 2.5 degrees. The main impact of that will be on the food supply.
In the tropics, the heat itself will be the main problem: rice yields fall drastically, for example, if the
temperature is above 35 degrees during the critical fertilization period. In the sub-tropics, drought
will be the crop-killer, as the rainfall shifts further away from the equator. Even the rain that does
fall is likely to evaporate again from the hot soil rather than soaking in.
The closer a country is to the equator, the worse will be its plight. A few countries in the high
latitudes like Russia and Canada will still be exporting grain, but most of today’s major grain exporters
will be out of the business (Australia is already on the way out).
The world grain supply is already tight. Assume a 15 percent loss of global food production and
a billion more people by 2030, and we can expect recurring famines in the tropics and the
sub-tropics – famines that cannot be averted by importing grain, because there is not enough left on
the international market. South and South-East Asian countries would suffer greatly, but China would not
escape either, even though most of it lies in the temperate zone.
Once the glaciers up on the Tibetan plateau have melted, the great glacier-fed rivers of south and
central China will be half-empty in the summer. The north-eastern monsoon that waters the wheat
crop of northern China is already failing. And the low-lying river deltas along the east coast where
so much of China’s food is grown face repeated inundation by storm tides as the sea level rises.
Hungry people move, across borders if necessary, and people in less afflicted countries may use
force to stop them. Regimes that cannot feed their people tend to collapse: failed states and civil wars
will multiply. There may even be regional wars between countries that share the same river system,
as access to water becomes a life-or-death matter.
Amidst this pan-Asian chaos and misery, Japan would be an island of order and prosperity. Not
only is it well within the temperate zone, but the seas that surround it would keep the average temperature
down. With a maximum effort, it could probably just about feed the 100 million people who live in Japan
in 2030 from its own resources. Lucky Japan.
Britain is lucky in much the same way as Japan. It has a geographical position that will keep the heat
down and the rain reliable; it has enough land to feed its own people, if only just; and it is an island,
which makes it easy to keep the refugees out. In strategic circles in Britain, one now sometimes hears
the phrase “Lifeboat Britain.” The same phrase applies to Japan – and lifeboats often cannot afford to
take everybody aboard.
But the rest of Asia will know that Japan, the first industrialised country in the continent, bears
a heavy responsibility for the disasters they are currently suffering because of its past emissions.
They will see Japan itself escaping the consequences, and find it unfair. As they watch their own
hopes for the future disappear, they may become very angry about it.
Some of this future may be avoided if there is early and effective action to reduce and eventually
eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. But it would have to be very radical action, very soon – and
some of disasters would still happen. For Japan, climate change will become a security issue.
Gwynne Dyer is currently in Japan promoting the Japanese version of his new book, “Climate Wars,”
published by Shinchosha.