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Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009

Doom and gloom scenarios for lifeboat Japan


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 industrialized 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 2 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 2-degree level, and that the warming never goes runaway.

Even then, the average global temperature will still rise by at least 1.5 degrees. The greenhouse gases to produce that effect are already in the atmosphere or will be put there in the next 10 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 subtropics, 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 subtropics — famines that cannot be averted by importing grain, because there is not enough left on the international market. South and Southeast 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 northeastern 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.

Amid 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 industrialized 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.

The Japanese version of Gwynne Dyer's new book, "Climate Wars," has just been published by Shinchosha.


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