Global Warring

Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map

By Michael Carbert

Published on April 1, 2010

Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic And Political Crises Will Redraw The World Map
Cleo Paskal

Key Porter Books
$32.95
cloth
288pp
978-1-552638308

For all but the youngest residents of Montreal, the events and images are still vivid: millions of people without power or heat; thousands in overcrowded shelters; the military called in to provide support; everything enveloped in a thick layer of glistening ice.

One of the most devastating natural disasters in Canadian history, the ice storm of 1998 caught Ontario and Quebec completely unprepared. Over four million people lost power, 28 people died, close to a thousand were injured, and the total cost amounted to over five billion dollars.

Will it happen again?

“Count on it,” says Cleo Paskal, author, academic, and regular columnist for the Toronto Star.

The more pertinent question, however, is not whether it will happen again, but whether we are prepared for a time fast approaching when severe storms, droughts, and floods will be far more common than they used to be. The truthful answer, once again, is not what we would like to hear.

As Paskal makes clear in her new book, Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic and Political Crises will Redraw the World Map, climate change is happening now. Time, as they say, waits for no one. Well, climate change doesn’t wait around for humanity to reach a consensus on what’s causing it or how to deal with it.

And sadly, to resort to another cliché, one can never underestimate the power of denial. It appears the vast majority of the world’s governments are still thinking and acting as if a stable climate and predictable weather patterns, the very conditions upon which the development of civilization depends, will continue to be there in the future. They won’t be.

Paskal’s goal is not to be alarmist. Instead, she wants to bring attention to the big changes both happening and likely to happen because of a warming planet, and to the simple fact that we need to prepare now for what’s coming our way. Global Warring is unique among books on climate change as it eschews a strident tone in favour of a cool assessment of the changes to come, their likely outcomes, and the difficult choices we presently face.

For those caught up in the seemingly never-ending debate as to whether climate change is even caused by human activity, the premise of Global Warring may be discomforting. Have we really reached a point where a runaway greenhouse effect is a fait accompli? As we continue to pour billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and as the temperature continues to rise, is it time to just dig in and prepare for the apocalypse?

Not quite.

“We need to stop it, of course,” says Paskal, “but in the meantime there are so many other issues that aren’t being dealt with.”

Issues like the fact that, in North America, millions of people and billions of dollars in infrastructure and real estate are less than three metres above sea level. Or that we continue to plan as if climate change isn’t happening, developing areas certain to be flooded or hit by massive storms. Or that in Asia, even modest increases in sea level mean a disaster of biblical proportions when millions of refugees from Bangladesh start looking for higher ground. Or that complex legal and political questions are certain to arise when entire nations in the South Pacific are swallowed up by the rising ocean.

Thankfully, Paskal is far more interested in solutions than problems, a fact reflected both by her book and the audience its author hopes it might reach.

“The book is intended for anyone who wants to make informed decisions for the future,” says Paskal. “It’s my hope it will be read by decision-makers who want to incorporate some of the likely effects of climate change into things like infrastructure planning, because the decisions we make now are going to determine how things play out in the future. And the fact is, there are options; there are good choices to make. But we need to start making them now.”

Paskal is a woman of impressive journalistic and academic credentials. Although she was a columnist for both the CBC and the National Post, as well as an Associate Fellow at the renowned Chatham House in the United Kingdom, it was in fact her experiences as a travel writer that led her to write a book on climate change that had something new to say. While visiting the atolls of Kiribati in the South Pacific, she saw for herself the profound gulf existing between our political and cultural assumptions and, as she puts it, the facts on the ground.

“The atolls in Kiribati are being eroded at an extremely fast rate,” says Paskal, “and it brought home the fact that the changes happening now are already so substantial that everything – economics, politics, security – is going to be effected all over the world.”

“We worry quite a bit about our effect on the environment,” she adds. “It’s time now to start worrying about the environment’s effect on us.”

Thus Global Warring, far from being simply another Al Gore-type warning about the peril we face, examines the likely future outcomes in terms of geopolitics, territorial sovereignty, trade, and national security. Thankfully, Paskal goes beyond a simplistic doom-and-gloom analysis that promises more disasters and more suffering. While increased chaos and conflict is likely, Paskal highlights the fact that options also exist and that few of the questions being raised by our shifting environmental conditions are anywhere close to being resolved.

For example, Paskal cites studies showing that Africa is especially vulnerable to disrupted weather patterns and that the lives of close to 200 million people are threatened by drought. But she also states that “just a few policy changes could go a long way toward alleviating suffering,” adding that since much of Africa’s infrastructure has yet to be built, the continent could head off disaster if it factors climate change into its planning and infrastructure development. Similarly, when discussing the challenge of water management in China, she cites the potential promise of desalination technology as a viable option for the future.

If some outcomes are still to be decided, Global Warring makes at least one thing appear certain: the Western ideology of globalization and free-market solutions is in serious trouble. China and Russia, among others, are increasingly indifferent to Western opinion, and their pursuit of “nationalistic capitalism” – in which the market is considered to serve the state – gives them a strategic advantage. Unhampered by the gospels of free trade or human rights, China, in particular, is free to establish foreign partnerships and supply routes purely on the basis of state interest. An increasing number of Third World countries seem inclined to follow China’s example. Additionally, addressing the challenge of climate change means shifting from short-term gain, the primary concern of the free market, to long-term planning and preparation. New political or economic models may be needed to support initiatives not strictly focussed on the next fiscal quarter or the next election.

Once-unlikely alliances may also prove necessary. For example, since Canada’s efforts to assert sovereignty over a suddenly volatile Arctic region have been frustrated by the United States and Europe, agreements with former rivals more open to Canada’s claims may one day appear very attractive. Limited partnerships with China or Russia may eventually prove more advantageous. It’s just one of many intriguing examples showing how the effects of climate change promise to put the entire geopolitical sphere into a state of flux.

Accessible, lively, and at times chilling, Global Warring is a book offering much-needed insight into a future where nothing can be taken for granted. With an eye-opening examination of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and its aftermath, a cogent analysis of China’s increasing global influence, and convincing arguments in favour of overhauling infrastructure and possibly even abandoning low-lying cities in Europe and North America, Paskal’s book is timely and necessary reading. It’s difficult to shake the idea that this is one of those books that needs to be read by as many people as possible, as soon as possible, because the near future promises to be extremely interesting, to put it mildly.

Or, as Paskal puts it, “These are the good old days.” mRb

Michael Carbert is a Montreal writer and the editor of Encore Literary Magazine.

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