Earlier I confessed to my fascination with climate change fiction - visions of a future global warming-driven apocalypse, in film and in books. Reading Ultimatum made me want to talk to the author. Unfortunately, that's hard to do, since he's writing under a pen name. His publisher agreed to send "Matthew Glass" questions, though.
Some of the characters in Ultimatum seem inspired by current political figures. Are they? Or are you projecting where the world might be some decades into the future?
I guess some people might see certain parallels between Joe Benton [ed.- the fictional U.S. President in 2032] and Barack Obama (although clearly there are also many differences in the profiles). If there are such parallels, they’re fortuitous. I wrote the first draft of ULTIMATUM in the winter of 06/07 when we were still deep in the Bush presidency and Hilllary Clinton (with whom Benton has very few parallels) was hot favourite for the Democratic nomination. I don’t think I was much aware of Obama as a candidate with serious potential at that stage – I don’t think anyone else was either!
In any event, parallels with today’s leaders weren’t what I had in mind. What I tried to sketch out were the likely political figures who might come to power in another 25 years (2032) following a period of 2-3 terms of complacent republican administrations in which relative economic prosperity had created a false sense of security and lessened the urgency that should have been felt over climate change. Is this a likely scenario? I think it is. I think there’s a good chance that over the next 10-15 years we will all talk ourselves into a feelgood position of thinking that we are doing enough on climate change when in reality we aren’t. We’ll set targets that sound big but aren’t big enough, and then find excuses when we don’t hit even them. And at some point a little further out, if that happens, the reality is going to sit up and bite us.
In your fictional account, 40 years into the future, China’s a less-than-honest-broker in climate talks. Does that reflect what you see now?
In the scenario I have painted, China’s not the only less-than-honest-broker. This is an important point and I hope it doesn’t get lost. The US has been just as dishonest, signing treaties with no plans for implementation and no real intention of living up to its commitments because this would compromise economic growth. And the rest of the world has been just as dishonest, creeping in under the umbrella created by the US position. The US approach only changes when Benton takes power and decides he’s going to adopt a more honest approach. China simply continues acting in the same dishonest way in which it and the US have been acting previously, not recognising that Benton’s stance marks a genuine change rather than merely another negotiating position. In other words, they misinterpret what he’s saying, not believing him when they should. I don’t think this is an unrealistic scenario - ambiguity and misinterpretation between political protagonists is incredibly common in international relations, with huge impact. For instance, in 1990, an Iraqi dictator called Saddam Hussein misinterpreted some ambiguous remarks by the American ambassador and concluded that he had US blessing for his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the rest is … not even history, but bloodshed that continues today.
I understand you’re a private citizen, a doctor living in the U.K. How did you educate yourself about climate change and foreign policy about it?
Reading, listening, discussion with people who are lot more knowledgeable in the area than me.
What’s your outlook on how world leaders – especially the US – are dealing with climate change as a security issue?
In my view world leaders (if I can generalise, and I know there are exceptions), have failed to grasp or at least to communicate the key point about controlling climate change – IT REQUIRES SACRIFICE! It isn’t primarily a jobs generator for green industries and a source of economic growth. That would be a nice win-win but it’s a fantasy. Dealing with climate change is something that requires substituting currently expensive energy sources for currently cheap ones. This has to have a negative effect on growth. The point is, the effect will be much, much worse if we wait until we are forced to act rather than acting earlier. Or another way of putting it, if we’re smart enough to sacrifice a small amount of growth now we can save ourselves a much bigger, and more painful, sacrifice, later. This is one of the key points in ULTIMATUM and again I hope it doesn’t get lost. And it’s not rocket science. This is what the Stern report pointed out three years ago.
In terms of security implications, the issue of climate change is bristling with them, both if we succeed and if we fail in dealing with the problem. Success in dealing with climate change will see countries having to accept lower growth rates than they might otherwise achieve – this will create severe domestic stresses in countries where political legitimacy is conferred on regimes primarily by economic growth (China is the prime example). It will also create international stresses as the pain is divided up and allocated – watch the Copenhagen round of negotiations later this year to see resistance to this starting. On the other hand, if we fail to deal with climate change, the stresses, domestic and international, are well known and will almost certainly lead to conflict. Darfur is arguably an early example of this.
The security implications are no secret and I’m sure political leaders understand them. But understanding isn’t the same as taking action. I won’t believe we have any chance of real action until I see political leaders actively trying to educate their electorates in the truth about climate change, that dealing with it requires sacrifice of economic growth.
Why did you write this book?
On my list of the top five global issues facing the world today, climate change is numbers one, three and four. I see political leaders not telling the truth about the sacrifice that will be needed to deal with it, and I see them increasingly patting each other on the back for introducing plans that will not be sufficient and for which, inadequate as the plans are, they have no implementation mechanisms. ULTIMATUM is my way of saying something about it.