Gas guzzlers are feeling the heat

Climate - Climate Change Begins at Home
February 3, 2006

A pretty, large-format coffee-table book on climate change? It seems an odd publishing proposition. And yet Climate works rather well. Two environmental scientists employed by the World Wildlife Fund, a professional writer and some picture researchers have come up with the nearest thing we are likely to get to a popular, illustrated version of the 1,000-page tomes from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This is no scaremongering treatise. The first 80 pages are concerned largely with climate in the past. They lay out how climate changes have, until the past century or so, been an all-too-natural phenomenon. And how greenhouse gases were crucial to most of those changes. They also show how humans evolved against a backdrop of ice covering a third of the northern hemisphere and how that may have helped us to prevail over our hominid rivals. We are, it might be said, bred to cope with climate change.

And yet there is little cause for complacency. This historical context makes it clear how humans are now, through climate change, interfering on a global scale with some of the basic life-support systems of the planet. The message about the dangers we run is made even more compelling. The past also shows how climate change can be abrupt and brutal. The ice ages did not come and go slowly. Much of the change in temperature took place in a matter of a decade. Not only that, as the world emerged from the last glaciation some 13,000 years ago, it suddenly plunged back into an era known to glaciologists as the Younger Dryas, before emerging 1,000 or so years later to the balmy spring of the Holocene era.

Some planetary switch was operated. We are still looking for it. Only in recent weeks have we learnt that part of the ocean circulation that keeps Europe warm seems to have faltered in the past five years. Climate modellers have long worried that the circulation, known as the ocean conveyor, switches on and off and could be approaching a critical threshold due to global warming. Now we know that some such change may be under way.

In this book, you will read an elegant explanation of what is happening and why. You will not find any scientific surprises here. No great new takes on events. To my mind, the authors are a bit too sanguine about the potential for surprises in the global greenhouse, as the Earth's systems flip under the pressure of our emissions of greenhouse gases. But I have no hesitation in recommending this as the best accessible book on an issue that any sane person would regard as a greater threat to humanity than terrorism.

What should we do? Jennifer Hoffman and colleagues have some thoughts about new global directions. But many people search for a personal answer. What can I do? Dave Reay, a research scientist at Edinburgh University, has done a good job of answering that question in Climate Change Begins at Home . I could have done without some of the fireside chat. The introduction to his model family, the Carbones, goes on. It might have been more fun if Reay had done a makeover on a real family. But maybe that is the TV series to come. At any rate, he takes a believable composite gas-guzzling, air-conditioned, Kenyan mangetout-munching, patio-heating, junk-food eating, security floodlit, SUV-in-the-front-yard kind of family and changes them for the good of the planet.

Along the way, you will learn everything you need to know about cutting your contribution to emissions of greenhouse gases. And if you find it too hard, Reay has some good ideas for turning climate saving into a communal activity. Why not set up a local ClimateWatchers club on the lines of WeightWatchers, he suggests? Doing it the Reay way, he says, will allow an average person to cut his or her lifetime emissions by 1,000 tonnes. Read against the backdrop of the vast planetary forces discussed by Climate , it is hard to believe that individual action can make a difference. But then Homo sapiens survived the ice ages and even prospered ahead of our rivals, the Neanderthals. We can survive adversity. But, with almost 7 billion of us huddled round the campfire of urban civilisation, climate change is our biggest test.

Fred Pearce is environment consultant, New Scientist .

Climate: The Forces That Shape Our World - and the Future of Life on Earth

Author - Jennifer Hoffman, Tina Tin and George Ochoa
Publisher - Rodale
Pages - 288
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 4050 8782 X

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