Tipping points into hell on Earth

The Weather Makers
March 17, 2006

An informed polemic on climate change impresses on Andrew Goudie the dangers of our heating the planet

There are still sceptics at large, including some neoconservative American and Australian politicians, but also some highly respectable academics, who believe that global warming is not something that requires resolute and immediate action. Greens have been castigated for trying to force their "paranoid religion of global warming" on the world.

The arguments such sceptics use are many: there is no hard evidence (particularly from satellite observations) that there is presently a warming trend; if warming is taking place, it is because of increasing solar activity, not because of the greenhouse effect; climate changes of considerable magnitude have occurred in the past and with some rapidity, yet humans and biomes have survived them; higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will fertilise the world, make it more productive and reduce water need; in some cool environments warming will be advantageous by, for example, lengthening the growing season for crops; the Earth produces vastly more carbon dioxide from its own natural processes than humans do; changes in the ocean conveyor could easily cause cooling to occur in the British Isles, rather than warming; predictions are based on models that are crude, have many assumptions and often give very different results; there are more immediate threats such as soil erosion, or indeed terrorism, that deserve our attention; there is no consensus that tropical cyclone activity is getting worse; and Mother Earth is extraordinarily resilient.

Some of these arguments are spurious, but others have firm foundations.

On the other hand, there are those - including, wonderful to relate, some senior UK politicians such as Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist, and James Lovelock - who believe that global warming (Lovelock prefers to call it global heating) is a catastrophic threat that requires immediate and robust action. Lovelock has recently stated that we are trapped in a vicious cycle of positive feedback and suggests that "it is almost as if we had lit a fire to keep warm and failed to notice, as we piled on fuel, that the fire was out of control and the furniture had ignited". Those who believe global warming is a threat argue: the world is already warming rapidly; there is clear evidence of past links between atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane levels and global temperatures; greenhouse gas loadings are climbing perilously, not least with the development of the economies of India and China; there is already evidence that some sensitive environments (including coral reefs and the summits of some tropical mountains) are starting to be very adversely affected; there are "tipping points" that, if crossed, can lead the Earth's system rapidly into a new trajectory; there are sensitive environments (hot spots) where modest stimuli can cause major responses; and Mother Earth is not endlessly resilient.

Tim Flannery, an Australian explorer and zoologist at the University of Adelaide, is not convinced by the arguments of the environmental sceptics or eco-contrarians and aims to persuade his readers that as we, the weather makers, continue to heat our planet, humanity and the entire natural world face unprecedented dangers and challenges. He argues that climate change is an issue that "will dwarf all the others combined. It will become the only issue." The publisher's blurb, a masterpiece of cheesy hyperbole, promises "a page-turning epic", "a journey through history and around the globe", and a story "told with panoramic scope and limitless enthusiasm".

The structure of The Weather Makers is relatively clear. The first part, titled "Gaia's tools", examines issues such as how the atmosphere and climate have changed in the past, and the sources and role of the cocktail of greenhouse gases that are responsible for the present situation. It concludes by showing that atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen from about 3 parts per 10,000 at the start of the Industrial Revolution to just under 4 parts per 10,000 today.

This leads to the second part of the book, "One in ten thousand", which examines the effects that this change has had over recent decades. At this point, the book becomes more coherent and persuasive, for Flannery has a message: "Global warming changes climate in jerks, during which climate patterns jump from one stable state to another. Because of the atmosphere's telekinetic nature, these changes can manifest themselves instantaneously across the globe. The best analogy is perhaps that of a finger on a light switch. Nothing happens for a while, but if you slowly increase the pressure a certain point is reached, a sudden change occurs, and conditions swiftly alter from one state to another."

The increasing power of the El Nino phenomenon since 1997-98 is one such jerk. Flannery argues, rightly, that some environments will be exposed to especially serious change. He suggests: "It seems certain that sometime this century a day will dawn when no summer ice will be seen in the Arctic - just a vast dark, turbulent sea. The changes we're witnessing at the poles are of the runaway type, meaning that unless greenhouse gases can be limited - and quickly - there can be no winners among the flora and fauna unique to the region."

Likewise, he argues, climate change will probably convert the Great Barrier Reef into the Great Stumpy Reef; droughts and water supply problems will be magnified in Western Australia and in the South-West of the US; insurance claims for extreme weather events will be inflated in the US, "which seems to have more to lose from climate change than any other nation"; and catastrophic ice-cap melting, as seems to be taking place in Greenland, could cause faster rates of sea level rise and coastal inundation than we had thought likely.

The third part of the book is about "The science of prediction", and again it attempts to draw attention to the parlous future of some key environments, including mountain tops and the South African fynbos heathland. It also asks whether there is a risk that Earth's systems could suddenly snap: could the Gulf Stream slow or collapse, could the Amazon rainforest wither away because of accelerating drought, and could huge amounts of methane be released from the sea floor, causing a sharp rise in greenhouse gas concentrations?

The fourth part, "People in greenhouses", examines the political response to the threat of global change. Flannery has views on the attitude of countries such as Australia and the US, where he argues there is an unhealthy and in some cases corrupt relationship between government and industry - a cesspit into which he does not fear to leap. He is scathing about bodies such as the Global Climate Coalition - "a dinosaur whose brain has been irretrievably damaged, but which still staggers along, wreaking havoc as it wends its way to its grave".

The fifth and final part of the book is concerned with "Solutions". How can we establish lower carbon futures? Here, Flannery canters through wind power, photovoltaics, geothermal sources, nuclear power and fuel-efficient cars. Action, he believes, must be taken now by industry, by politicians and by us individually: "The future of biodiversity and civilisation hangs on our actions."

The Weather Makers needs to be read in tandem with Lovelock's latest treatise, The Revenge of Gaia , also published by Allen Lane.

Environmentalists have a dilemma: is a key solution to global warming to be found in the nuclear option? Lovelock champions nuclear power as "the one safe and proven energy source that has minimal global consequences".

Flannery is uncharacteristically reticent on this matter, but in general he pulls few punches. Clearly, energy policy is becoming a very serious concern for strategic and economic reasons, and it may be that this will be the most likely stimulus for humans to abate greenhouse emissions, rather than environmental concerns per se.

Flannery is not quite as pessimistic as Lovelock and believes that there is still time for us to achieve a reduction in the pace at which greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere.

Indeed, he concludes with a "Climate change checklist" that gives 11 actions we can take individually to help us achieve this change: adopt an accredited Green Power option; install a solar hot-water system; install solar panels; use energy-efficient white goods; use a triple-A rated shower head; use energy-efficient light bulbs; check the fuel efficiency of your next car; walk, cycle or take public transport; calculate your carbon footprint; suggest a workplace audit; and, finally, write to a politician about climate change. There are, of course, lots of other useful things we can do - including, in the case of academics, not flying around the world to attend too many conferences on energy conservation or promote books on climate change.

This book is unashamedly a polemic and will contribute to the debate about global change that has occupied scientists for the best part of a quarter of a century, but that has yet to get through to some policymakers. It is not perhaps as wonderful as the blurb suggests - whose book is? - but it is indeed wide ranging in scope, passionate in tone, generally persuasive and easy to read.

Andrew Goudie is master of St Cross College, Oxford, and author of The Human Impact on the Natural Environment .

The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change

Author - Tim Flannery
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 341
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9921 7

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