Saturday, March 18, 2006

War, famine, pestilence, and death: a review of The Weather Makers

"If humans pursue a business-as-usual course for the first half of this century, I believe the collapse of civilization due to climate change becomes inevitable."

This should probably be the first sentence of Tim Flannery's book The Weather Makers, but it is at the bottom of page 209. In the 208 pages before it Flannery tries to explain some essential concepts, like greenhouse gases, carbon sequestration, albedo, abrupt climate changes in the geological record and possible causes for them, climate feedback loops, Milankovich cycles, el Niño and la Niña, ocean acidification and its implications, climate modeling, and so forth. He also provides some grim biological case studies: reef destruction, frog extinctions, water shortages in Perth and Sydney, and many others.

He wants to provide the reader with some of the tools to understand the problem, and some indication of the gravity of the problem--in other words, scare the hell out of us, after a basic groundwork has been laid.

The central chapter of the book is one in which he outlines three catastrophe scenarios. As a worst case, any of them could occur well before the end of this century, and indeed possibly before the middle of it, if we do nothing. The interruption of the Gulf Stream, with especially terrible consequences for Europe, is the one that has most entered the public imagination, thanks to an exaggerated disaster movie. The Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction estimates the chances of this before 2100 to be about 5%. The second catastrophe would the collapse and desertification of the Amazon rain forest, which could lead to 1000 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature increases of 18° F by the year 2100, according to Flannery. The third would be a methane hydrate release either from the the sea floor or thawed arctic soil, or both, which could trigger the kind of massive die-offs that the world saw at the Permo-Triassic extinction event, which could have been in part, and possibly entirely, caused by such a belch of methane.

What Flannery makes clear to any reader, even one with little scientific background, is that there is now an overwhelming scientific consensus that human-caused global warming is already well underway, and that if the CO2 increase causing it continues, the scenario we are looking at is not one of gradual, slow, linear changes to warmer conditions, but rather at some point a sudden and extremely dramatic jump to an altogether new climate equilibrium, with huge changes in sea level and rainfall as well as temperature. Computer climate models, the ice-core record, and the geological record all suggest this is the way it will happen, if CO2 concentrations continue to increase.

Obviously if we reach such a tipping point, there will be massive extinctions. Flannery does not believe it would lead to human extinction, but he does believe civilization as we know it would end, and much death, disease, and hardship would follow.

He shoots down some of the happy talk about global warming, like the idea that increased CO2 would lead to more abundant crop yields and the abolition of hunger. Cereal grains are among the plants least susceptible to increased yields from greater CO2 concentrations, and are among the plants most sensitive to the water and heat and soil problems that would be implied in the likely climate regimes. There would be more hunger, not less, in other words.

So far, not an encouraging picture. His discussion of Kyoto is also not encouraging. The proposed 5.2% reductions in CO2 emissions were rejected by only two significant countries, the US and Australia, both of which operate under a national frontier mythology of perpetual growth. Five percent is a start, but what is needed is a _seventy_ percent reduction of CO2 emissions by the middle of this century if we are to save the world from war, famine, pestilence, and death. That's a big gap, especially when we don't have the world's biggest polluter on board even for the five percent.

So what to do? Here's where Flannery's optimism may be a little forced. He suggests grassroots action, if top-down action is out of the question, as it clearly is in the US in the immediate future. At this point he sounds kinda like the little pamphlets that come with my electric bill, with helpful hints for energy savings. But he doesn't make a bad case for personal action and, by implication, spreading the word to go thou and do likewise. To reduce your personal CO2 usage by 70 percent would be fairly easy. Buy wind generated electricity, where possible. Invest in passive solar heating and photovoltaics. Don't use power you don't need. Make your next car a hybrid. Greater use of solar, wind, and geothermal power, and dramatically better gas mileage, if widespread, gets us individually under the 70% reduction mark. We can all work towards that.

No one hopes that's true more than I do. But I fear that the only way this will catch on is if something bad happens to actually get the public's attention. Katrina did, for a while. Flannery mentions peak oil only once in the book, and only in passing. Peak oil may itself be calamitous, but it might be to the world's advantage if the peak oil calamity struck first, because while it could also--as a worst case--put an end to civilization as we know it, it would be unlikely to go on to kill all mammalian life on the planet, as a worst case climate catastrophe could very well do. And a slow descent down the far side of the oil peak curve could be the impetus for people to reduce carbon emissions.

How's that for optimism? I guess it's my optimism, not Flannery's.

But in the meantime we have madmen or gangsters or both running the country. Here in Texas we have a crazed governor, a sort of Bechtel-powered puppet with windproof hair, who is trying to sell the public a gigantic Great Wall of China transportation scheme consisting of several mile-wide highway corridors crisscrossing the state containing super-superhighways funded up front with public money, to be repaid out of tolls over the coming half century.

Such folly would be comic, were the guy not serious, or if he did not have a chance of getting any of these roads built. But the bulldozers are already at work building one east of Austin.

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