Now Or Never

“It is all too possible that we will fail to achieve sustainability, and that the blind watchmaker will once again…reset the balance of a severely diminished living Earth.” That’s the possibility that Tim Flannery hopes we can yet avoid. He makes the statement early in his essay Now Or Never: Why We Must Act Now to End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future, in the course of setting out his view of Earth as a living whole, where he follows James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. The evolutionary process has arrived at a system in which humanity can contribute intelligence and self-awareness to the functioning of Earth – or set the process at naught and turn back the evolutionary clock.

Flannery’s earlier book The Weather Makers, reviewed here, was his major contribution to advancing public awareness of climate change.  Now or Never echoes and updates the urgency of the earlier book.  His regard for Lovelock’s thinking remains high, in terms both of the Gaia metaphor and of the extremity to which we have come, but he resists Lovelock’s conclusion that the damage already done is too great for amendment.

After his initia Gaia musings Flannery has an illuminating chapter on how we are shuffling matter among Earth’s three great organs – crust, air and water – and thereby creating an imbalance. He writes of Earth’s contrast with the planets without life, such as Mars and Venus, where the great bulk of the atmosphere is made up of CO2. On our living planet the difference is that over aeons enormous quantities of carbon have been drawn into Earth’s crust in the form of coal, oil, natural gas and limestone. Our bringing to the surface and burning these stored sources, combined with the destruction of forests and the degradation of soils, has created an imbalance whereby the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached a level not seen for 55 million years.

The impacts are already alarming. Flannery confesses to find it increasingly difficult over the past two years to read the scientific findings on climate change without despairing. Most dispiriting are the changes occurring in the Arctic, which render hopelessly inadequate much of the human response to the crisis so far.  Flannery has an excursion into the possibility of oceanic death, concluding with the fearful vision of Peter Ward in Under a Green Sky.  He turns then to the work of James Hansen and colleagues in their 2008 paper and concludes that humanity is now between a tipping point (where greenhouse gas concentration reaches a level sufficient to cause catastrophic climate change) and the point of no return (when that concentration has been in place sufficiently long to give rise to an irreversible process). We still have a few years before we reach the point of no return, but there is not a second to waste.  Energy use must change drastically and we must also draw CO2 out of the air. Otherwise we enter Lovelock’s new dark age.

Turning to solutions Flannery spends time on clean coal technology, not because he is enamoured of it but because the world, and China in particular, has gone so far down the road of using coal as an energy source that he sees little choice but to pursue a solution that involves coal.  Not instead of renewables, but along with them.  Resignation rather than enthusiasm marks his treatment of the subject.

On renewables he notes the US government clean energy initiatives and the development of trading schemes to put a price on carbon, adding that regulation will also have to be part of the strategy. Not having the space to review all the means of generating electricity without carbon emissions, he selects one hopeful example from plans in Denmark to ally electric cars to wind energy which is currently under-utilised at night. He sees it as a sign that wind energy can compete directly with big oil.

CO2 must be drawn down from the atmosphere. High-tech methods remain on the drawing boards for now, but  tropical forests are “prodigious engines of atmospheric sanitation”, and Flannery surveys ways of supporting tropical reforestation, preferably under local management. Funding reforestation is in all our interests, and is also a way of repaying a debt we owe to the poor who are disproprtionately affected by the global warming we have caused. Flannery is an advocate of charcoal made by pyrolysis being ploughed back into the soil as a form of carbon sequestration and soil improvement.  Vigorously pursued on a global scale it could pull 5 percent of global CO2 per year.

He takes a look at ways in which farming management processes may enhance soil carbon significantly, mentioning a number of new practices worth pursuing, including holistic management and nitrification inhibitors.  Farm-based ecological efficiency is described in Polyface Farm in Virginia, a mixed-farming undertaking which has integrated a wide variety of plants and animals into productive and sustainable enterprise.

Before concluding Flannery acknowledges that desperate measures may be called for to avert disastrous melting of the Greenland ice cap in coming years, and believes that a measured dose of sulfur to the stratosphere to cause global dimming may yet be something we have to consider “if all else fails”.

“If we are successful in finding a sustainable way of living in the twenty-first century…”  It’s a much bigger “if” in the author’s mind than he or any of us would wish, but there’s no escaping the reality.  Gaia has brought us to a unique position and role on planet Earth.  That’s the philosophical understanding from which Flannery operates, and he warns that if we don’t that exercise that role responsibly and maturely we will bring disaster on ourselves.  The carbon we have freed, “like a malign genie, threatens the entire world.”

The book includes a number of interesting invited responses to the essay.  Among them Bill McKibben endorses the seriousness of the situation and urges activism as a way of acting. Richard Branson imagines a world where the best scientists collaborate with the best entrepeneurs and finds ground for optimism. Peter Singer welcomes Flannery’s impact on public and political awareness and agrees that there is no time to waste, but takes issue over the implications of eating beef.  Gwynne Dyer notes that whether we talk of human beings becoming the consciousness of Gaia, or just see us as the same old self-serving species we always were, we are taking control of the planet’s climate, and we may need stop-gap geoengineering measures to win extra time to get emissions down before we hit runaway warming.

Tim Flannery’s informed intelligence, ranging thoughtfulness and humanity is as apparent as ever in this essay. Short and accessible, its urgent message could not be plainer.  One hopes its readers include any policy makers who still need a wake-up call as to the reality of what we are doing to the planet.

The Weather Makers

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

When I set out to establish my understanding of the science of climate change Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change was the next book I read after Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes. Kolbert provides a most valuable introduction, but Flannery immerses the reader in the full range of the science and the political reaction to it.  Few stones are left unturned.  He is a gifted communicator with an instinct for clarity.  Science pervades the book, but always explained in terms that the lay person can follow and placed in narratives high in reader interest.

A lot has happened in climate science since the book was published in 2005.  How does it stand up four years later?  I started my rereading for this review with that question in mind. But not for long. It was soon apparent that Flannery’s material remains relevant and illuminating. Partly because he understood the direction in which the science was moving and often anticipates what was to come. The West Antarctic ice sheet, for example, is pointed to as perhaps vulnerable, and the possibility of more rapid sea level rise than anticipated is canvassed. The Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC hadn’t yet appeared when he was writing, but he warns that the modus operandi of the IPCC almost guarantees reports confined to the lowest common denominator.

Flannery is an Australian environmentalist, and a very prominent one, having been named Australian of the Year in 2007. His scientific work has been in the fields of mammalogy and paeontology, not climate. Ecology has been a prominent concern for some years, as readers of his earlier book The Future Eaters will recall. He writes that for years he resisted the impulse to devote research time to climate change, being busy with other things and preferring to wait and see. But by 2001 he realised he had to learn more and by 2004 his interest had turned to anxiety.  The great changes under way in the atmosphere, still something many were unaware of, presaged serious problems ahead. The issue, he came to see, would dwarf all the other issues combined.

He takes a broadly Gaian approach because it sees everything on earth as being intimately connected to everything else and because he considers reductionist world views have brought the present state of climate change upon us. Thus armed he leads the reader through the range of “Gaia’s tools” which bear on climate change, the “great aerial ocean”, the carbon cycle, the Milankovich cycles, abrupt climate changes, and many more. On the power and seduction of coal he remarks: “the past is a truly capacious land, whose stored riches are fabulous when compared with the meagre daily ration of solar radiation we receive.”

How has life on Earth already been affected by the warming so far experienced? Among the many phenomena Flannery describes are the observed poleward movement of species, changes in the food chain in Antarctica, the effects of warming for Arctic wildlife and the tundra, the bleaching of coral reefs, the extinction of the golden toad of Costa Rica, changes in rainfall in America’s west and Australia’s south, extreme weather events and rising sea level. “So swift have been the changes in ice plain science, and so great is the inertia of the oceanic juggernaut, that climate scientists are now debating whether humans have already tripped the switch that will create an ice-free Earth.”

He considers many predictions for the future. Global circulation models are described along with the possible range of temperature rise in response to CO2 levels. He outlines the catastrophic effects temperature rise will have on biodiversity in the tropical rainforests of north-eastern Queensland. “The impending destruction of Australia’s wet tropics rainforest is a biological disaster on the horizon, and the generation held responsible will be cursed by those who come after.”  On extinctions worldwide he concludes that at least one in five living things on the planet is committed to extinction by existing levels of greenhouse gases; business-as-usual would likely result in three of five not being with us by the end of the century.  Even deep-sea fishes are under threat of warming. He examines three of the possible main tipping points, the collapse of the Gulf Stream, the collapse of the Amazon rainforests, and methane release from the sea floor and sees rainforest collapse as the most threatening this century. Half a century of business-as-usual would make inevitable the collapse of civilisation due to climate change.

The rest of the book addresses human responses to the challenge, both political and technological. He draws some encouragement from the way CFCs were phased out in response to the threat of ozone depletion, but acknowledges the deep intransigence displayed by some industries and their political allies where climate change is concerned. Adequate technological solutions to the problem are available. Contraction and convergence is the democratic, transparent and simple form of international agreement that could be the way forward after Kyoto.

Rereading The Weather Makers is a reminder of how solidly established the basic science of climate change has been for some years now. A reminder, too, that the effects of the CO2 already in the atmosphere are still working their way slowly through the system. And a reminder of how accessible all this information has been to the lay public, carrying with it the concomitant sad reminder that many in public life who are perfectly capable of understanding the science have excused themselves the responsibility.

Australia is fortunate to have Flannery as a prominent citizen. He hasn’t stopped with his book. He continues to pursue the issue of climate change in the public arena. When the book was written there was still a feeling that though consequences were building they were still some distance off. If that provided any comfort it doesn’t any more. The Arctic sea ice melting alone has put paid to that. These days Flannery’s message is “now or never”. (I hope to review his book of that title when it is published in coming months.)  In this October 2008 interview you can hear him explain the urgency that is now upon us and discuss the actions that must be taken. The compass and intellectual depth of his thinking is very apparent in his conversation with Robert Manne. May he carry weight at the political levels where crucial decisions must now be made.


For the sake of completeness I will mention here that the third book of the trio which formed my introduction to the science of climate change was James Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia. I won’t be reviewing it on Hot Topic as I have since reviewed his later book The Vanishing Face of Gaia here.  But in the earlier book Lovelock seemed to me to leave open hopeful possibilities of which we hear much less from him these days. I’ll repeat here the final paragraph of a short review I did for the Waikato Times back then:

The book is compelling reading, packed with intelligent insights, written in elegant and clear prose. Despair and hope jostle each other disconcertingly through its pages and Lovelock doesn’t declare for either. His prime concern is to warn us of the seriousness of the danger we have put ourselves in, though the reader may take some solace from the fact that he is also prepared to entertain possible ways of lessening the perils if only we will accept that the earth is not ours to do with as we will.

It is interesting that the figure of Lovelock often hovers in Flannery’s book and in the interview linked to above. Flannery is less pessimistic than Lovelock, but he acknowledges the wisdom of the older man’s sense of the inter-relatedness of things, and concedes that if things haven’t yet got as bad as Lovelock thinks, they aren’t too far off if we don’t soon change our ways.