James Lovelock is in the media again, proving that anyone who thinks the IPCC is “alarmist” is sadly deluded. The excellent Marc Roberts’ Cantankerous Frank provides the necessary context… [See also BBC (with video) (audio), Guardian (one, two, three), Telegraph. H/t <2Âº].
When James Lovelock, Edward O. Wilson and Ian McEwan jostle to praise a book I assume it will be worth attention. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto doesn’t disappoint. The title echoes the Whole Earth Catalogue which he founded over forty years ago as an ambitious reference aid for skills, tools and products useful to a self-sustainable lifestyle.
Times have changed and Brand has changed with them. Climate change has become a clear and present danger. He has become more of a pragmatist, though no less of an environmentalist. His pragmatism leads him to regard with favour three factors which put him to some extent at odds with others in the environmental movement. The three are urbanisation, nuclear power and genetic engineering, and part of the purpose of the book is to urge the Green-inclined to consider how the three may now be considered significant contributions to facing up to climate change.
There’s no questioning the seriousness of climate change. James Lovelock is frequently Brand’s point of reference in this regard. He hopes that things won’t get as bad as Lovelock’s prediction that we are in the process of moving to a stable hot state 5 degrees warmer than now, but recognises that even the 2 degree rise which politicians seem to be regarding as an acceptable limit will mean large species loss, more severe storms, floods and droughts, refugees from sea level rise, and other expensive and inhumane consequences. It’s against the background of this concern that he sets his case.
Urbanisation is proceeding apace, and is to be welcomed. Brand takes a positive view of what cities mean for the people who are now flooding into them, even if they begin in the squatter settlements which can look so dismal to outside observers. He points to on-the-spot slum researcher reports which observe that cities are very successful in promoting new forms of income generation, that it is much cheaper to provide services in urban areas and that getting people to move to the city may be the most realistic poverty reduction strategy. From the environmental perspective, natural systems in the countryside fare better with fewer inhabitants. Subsistence farming on marginal land can give way to more concentrated cash-crop agriculture on prime land. Aquifers recover. Forests recover. Birth rates drop when people move to cities. Women play a more powerful role in city society. Urban societies become greener in their sensibilities, which can lead to increasing protection for the countryside.
This is only a sample of the wide-ranging survey Brand offers of the positives in growing urbanisation. He acknowledges the negative actualities as well. Cities are far from an unmitigated good. But he is firm that the prospect of 80 percent of humanity living on 3 percent of the land will be a net good for the planet. Infrastructure efficiency, energy use reduction, less pressure on rural natural systems, and the like, are adduced to support this conclusion.
Brand’s section on nuclear power is prefaced with a variously attributed quote: “With climate change, those who know the most are the most frightened. With nuclear power, those who know the most are the least frightened.” His own stance on nuclear power has flipped from anti to pro for two reasons. First, he gradually realised that nuclear waste disposal no longer looked like a cosmic-level problem. Second, nuclear power looked like a major solution in the light of growing worries about climate change. Coal is the enemy. He endorses Hansen’s statement in his open letter to President Obama, “Coal plants are factories of death”, and the accompanying observation “One of the greatest dangers the world faces is the possibility that a vocal minority of anti-nuclear activists could prevent phase-out of coal emissions.”
Brand is all for energy efficiency and for renewables, but impressed by the claim that renewables cannot be relied on for the baseload electricity currently provided by coal in many countries. The dangers supposed attendant on nuclear power generation are not now serious. Much work has gone into minimizing the risk of accidents. The accumulated effects of low-dose radiation are no longer thought significant for human health. Waste storage arrangements are not as hazardous as once thought. There is every reason for it to be part of the energy portfolio we will need to replace fossil fuel sources.
Brand reserves his strongest accusation of the environmental movement for its opposition to genetic engineering (GE). “We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.” Noting the lack of alarm about genetic engineering among biologists he comments that “they know what a minor event it is amid the standard chaos of evolution and the just-barely-organised chaos of agricultural breeding.” Taking the example of GE herbicide-tolerant crops he points to the great ecological win they represent in that they encourage no-till agriculture. This offers major climate benefits along with improvements to soil structure because tillage releases carbon from the soil, which holds more carbon than all the living vegetation and the atmosphere put together. He regrets that organic farmers, whose work he values highly, can’t use GE but must continue to plough. Some of those farmers also regret it.
There is a great deal more than this example in the chapters which proclaim the green possibilities of GE and his hope that the organic farming and food industries will come to terms with the technologies of “ecology in the seed”.
Having dealt with the three developments which he considers need to be embraced, not rejected, by the environmental movement, Brand moves on to some general considerations as to how not to repeat the mistakes made in those areas. Greens need to be less romantic and more scientific. “Environmentalists do best when they follow where the science leads, as they did with climate change. They do worst when they get nervous about where science leads, as they did with genetic engineering.”
Ecosystem engineering and niche construction are part of what humans have always done. Brand makes an emphatic case for tending the wild, for people being densely involved with nature. “It’s all gardening” is the chapter heading. Restoration is part of it, but so is agriculture which merges with the practices of tending the wild.
Humanity is now stuck with a planet stewardship role. The trend of the changes we have made lately indicates we are doing a poor job of it. “We are forced to learn planet craft – in both sense of the word: craft as skill and craft as cunning.” For that we need a better knowledge of how the Earth system works. “We are model-rich and data poor.”
Brand writes with clarity and verve. He grips reader attention. Whatever one thinks of the positions he holds there is high interest in his explanations of them and no denying their importance in relation to the seriousness of the challenge of climate change. How in fact the balance between nuclear power and renewables will be worked out remains to be seen, and the whole question of non-fossil fuel energy sources seems still very open. Some who have no objection to nuclear power on principle still consider it unlikely to play a major role. But Brand’s concern is to establish that there is no reason to exclude it from consideration, or indeed to exclude anything else which science affirms as useful to ecological balance.
Buried among the emails which accumulated while I was in hospital was one from Carbonscape, the NZ company working on biochar, drawing my attention to an article in the UK Sunday Times. It missed proper attention until I tidied up my inbox yesterday, but even a few weeks late I think it’s worth reporting, especially as Hot Topic has posted on Carbonscape previously (here, here and here).
The Sunday Times article contained interviews with a number of people it described as the new Victorians, meaning modern-day heroes of science and technology. Among them, as the new David Livingstone, was Carbonscape director Chris Turney, paleoclimatologist and author of Ice, Mud and Blood (reviewed here). In the interview he speaks of how 125,000 years ago the temperature was 1.7 degrees warmer than before industrialisation got going and the sea levels were 4-6 metres higher than today, suggesting a large number of the ice sheets had melted. Now our stated goal is to keep temperatures less than 2 degrees higher than at the start of industrialisation. The possible implications for ice sheets and sea levels are obvious.
We talk about reducing emissions in the future, but we’ve already got 200 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere that shouldn’t be there, and that’s what’s driving the changes we see today. We need to get this carbon out of the atmosphere, and fast. This is where Carbonscape’s technology has a part to play. Turney describes it as effectively an enormous microwave with a few tweaks. It turns plants, including waste, into charcoal, which is stable and locks the carbon away permanently. The charcoal can be put in the soil or – and this was a new thought for me – go back down and refill coal mines.
Opinions vary, sometimes fiercely, on the feasibility of charcoal as a means of CO2 sequestration, but there are some well-known names among its supporters, including James Lovelock and Tim Flannery, the latter having joined the Carbonscape Board. It’s still largely unexplored territory, which I presume is why the Sunday Times suggested David Livingstone as Turney’s progenitor. Surely territory worth investigating.
I watched Stephen Sackur interview James Lovelock on the BBCâ€™s Hard Talk programme on Tuesday evening. It was a depressing experience.Â Lovelock largely reiterated the things he said in The Vanishing Face of Gaia, reported in my review here.Â Â I listened to it all again. His familiar and seemingly detached expectation that most of the human race will be extinguished Â this century. His strong distaste for green solutions, especially wind power. HisÂ conviction that all our efforts should now be directed to preparing for life in a diminished world, and that the more time we waste on silly ideas like renewable energy the worse things will be in the end. At present countries like the UK can and should provide a haven for refugees from hotter climates, but there will come a time when the lifeboat is full. Iâ€™m not sure how he envisages events unfolding at that point.
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.