Tim Flannery's wake-up call to the planet
I love going down the freeway in Shanghai and looking up at the apartment buildings … There’s an airconditioner in every residential window, which is fantastic.
—Chip Goodyear, August 2005
We create CO2 every time we drive a car, cook a meal or turn on a light, and because the gas lasts around a century in the atmosphere, the proportion of CO2 in the air we breathe is rapidly increasing.
—Tim Flannery, October 2005
Tim Flannery, author of the second statement, cares passionately about CO2 emissions and their effect on the atmosphere. Chip Goodyear, chief executive of BHP Billiton, cares that by the end of the decade there will be 150 megacities in China demanding energy. His company is determined to be part of China’s energy-consuming future, regardless of whether that future is carbon-based, nuclear or renewable.
The carbon and oxygen atoms are the building blocks of life on earth. Combine them – as a result of burning a fossil fuel, for instance – and they form carbon dioxide. Increased levels of CO2 in the atmospheric ocean trap heat near the earth’s surface: a greenhouse effect. This results in global warming. The planet responds with climate change. We feel the consequences by way of weather. Flannery, like many scientists, believes this is the biggest issue facing the world in the 21st century.
A palaeontologist and the director of the South Australian Museum, Flannery has built a successful writing career by bringing the hard questions of the natural sciences to the attention of the general readership. In previous works such as The Future Eaters (1994) and The Eternal Frontier (2001) he adopted a light tone, full of humorous asides and expressions of passion. A calm, controlled voice governs his rigorous new book The Weather Makers (Text, 384pp; $32.95). Flannery presents his evidence and does not rant. He leaves it to the reader to do that. Only once, on page 304, does he throw a fit: “I became so outraged at the irresponsibility of the coal burners that I decided to generate my own electricity.” He goes on to outline the way he altered his family’s environmental footprint, his tone reverting at once to the calm and rational. The effect of all this cool rationality is to make the book accessible to everyone.
For a long while Flannery was reluctant to tackle the topic of climate change. Yet as a chronicler of, among other things, the impact of climate change on the fossil record, The Weather Makers seems a logical progression. In The Future Eaters he dealt with the effects on Australia’s ecosystems of the arrival of Aboriginal people 60,000 years ago and Europeans 200 years ago. He threw into that mix the continent’s peculiar climate, our fragile soils and our impoverished marine systems. The Eternal Frontier covered similar themes set against a North American backdrop. Throughout his earlier books the effects of climate on the earth’s species provide a kind of subplot. The Weather Makers brings climate to centre stage.
Flannery’s work is imbued with a belief in scientific method. Research may be conducted as a leap of faith, but for the results to become “science” they must be subjected to scientific method, to testing, explication and replication, and then to the scrutiny of other scientists. Science, scepticism and various “ologies” have their origin in ancient Greek models. The model Flannery chooses to explain how atmosphere, climate and weather interact is Gaia – named after the Greek goddess of earth, and first proposed in 1972 by English scientist James Lovelock.
In an age when the prevailing scientific thought maintained that the earth was an inanimate habitat, and that life occurred by fortuitous accident, Lovelock believed that the earth, the atmosphere, all living things and everything that ever lived were parts of one organism that regulated temperature and nourished life. This, he said, accounted for the earth’s long-term climatic stability since the last ice age. Unfortunately he could provide no scientific evidence for his theory. To his detractors, Gaia sounded mystical rather than scientific. They called him a crackpot. His work was neglected until 1979 when Carl Sagan published Lovelock’s book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. While waiting for science to catch up with Gaia, Lovelock invented a machine that could measure chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere, thus enabling other scientists to prove the relationship between CFCs, ozone depletion and the ozone hole over the Antarctic. Without this work, the 1987 Montreal Protocol limiting CFC production would not have been signed.
Since the last ice age ended about 15,000 years ago, the earth’s temperature has hovered at an average of 14 degrees celsius. A one-degree drop could lead to another ice age. When the earth warmed by one degree 4,000 years ago the Indian societies of North America’s south-west collapsed – leaving, as Flannery remarked in The Eternal Frontier, “a parched, hot and mostly uninhabitable landscape”. Since the start of the industrial revolution 200 years ago, the earth’s temperature has risen by 0.63 degrees. “Most of the increase in the burning of fossil fuels,” Flannery notes in his new book, “has occurred over the last few decades, and nine out of the ten warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 1990.” The scientific evidence suggests global warming of between three and five degrees will take place this century if we continue with business as usual. If CO2 emissions are cut by 70% the planet will still be warmer than it was 200 years ago – but the earth, and our species, may survive. Continuing with business as usual will result in the collapse of polar ice sheets, rising water levels, seesawing weather patterns and mass extinctions.
Two-hundred-and-forty-nine coal-fired power stations are due to come online somewhere in the world between 1999 and 2009. Almost half will be in China. Australia’s natural resources – coal, iron ore, petroleum, gas and whatever else we can extract from our fragile continent – will be removed and then used to create energy elsewhere. According to Flannery, coal-burning power plants are so inefficient they waste two-thirds of the energy created. “These Dickensian machines,” he calls them, “… 19th-century technology [making] our 21st-century gadgets whirr.” Australians emit more CO2 per capita than any nation on earth. And the two countries with most to lose in the climate change stakes, the US and Australia, have refused to sign the Kyoto agreement limiting CO2 emissions.
In The Eternal Frontier, Flannery showed how America’s distinctive geographical funnel shape traps the continent between the Rockies and the Appalachians: the US climate is determined by the polar regions in winter and the Gulf of Mexico in summer. Historically this north–south pattern leads to wide weather fluctuations, which are expected to worsen in an era of global warming. ENSO – the El Niño Southern Oscillation – is the climatic factor influencing eastern Australia. The cooling waters of the El Niño prevent evaporation and cloud formation and lead to drought. In a globally-warmed world its effect will intensify. Parts of Australia will become drier, others wetter.
Not all of The Weather Makers is bad news. BP (British Petroleum) has now moved “beyond petroleum”, making a 20% cut in its own CO2 emissions and a profit in doing so. By 2010 the UK’s CO2 emissions will have fallen by 20%. Flannery details ways the earth might move beyond carbon-based energy: wind, solar, geothermal. James Lovelock, now in his 87th year, has proposed that scientists look once more at nuclear energy. He is being called a crackpot all over again.
The success of the Montreal Protocol proves that an agreement to scale down CO2 emissions is possible. We can convert to hybrid cars, generate our own electricity, build energy-efficient houses and switch off the airconditioner (Mr Goodyear of BHP, please note). We can lobby politicians to look at alternative energy sources. Flannery outlines three possible futures for the planet: (a) we proceed with business as usual and great climate shifts destroy our civilisation; (b) emissions are reduced enough to avoid outright disaster but the earth is devastatingly wounded and civilisation hovers at the brink, perhaps for centuries; and (c) humanity acts promptly “on individual, national and corporate levels to reduce emissions and so avoids serious climatic consequences”.
Almost everyday the media brings more bad news. Parts of the Antarctic are disintegrating. The Siberian permafrost has started to melt, risking the massive release of methane into the atmosphere. Catastrophic weather seems to be occurring more frequently – and the technology to cut CO2 emissions exists now. Is there a global will to do so? With The Weather Makers, Tim Flannery delivers an almighty wallop to that debate. The general reader can absorb it and feel enlightened; the scientific reader can, and must, use it as a springboard for further research.
And where will Flannery’s own curiosity lead him next? I indicated earlier that his engagement with climate change seems a logical progression from The Future Eaters and The Eternal Frontier. Perhaps he has come full circle. Certainly there is unfinished business in the climate change debate. And there’s a mountain out there called “other sources of energy”