Paul P. Mealing

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Monday, 7 December 2009

Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers

This is a timely post, considering the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change is starting tonight (my time). I’ve just read Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, published in 2005. Tim Flannery is unknown outside of Australia, but he was awarded the Australian of the Year title in 2007. Considering that our Prime Minister of the day, John Howard, was a self-confessed climate-change sceptic, that’s quite an achievement. He was also awarded Australian Humanist of the Year in 2005. I have to admit that I didn’t even know the award existed until I read about it on the back fly cover of his book.

Tim Flannery is a scientist, and the scope and erudition of his book reflects that. Bill Bryson’s endorsement on the cover says it all and is no exaggeration: “It would be hard to imagine a better or more important book.” But reading Flannery’s book, I see the problem that the scientific community is faced with, when it comes to communicating a message. This book is largely aimed at people like myself, who read scientific magazines like New Scientist and Scientific American, and who like to immerse themselves in the scientific challenges of the day, but vicariously, without having to do the research or know all the esotericism of the subject. But most people, and this includes politicians, really aren’t that interested, despite the fact that writers as good as Flannery can engage readers outside of academia. What most people want, politicians included - some may say, politicians especially - is a neat one-liner that summarises the entire subject into a sound-bite. Of course, as soon as you give them this, all the data and all the arguments and all the research is left behind, and then every armchair-critic in the world can challenge its veracity.

Flannery faces this dilemma himself, because I’ve seen him defend his position in the media when he’s been misquoted or misrepresented for his honesty. Evolutionary biologists face exactly the same problem when they have to defend their honesty: that we don’t know all the answers to all of nature’s mysteries. But I get angry when politicians really believe that they know more than the scientists, or look for scientists on the fringe who will support their position. We’ve seen this with the tobacco industry, the cosmetics industry, the invitro-fertilisation industry, and, now, with climate-change, the fossil-fuel industry.

Science is different to any other discipline or endeavour. It’s highly dependent on data, research and the work of diverse groups over long periods of time. It suffers from its own rigor for reporting truth. Scientists need to be conservative when extrapolating or speculating into the future, which, in the case of climate-change, is an imperative. This leads them open to challenges by anyone who is a doubter or believes their immediate interests are in jeopardy. In the case of climate-change, this includes the entire Western and Developing world. Economically, entire nation states are in jeopardy, but, so is the very planet if climate-change is a reality. Risk evasion or risk management has never been circumvented by doing nothing. In many cases - the recent economic crisis being a case in point - doing nothing is often the greatest risk of all. Unless people take that into account, they are not practicing risk-management, they are practicing ignorance and denial.

Flannery’s book covers all the bases. He covers the entire living history of the planet throughout all the geological ages, which puts our current, most recent age in perspective. He explains how evidence from ice cores, fossils and other geological and biological sources from all over the world, comprehensively build a picture that is compelling and believable. Flannery provides the science behind Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, and has the advantage, as a book, of being able to expound in detail all of his arguments, providing sources and revealing the evidence that has been accumulating over decades. One of the book’s strength is that Flannery demonstrates how climate-science is not a new invention arising from a perceived threat, but goes back at least half a century to Milutin Milankovich’s Canon of Insolation of the Ice-Age Problem published in 1941, describing, for the first time, the relationship between the ice ages and the Earth’s inherent precession on its axis (wobble). The apparent relationship between sunspot activity and the Earth’s temperature goes back centuries. Flannery also explains the relationship between climate change and the world’s great extinction events, including the near-loss of our own species “around 100,000 years ago when humans were as rare as gorillas are today.” Few people know that we nearly didn’t make it to the end of our current evolutionary branch – a very sobering thought indeed.

Flannery’s expertise is in zoology, and it’s his detailed exposition on the impact of climate-change on ecosystems, especially in both polar regions (where the impacts are different yet equally catastrophic) and in coral reefs, that I found most compelling and most depressing. Compelling because it’s already evident and depressing because the bulk of humanity is both unaware and uncaring. Yet it will be truly disastrous to the planet if entire food chains disappear in this century, and that’s the alarm bell that Flannery is ringing. At the very least, biodiversity will be decimated and the long term consequences to us is unknown. The fact that we’ve gone from 1 billion to 6 billion in the last century doesn’t bode well for this century, nor the long term health of the planet.

He spends an entire chapter explaining how the extinction rate of frog and toad species in all parts of the world are probably the most accurate harbingers of climate change, and how it’s been happening and being recorded since the 1980s.

But of all the arguments and evidence that Flannery presents, it’s the ‘time-gates’ of 1976 and 1998 that leave one in no doubt that climate-change is already occurring and we are fools to ignore it. By time-gates he’s referring to events that have become permanent and will not switch back to previous norms. In other words the norms for global climate have already changed. Obviously, it’s future time-gates that we are now attempting to avoid. All of our policies should be based on working backwards from predicted time-gates, and this is the hardest argument to sell. But if more people (politicians in particular) recognised the time-gates we’ve already passed through in the last 3 decades, one would expect the argument to be a very soft sell indeed.

The 1976 ‘climate gate’ relates to the well know El-Nino effect, and data collected in the central Pacific.

“Between 1945 and 1955 the temperature of the surface of the tropical Pacific commonly dipped below 19.2C, but after the magic gate opened in 1976 it has rarely been below 25.3C.”

The El-Nino La-Nina cycles have since become longer: “one would expect such long cycles only once in several thousand years”.

“The 1998 magic gate is also tied up with the El-Nino La-Nino cycle, a two to eight-year-long cycle that brings extreme climate events to much of the world.”

“The 1997-98 El-Nino year has been immortalised by the World Wide Fund for Nature (now the WWF) as ‘the year the world caught fire’.”

In Australia, we have witnessed the effects of this first-hand. As Flannery once wrote in New Scientist (approximately 2 years ago) Australia is witnessing climate-change in advance of the rest of the world. Despite this, our conservative opposition party is literally split down the middle between climate-change-deniers and climate-change-proponents. As recently as last week, this split resulted in a leadership change with the sceptics now in the ascendant.

But, according to his book, it’s Africa that has possibly suffered most from climate change to date, especially, what he calls ‘the Sahelian catastrophe’ in the Dafur region of Western Sudan. And this goes back 4 decades to the 1960s, when Western governments and Western media believed it was all a problem of the local inhabitants’ own making. Flannery argues that, with hindsight and climatology research, it’s Western induced greenhouse gases that have created the Sahelian catastrophe as early as the 1960s.

“The Sahelian climate shift is emblematic of the situation faced by the world as a whole, for in it we see the West focusing on religion and politics as the problem, rather then the well-documented and evident environmental catastrophe that is its ultimate cause.”

Computer modeling for the future has created the most controversy as I alluded to in my introduction, but one of the factors, that few climatologists disagree on, is that there is a residual effect of 5 decades from CO2. In other words, the full effects of the current status of CO2 in the atmosphere will not be experienced until 2050. This is why climatologists are arguing for immediate action. No one expects us to cut our emissions to zero, yet we can’t remove what we’ve already put in, and we have to wait another 2 generations before the full effects of current levels are known in reality. It’s even more serious when one realises that: “half of the energy generated since the Industrial Revolution has been consumed in just the last twenty years.” Business as usual is not a morally responsible option. I don’t expect corporations to be morally responsible, because they’re not – one only has to look at the way they behave in third world countries – but I expect governments to be.

I imagine a lot of people would avoid this book because it makes depressing reading, but, for a start, it should be compulsory reading for all politicians. Flannery discusses 3 possible tipping points, all of which have occurred in the past: the shutting down of the Gulf Stream, the collapse of the Amazon rain forest and the release of methane from the ocean floor, which created the greatest mass extinction ever, 55 million years ago, when an estimated 90% of the planet’s species (that’s species not individual plants and animals) became extinct. Of the three, the last is the most unlikely, and the other two would take the rest of this century to become fully evident, yet, once started, possibly in half that time, they could not be reversed.

But it would take less extreme events to create shortages of food, water and energy, which are already being predicted. Flannery discusses this and the logical outcome is genocidal warfare, because that’s what humans do. This is the scenario that we should all be trying to avoid, yet we don’t even contemplate it, let alone imagine the consequences. It’s human nature to be optimistic and ignore worst-case-scenarios, but we’ve all seen the results of this thinking (in America alone in recent years) with Hurricane Katrina and the subprime mortgage debacle. Unless we consider worst-case-scenarios they will overtake us and cause calamity. In the case of climate-change, this will occur on an unprecedented global scale in human-recorded history.

In the last 2 sections of the book, Flannery talks about solutions, both current and future. He starts with a discussion of the Kyoto protocol; to date, a complete failure compared to the Montreal protocol for the banning of CFCs that saved us from ozone depletion. He concentrates on Australia, partly because its his home and partly because, like the US, it refused to ratify Kyoto and produced spurious arguments to defend its position.

However: “…documents came to light under Australia’s Freedom of Information Act revealing how it [MEGABARE, Australia’s economic model for negotiation] had been funded, to the tune of $400,000, by the Australian Aluminium Council, Rio Tinto, Mobil and other like-minded groups, all of whom had received a seat on the study’s steering committee.” In other words, our position had been determined by representatives in the energy industry rather than climate scientists, even though CSIRO (Australia’s esteemed scientific research establishment) had done considerable research in this area, especially considering Australia’s extensive history of droughts, fires and floods.

Not surprisingly, however, Flannery saves his most scathing criticism for the United States, in particular, the role of the second Bush administration and the energy industries:

“The fact that in the 1970s the US was a world leader and innovator in energy conversation, photovoltaics and wind technology, yet today is a simple follower is testimony to their success [the energy industries]. It is impossible to overestimate the role these industries have played over the last two decades in preventing the world from taking serious action to combat climate change.’

Flannery meticulously documents the role of coal companies, in particular, both in America and Australia, in fighting and funding propaganda warfare against climate-change policy. In both countries, members of the industry were given prominent positions in energy sector reviews, effectively censoring genuine scientific debate. He also cites the ‘Global Climate Coalition’, whose stated purpose was to ‘cast doubt on the theory of global warming’. After 11 years of lobbying, it eventually broke up in 2000 because major players like DuPont and BP realised that they were on the wrong side of the debate and left it in 1997, causing others to follow.

In Australia, a conservative politician recently stated publicly that it was all a ‘hoax’, tacitly referring to a well-circulated conspiracy theory, very popular with climate-change-deniers in this country, that academics, the world over, have created climate-change, or exaggerated its potential impact, for no other reason than to maintain their funding and their careers. This is the most cynical of arguments, but it has a lot of currency amongst the most ignorant and intransigent of my country’s politicians.

On the other hand, Flannery cites the UK as a leader in climate-change reform, going back to the Thatcher years, thanks largely, to the lobbying and influence of James Lovelock.

Flannery is critical of carbon geosequestration, seeing it as a waste of public money to allow the coal industry to continue for another 50 years, when the money could be better spent on other alternatives. Most experts agree that coal is the biggest danger to climate change, yet many countries, including Australia and China, are committed to its continued use for economic reasons.

Flannery discusses all the alternatives, including hydrogen cells and nuclear power but plumps for wind and solar, even arguing a case for self-sufficiency independent of the grid. He also believes that geothermal has been under-explored, especially in Australia, where he contends it could provide all our needs for the next 75 years, carbon free.

Flannery leaves the reader in no doubt that climate-change is already happening. The sceptics argue, considering the extreme climate variations in the geological past, that the real question is whether the current climate change is human-induced or natural. But the correlation between the industrial revolution and consequential global changes in the past century, especially with the 2 significant ‘climate-gate’ changes in the last 3 decades, is compelling evidence.

But if there is any lingering doubt, Flannery added the following postscript to his book:

“As this book was going to press the journal Science published proof positive of global warming. A study by James Hansen and colleagues revealed that Earth is now absorbing more energy, an extra 0.85 watts per square metre, than it’s radiating to space.”

As for the sceptics, it’s an over-eager optimism combined with a reluctance to face a global economic challenge that motivates their opposition. It’s not a coincidence that it’s the political conservatives, in all nations, who are questioning the science. It’s the conservatives who want to maintain the status quo, who believe that change is inherently unwise, yet fail to appreciate that we could well create change on a biblical scale, in this very century, just by doing nothing at all.

Flannery has filled his book with quotations from people as diverse as James Lovelock, William Shakespeare and indigenous people like Aboriginal Elder, Big Bill Neidjie, Gagadju Man. But I thought the best and most relevant quote was from Alfred Russel Wallace, who concurrently discovered the law of natural selection (yes, it’s a law, not a theory) with Charles Darwin.

It is among those nations that claim to be the most civilised, those that profess to be guided by a knowledge of laws of nature, those that most glory in the advance of science, that we find the greatest apathy, the greatest recklessness, in continually rendering impure this all-important necessity of life… (from Man’s Place in the Universe, 1903).


Paul P. Mealing said...

Paul Carlin sent me this highly relevant link: an interview with James Hansen by Tony Jones on ABC's Lateline (Australia) recorded 7 Dec. 2009, the day the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change started.

Paul Carlin said...

Well Paul

That is a very extensive blog and it makes a number of points exceptionally well. The combination of ignorance, naivety, self-interest and denial are fundamental human traits in anything that threatens a "secure" status quo.

However, a continuing rise in population across many countries and the loss of food production capacity to feed that population is fertile ground for 'war'.

So once again, it looks as though it will take a major catastrophe to blow away the ignorance, denial and lack of political will to move human stubbornness.

Thanks Paul

Paul P. Mealing said...

There's some more on this topic in New Scientist, especially in regard to the famous 'leaked emails'.

Regards, Paul.