Book Shelf, Book 2- The Weather Makers

May 15, 2006


By Tim Flannery 
Atlantic Monthly Press, $25


It's possible that the Bush administration policy of ignoring climate change and hoping it will go away is informed by secret knowledge that we're going to be bailed out by space beings, but don't count on it. As the science so ably corralled in Flannery's book makes plain, we're running out of time as the planet warms, and there are no white hats on the horizon. The only possible solution involves a drastic reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and that means the kind of sacrifice the United States (and Australia) are not willing to make.

Much of what Flannery, a science writer and professor at the University of Adelaide, includes here is not new. But the way he reports it is very fresh indeed. Too many books on global warming are dense academic tomes with complicated charts and graphs. They might be red meat for the scientific community, but it's the general public that has to be convinced of the danger ahead. As Flannery reports, the common view is that global warming is a problem for future generations, when in fact it is already, today, having dramatic effects on life on earth. I know, because I was part of a team, including several SEJ writers, that compiled just such effects – from rising waters, migrating species, melting ice and disappearing krill – for the book "Feeling the Heat."

Flannery's writing is consistently engaging, backed up with solid science and never dull or dry. He uses his observations, new perspectives and comparisons from common experience to make this familiar turf come alive. Here are a few illuminating passages:

• On carbon: "Fossil fuels—oil, coal and gas—are all that remains of organisms that many millions of years ago, drew carbon from the atmosphere. When we burn wood we release carbon that has been out of atmospheric circulation for a few decades, but when we burn fossil fuels we release carbon that has been out of circulation for eons. Digging up the dead in this way is a particularly bad thing for the living to do. "

• On climate change: "Global warming changes climate in jerks, during which climate patterns jump from one stable state to another….The best analogy is perhaps that of a finger on a light switch. Nothing happens for a while, but if you slowly increase the pressure a certain point is reached, a sudden change occurs, and conditions swiftly alter from one state to another."

• On the urgent need for action: "The best evidence indicates that we need to reduce our CO2 emissions by 70 percent by 2050. If you own a four-wheel-drive and replace it with a hybrid fuel car, you can achieve a cut of that magnitude in a day rather than half a century. If your electricity provider offers a green option, for the cost of a daily cup of coffee you will be able to make equally major cuts in your household emissions."

Flannery offers a comprehensive survey of the threats we face: from hungry polar bears to the loss of the Gulf Stream and bleaching coral reefs. But he is light on the kind of international political analysis that informs Ross Gelbspan's "Boiling Point," and includes only 10 pages on the Kyoto process. His view is primarily from Down Under, and he does excoriate the Australian government for failing to sign the Kyoto treaty and for releasing an energy policy that "enshrined coal at the center of the nation's energy generation system."

In its last section, "The Weather Makers" considers solutions and Flannery ranges wide here, weighing the advantages of wind and solar expansion, presenting the arguments for and against nuclear expansion (he's against it, but understands why Gaia advocate James Lovelock and others are for it), and wading in, albeit only to shallow water, on the massive subject of our transportation future.

It was here, as a writer on the auto industry, that I caught the careful Flannery in his only wrong turn. Despite his encomium, it is unlikely that our highways soon will be filled with the "exciting" technology of cars running on compressed air. A French effort to market such vehicles has made little headway. A major reason is that compressing air uses a lot of energy and delivers a mediocre result. Dave Hermance, an environmental engineer with Toyota, told me such a car would probably have a range of only 10 miles. Accepting compressed air as the fuel of the future, he said, would require "a complete rethink of everything that ever was."

Jim Motavalli is the editor of E Magazine. 

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2006 issue

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