Atmosphere of Hope: The Search for Solutions to the Climate Crisis by Tim Flannery

A roller-coaster ride…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Atmosphere of HopeIn December this year, the next United Nations Climate Change Conference will convene in Paris to make decisions on how to cap carbon emissions at a level that will ensure that global temperatures will rise by no more than 2° Celcius compared to pre-industrial levels. This book is a summary of where we are now and an action plan for the future.

The book is heavily polemical, very much Tim Flannery’s personal attempt to influence the decision makers. As a scientist and leading environmentalist of long-standing, Flannery is Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne, a member of the Australian Independent Climate Council and chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council; so he’s certainly qualified to speak authoritatively on the subject.

This was a bit of a roller-coaster read for me, both in terms of style and content. In the introduction, Flannery lays out his stall. Taking as his starting point his own earlier book The Weather Makers, he sets out to show how things have developed over the decade since, where his opinions have changed over the years, and what he now thinks are the best ways forward if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change. At this stage, I was concerned I might find the book unreadable. His style is abrasive, self-aggrandizing and arrogant and much of the introduction and early chapters read like a piece of self-advertisement. He mentions his previous book umpteen times, dismissing anyone who has criticised any aspect of it over the years, and spends far too long justifying his then conclusions. In fact, at times there is a sense almost of paranoia – as if he is the victim of a conspiracy of vested interests trying to discredit his work. He is vitriolic about the Abbott government in Australia – still in power when he was writing but now gone. Of course, as the cliché goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

Hard to believe people are still building them...
Hard to believe people are still building them…

However, having vented his spleen, Flannery then settles down into a series of well-written chapters where he lays out the current situation very clearly. He starts with a bleak picture of what may happen if temperatures are not contained to the 2°C target – to the Arctic and Antarctic, to forests, wildlife and oceans, and not least to humanity in those parts of the world most sensitive to rising temperatures. It’s all stuff we’ve heard before, but brought up to date with the latest science. Flannery assumes throughout that by this time only those with vested interests in the carbon industries are still denying the link between man’s activities and climate change, and so is dismissive and even occasionally virulent about deniers. There is throughout a feeling of urgency – no time left to waste preaching to the unconverted, let’s just ignore them and get on with what needs to be done. Fine by me, but this is not a book to win over waverers with charm.

The next few chapters take us through individual aspects of energy production, starting with the dirty ones and moving on to the clean. This was the part of the book that gave me a sense of hope – assuming Flannery’s figures are correct, and I see no reason to doubt them, then fossil fuels seem to be losing their overwhelming attractiveness as renewables become both more efficient and cheaper due to economies of scale. We’re nowhere near out of the woods, but Flannery made me feel as if perhaps we’ve spotted the path.

North Western Glacier Alaska - 1940 and 2005
North Western Glacier Alaska – 1940 and 2005

In the final section, Flannery discusses how he believes we should proceed. His position is that, even in the unlikely (but not impossible) event that we reduce fossil fuel use to zero over the next few decades, we will still have the problem of existing CO2 in the atmosphere to deal with. He discusses the difficulties of the task and goes into some detail on some of the schemes that have been put forward. To my unscientific mind, lots of these sound like pie-in-the-sky schemes, or actually poison-in-the-sky, to be more accurate. Flannery himself isn’t keen on the kind of geo-engineering scheme that suggests pumping other stuff, like sulphur, into the atmosphere in order to induce cooling, on the grounds that firstly, we can’t foresee all the possible implications and secondly, the underlying problem of too much carbon still remains.

Hope - Harnessing solar power in Spain
Hope – Harnessing solar power in Spain

He suggests what he calls a ‘third way’ – a mixture of preparing for climate change by making necessary adaptations at a local level while attempting to remove CO2 from the atmosphere by a variety of schemes, from massive seaweed farms to storing carbon in rocks and plastics, that he feels could be effective without the risks of geo-engineering. To be honest, much of this sounded impractical and a bit like wishful thinking to me, but hey! Most of it was well over my head scientifically and he’s an expert, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s always been my opinion that it will have to be the scientists who solve this problem in the end, and the role of governments and the people should be to give them the finances and resources they need, while trying to stop any of them accidentally blowing up the galaxy in their enthusiasm.

Tim Flannery
Tim Flannery

However, after cheering me up in the earlier chapters, I’m afraid this final section plunged me back into gloom – the sheer scale of the task and the short-termism of so many governments make it all seem pretty overwhelming. I comforted myself with the thought that perhaps Flannery had done this deliberately, so that no-one would be approaching the Paris Conference feeling over-confident. Overall well worth reading – a good introduction for anyone new to the subject and a thorough update for those with a little more knowledge. Let’s hope the politicians attending the Conference will pay attention to the science more than the politics for once… the world will be watching. Won’t we?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences by James Lawrence Powell

four revolutions in the earth sciencesThe weight of evidence…

😀 😀 😀 😀

In the introduction, Powell tell us he was inspired to write this book when a friend, discussing the fact that the vast majority of scientists accept that the activities of man are contributing to global warming, remarked that scientists have been wrong before. Accepting the undeniable truth of that, Powell decided to look at the recent history of four important theories in earth sciences, showing that though scientists may have been wrong at first, they “eventually came to be right”.

The history of the four discoveries confirms the cardinal virtue of science: it is self-correcting. Scientists pushing the boundaries of knowledge are often wrong, but they do not stay wrong.

Considering the fair amount of depth Powell goes into on each of his subjects, the book is surprisingly accessible to the non-scientists among us. I found I only got lost occasionally and, when reading books like this, I accept that there are things that are too complex to simplify down to my level! In each section Powell starts at a point before the theory he is discussing was developed, explaining the existing state of knowledge and supposition. He then introduces us to the scientists who contributed to the development of the new theory, along with those who opposed it, and finally to those who ‘proved’ it. He provides little anecdotes of their lives, or their friendships or quarrels with each other, which prevent the book from becoming too dry a read.

James Larence Powell
James Lawrence Powell

There are two types of enjoyable popular science books as far as I’m concerned – those that clearly explain something and convince me of it, and those that clearly explain something and provoke me to argue with the author’s conclusions. This one falls firmly into the latter category. Oddly, I started out a fairly firm believer in all four (five really, or six if you include the extinction of the dinosaurs) of the theories in the book, and ended up only fully convinced of two – or two and a half at a push. Throughout, Powell is critical of scientists who accepted theories and held onto them despite lack of proof or even once discoveries had been made that clearly invalidated them. But I felt Powell fell into that same trap himself too often, claiming a thing as being so when in fact the proof isn’t yet there. The very subtitle of the book – From Heresy to Truth – is a prime example of this. His basic position seems contradictory – that scientists of old were stubborn and foolhardy to stand by their theories without adequate proof but that we should accept the theories of current science, also often without final evidence of their validity. And he makes generalized statements that are clearly an expression of his opinion rather than of ‘fact’…

The discoveries from astronomy and earth science expose the infinitesimal standing of the human race in time and space. They force us to admit that we are the products of, and the potential victims of, random events.

Do they really? I would imagine that the billions of people who believe in some form of God might not feel forced to admit that. Indeed, Powell himself points out in the course of the book that even many scientists are willing to admit that science and religion can co-exist. But this is just one example – there were several occasions when I felt he expressed himself more forcefully than the evidence justified, or substituted opinion for fact.

Continental Drift
Continental Drift

However, despite finding I was treating his conclusions with some caution, I found the book interesting and informative, and felt that overall he more or less made his case. Perhaps had he been a little less ambitious to prove the rightness of so many current theories, he might have been more convincing overall. Here is a brief summary of the theories he discusses…

Deep Time

Powell shows how the assumed age of the Earth has changed over the last century or so, as scientists made discoveries – such as evolution – that negated the previous assumptions. As he does in each section, he highlights the scientists involved, including those who fought strongly to retain their existing position even when the evidence became overwhelming. He also points out that, in the end, it was physicists rather than geologists who made the most important discovery – how to determine the age of rocks through developing ways to measure radioactive decay.

My verdict: Not proven – an old Scottish verdict which means basically ‘I believe it, but I don’t think you’ve really proved it’. I admit the main reason for this verdict is that the stuff about radioactive decay went largely over my head – but it seemed to me that, as Powell described it, there were still too many assumptions involved for this to be a theory incapable of being overturned by further future discoveries.

Giant Impact Hypothesis for creation of the Moon Pciture credit: National Geographic
Giant Impact Hypothesis for creation of the Moon
Picture credit: National Geographic

Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics

In 1911, Alfred Wegener noticed that the east coast of South America was a great fit for the west coast of Africa, and speculated that they had once been joined. The then greats of the scientific world largely dismissed this idea, even when the fossil records between the two coasts showed a remarkable similarity. Powell takes us through all the experimentation that gradually proved the truth of the theory, as geologists speculated that continental drift and plate tectonics were the likely cause of mountain formation and of the mid-Atlantic ridge.

My verdict: Proven. With GPS, scientists have now been able to measure the rate of drift – that’s the kind of proof I like!

Meteorite Impact

While discussing the theory that meteorites have impacted the Earth, on occasion with catastrophic results, I felt Powell got himself a bit side-tracked into both the extinction of the dinosaurs and the impact theory for the creation of the Moon.

My verdict – the jury is still debating. I don’t think any of us who watched Shoemaker-Levy 9 crash into Jupiter some years back could doubt that major meteor strikes happen, nor be unconvinced of their catastrophic potential; and I was convinced of the evidence that they have happened here on Earth. However I felt Powell’s certainty that this was the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs was too strongly expressed – again, I tend to believe it, but don’t think it has been ‘proved’. And as for the Moon creation theory, even Powell had to admit that this one needs much more evidence before it moves from theory to fact. (Oddly enough, I thought that one had been proved – Powell unconvinced me.)

Dinosaur extinction Credit: Mark Garlick, Science Photo Library Photo??? It must be true, then...
Dinosaur extinction
Credit: Mark Garlick, Science Photo Library
Photo??? It must be true, then…

Global Warming

So this is the crucial one – Powell’s starting and finishing point. Although he refers to it as Global Warming, in fact the crux of his argument is proving that it’s caused in large part by man’s actions. Again this one got a bit ‘sciency’ for me, but for the most part I was able to follow the arguments.

My verdict: Proven. It seems to me the weight of measurable evidence – such as from atmospheric measurements over time showing the rapid rise in concentration of carbon dioxide to be almost exactly parallel with the increase in emissions – makes this one as close to proven as it’s likely to be. And given the potential impact, I’d rather err on the side of caution anyway. But, although Powell’s position is that this one is beyond doubt, he also makes it clear that estimates of the likely impact are still subject to debate. Personally, I feel we’re probably safest to assume a worst-case scenario and act accordingly…and on that final note, I think Powell and I finally reached agreement.

An interesting book, despite Powell’s occasional forays beyond the evidence, and one I would recommend to anyone who is still in doubt as to the reality of man’s impact on the environment.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Columbia University Press.

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The Politics of Climate Change by Anthony Giddens

A clear and accessible summary…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the politics of climate changeIn this book, Giddens firstly urges us to accept the overwhelming consensus of opinion amongst scientists that climate change is real and caused by the actions of humanity, and then goes on to consider what actions will be required if we are to overcome this global threat.

Over the first few chapters, Giddens looks at where we are now. He starts by giving an overview of the scientific evidence and discusses the counter-arguments of sceptics and radicals, concluding that the science strongly supports the position that climate change is happening, is caused by human activity and is likely to have catastrophic consequences if action is not taken quickly. He looks at the availability of oil, gas and coal and how their production and use have shaped and changed international relationships and policy since the Second World War. He goes on to discuss the rise of ‘green’ politics and whether they offer any real solutions to the problems facing us.

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In the next few sections, Giddens lays out his stall for the approaches he thinks are required. He argues strongly for a lead to be taken by governments of nation states individually (rather than waiting for the outcome of lengthy international negotiations) to develop policies that will encourage reductions in emissions – particularly through the use of the tax system and the encouragement of technological innovation. He highlights that climate change questions have, to some degree, become seen to be a ‘left-wing’ concern and points out that it is essential to success that all-party support is given to measures if they are to be accepted by those who will be affected. He urges strongly the principle of ‘polluter pays’ and suggests this should be extended to look at the developed world’s responsibility to ensure support for developing and undeveloped countries in combatting climate change and in adapting to its effects.

Anthony Giddens (guardian.co.uk)
Anthony Giddens
(guardian.co.uk)

Finally, Giddens looks at how international co-operation has developed to date and how he sees it progressing. He suggests that, as well as the various groupings of countries that are coming into being to tackle the issues regionally, the UN still has a vital role to play in monitoring and holding states to internationally agreed targets.

The book is well written and aimed at a general audience. It is a succinct account of where we are now and provides food for thought on how we might progress. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the on-going climate change debate (and, as this book makes clear, it affects us all). I found it a clear and accessible summary of the main arguments.

polarbear01
NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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