The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery
Efforts to understand the climate change debate are often sidetracked by an inability to grasp the scientific principles at play and by partisan substitution of ideology for evidence. Al Gore did tremendous work in An Inconvenient Truth, using visual imagery to establish for the masses the basic idea that our world is changing, that change is occurring with unnatural speed, and that much of this change can be tied to human causes.
But Al Gore is, for some, a divisive figure. A substantial portion of the population thinks he won the presidential election in 2000. An even larger portion probably wishes he had. And for all his erudition, he is not a scientist. So with due credit to his efforts, there is still room for others to play a pivotal role in educating us about climate change and what we can do about it.
Tim Flannery stepped into that role with his 2005 book, The Weather Makers. Flannery, an Australian scientist and environmental activist, previously published previous on the ecological history of Australia, and the ecological history of the United States. In The Weather Makers, he turned his focus to the topic of climate change, and in numerous short chapters, endeavors to tackle everything from the basics of climatology, the dangerous warning signs we've seen in past decades, the methods of prediction and what those models predict, the recent history of climate politics, and potential solutions for solving the crisis:
One thing that I hear again and again as I discuss climate change with friends, family, and colleagues is that it is something that may affect humanity in decades to come but is no immediate threat to us. I'm far from certain that that is true, and I'm not sure it is even relevant. If serious change or the effects of serious change are decades away, that is just a long tomorrow. Whenever my family gathers for a special event, the true scale of climate change is never far from my mind. My mother, who was born during the Great Depression--when motor vehicles and electric light were still novelties--positively glows in the company of her grandchildren, some of whom are not yet ten. To see them together is to see a chain of the deepest love that spans 150 years, for those grandchildren will not reach my mother's present age until late this century. To me, to her, and to their parents, their welfare is every bit as important as our own. On a broader scale, 70 percent of all people alive today will still be alive in 2050, so climate change affects almost every family on this planet.
Flannery treats every aspect of his sobering text with an even-hand. He does not villanize those whose scientific or political opinions clash with his own. He notes areas of scientific disagreement, he gives space to the proposals made by those who deny or diminish the dangers of climate change. He acknowledges the possible need for nuclear power and suggests that the continued use of fossil fuel for airline travel is not only necessary, but maybe even beneficial (due to possible cooling effects from the contrails made by airplane exhaust). Throughout the text, Flannery does not shy away from the shocking, but he never descends into sensationalism or spite.
One unique aspect of the book is that Flannery devotes at least as much attention to the policy failures in his native land as those in the United States. This is a perspective lacking in the U.S. debate, which per the recently-departed Bush administration's general outlook on the world, tended to devolve into an "us vs. them" mindset. If the U.S. refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol is rightly infamous, it is possibly trumped by the Australians' behavior: after bullying the small Pacific island countries most threatened by climate change, and wrestling concessions allowing it to expand its own CO2 production, Australia still refused to sign the treaty. An indication that Americans are not alone in our dangerous backwardness, though as leaders in innovation and initiative we should still be ashamed not to be at the tip of the spear.
Unfortunately the several years since Flannery published The Weather Makers have failed to yield much visible progress in the war on climate change. Though the presidential campaign last year involved a great deal of renewable energy rhetoric, the legislating progress is a different game entirely. Just last week, eight Democratic senators signed a letter stating their opposition to using the budget process to sidestep anticipated Republican filibusters on climate change legislation. At the same time in Copenhagen, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was releasing a disturbing report:
The world is facing an increasing risk of "irreversible" climate shifts because worst-case scenarios warned of two years ago are being realized, an international panel of scientists has warned.
Temperatures, sea levels, acid levels in oceans and ice sheets were already moving "beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived," scientists said in a report released Thursday.
This is particularly upsetting in light of the rather conservative nature of the IPCC. As Flannery describes it, because the panel operates by consensus and includes members from the petrostates and heel-draggers like the U.S., China and Australia, IPCC reports are "lowest-common-denominator science." But that also means that "If the IPCC says something, you had better believe it--and then allow for the likelihood that things are far worse than its says they are." It is hard to imagine how that could be.