The Weather Makers explores the science and history of climate change.
THE SLOW AWAKENING
In 1981, when I was in my midtwenties, I climbed Mt. Albert Edward, one of the highest peaks on the verdant island of New Guinea. Although only seventy-four miles from Papua New Guinea's national capital, Port Moresby, the region around Mt. Albert Edward is so rugged that the last significant biological work conducted there was by an expedition from the American Museum of Natural History in the early 1930s.
The bronzed grasslands were a stark contrast to the green jungle all around, and among the tussocks grew groves of tree ferns, whose lacy fronds waved above my head. Wallaby tracks threaded from the forest edge to the herbfields that flourished in damp hollows, and the scratchings and burrows of yardlong rats and the traces where long-beaked echidnas had probed for worms were everywhere. Many of these creatures, I later discovered, were unique to such alpine regions.
Downslope, the tussock grassland ended abruptly at a stunted, mossy forest. A single step could carry you from sunshine into the dank gloom, where the pencil-thin saplings on the margin were so festooned with moss, lichens, and filmy ferns that they ballooned to the diameter of my waist. In the leaf litter on the forest floor, I was surprised to find the trunks of dead tree ferns. Tree ferns grew only in the grassland, so here was clear evidence that the forest was colonizing the slope from below. Judging from the distribution of the tree fern trunks, it had swallowed at least thirty yards of grassland in less time than it takes for a tree fern to rot on the damp forest floor — a decade or two at most.
Why was the forest expanding? As I pondered the moldering trunks I remembered reading that New Guinea's glaciers were melting. Had the temperature on Mt. Albert Edward warmed enough to permit trees to grow where previously only grasses could take root? And, if so, was this evidence of climate change? My doctoral studies were in paleontology, so I knew how important changes in climate have been in determining the fate of species. But this was the first evidence I'd seen that it might affect Earth during my lifetime. The experience left me troubled; I knew there was something wrong but not quite what it was.
Despite the good position I was in to understand the significance of these observations, I soon forgot about them. This was partly because, as I studied the various ancient ecosystems that our generation has inherited, seemingly bigger and more urgent issues demanded my attention. And some of the crises did seem dire: The rain forests that I was studying were being felled for timber and to make agricultural land, and the larger animal species living there were being hunted to extinction. In my own country of Australia, rising salt was threatening to destroy the most fertile soils, while overgrazing, degradation of waterways, and the logging of forests all threatened precious ecosystems and biodiversity. To me these were the truly pressing issues.
Whether we are crossing the road or paying the bills, it is the big, fast-moving things that command our attention. But seemingly large issues sometimes turn out to be a sideshow. The Y2K bug is one such example. Around the globe many governments and companies spent billions to prepare themselves against the threat, while others spent nothing; and 1999 gave way to 2000 with barely a hiccup, let alone an apocalypse. A skeptical eye is our greatest asset in dealing with this type of "problem." And deep skepticism has a particularly important role to play in science, for a theory is only valid for as long as it has not been disproved. Scientists are in fact trained skeptics, and this eternal questioning of their own and others' work may give the impression that you can always find an expert who will champion any conceivable view.
While such skepticism is the lifeblood of science, it can have drawbacks when society is called on to combat real dangers. For decades both the tobacco and asbestos industries found scientists prepared publicly to be doubtful about discoveries linking their products with cancer. A nonspecialist cannot know whether the view being presented is fringe or mainstream thinking, and so we may come to believe that there is a real division in the scientific community on these matters. In the case of asbestos and tobacco, the situation was made worse because cancers often appear years after exposure to carcinogenic products, and no one can say for certain just who, among the many exposed, will be struck down. By creating doubt about the link between their products and cancer, the tobacco and asbestos companies enjoyed decades of fat profits, while millions of people met terrible deaths.
And many people have reacted with rightful caution to news about climate change. After all, we have in the past got things badly wrong.
In the 1972 publication The Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome told us the world was running out of resources and predicted catastrophe within decades. In an era of excessive consumption this imagined drought of raw materials gripped the public imagination, even though no one knew with any degree of certainty what volume of resources lay hidden in the earth. Subsequent geological exploration has revealed just how wide of the mark our estimates of mineral resources were back then, and even today no one can accurately predict the volume of oil, gold, and other materials beneath our feet.
The climate change issue is different. It results from air pollution, and the size of our atmosphere and the volume of pollutants that we are pouring into it are known with great precision. The debate now, and the story I want to explore here, concerns the impacts of some of those pollutants (known as greenhouse gases) on all life on Earth.
Is climate change a terrible threat or a beat-up? A bang or a whimper? Perhaps it's something in between — an issue that humanity must eventually face, but not yet. The world's media abound with evidence to support any of these views. Yet perusing that same media makes one thing clear: Climate change is difficult for people to evaluate dispassionately because it entails deep political and industrial implications, and because it arises from the core processes of our civilization's success. This means that, as we seek to address this problem, winners and losers will be created. The stakes are high, and this has led to a proliferation of misleading stories as special interest groups argue their case.
What's more, climate change is a breaking story. Just over thirty years ago the experts were at loggerheads about whether Earth was warming or cooling — unable to decide whether an icehouse or a greenhouse future was on the way. By 1975, however, the first sophisticated computer models were suggesting that a doubling of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere would lead to an increase in global temperature of around five degrees Fahrenheit. Still, concern among both scientists and the community was not significant. There was even a period of optimism, when some researchers believed that extra CO2 in the atmosphere would fertilize the world's croplands and produce a bonanza for farmers.
But by 1988 climate scientists had become sufficiently worried about CO2 to establish a panel, staffed with the world's leading experts, to report twice each decade on the issue. Their third report, issued in 2001, sounded a note of sober alarm — yet many governments and industry leaders were slow to take an interest. Because concern about climate change is so new, and the issue is so multidisciplinary, there are few true experts in the field, and even fewer who can articulate what the problem might mean to the general public and what we should do about it.
For years I resisted the impulse to devote research time to climate change. I was busy with other things, and I wanted to wait and see, hoping an issue so big would sort itself out. Perhaps it would be centuries before we would need to think intensively about it. But by 2001, articles in scientific journals indicated that the world's alpine environments were under severe threat. As I read them, I remembered those rotting tree fern trunks in Mt. Albert Edward's forest, and I knew that I had to learn more. This meant teaching myself about greenhouse gases, the structure of our atmosphere, and how the industrialized world powers its engines of growth.
For the last 10,000 years, Earth's thermostat has been set to an average surface temperature of around 57°F. On the whole, this has suited our species splendidly, and we have been able to organize ourselves in a most impressive manner — planting crops, domesticating animals, and building cities. Finally, over the past century, we have created a truly global civilization. Given that in all of Earth history the only other creatures able to organize themselves on a similar scale are ants, bees, and termites — which are tiny in comparison and have concomitantly small resource requirements — this is quite an achievement.
Earth's thermostat is a complex and delicate mechanism, at the heart of which lies carbon dioxide, a colorless and odorless gas. CO2 plays a critical role in maintaining the balance necessary to all life. It is also a waste product of the fossil fuels that almost every person on the planet uses for heat, transport, and other energy requirements. On dead planets such as Venus and Mars, CO2 makes up most of the atmosphere, and it would do so here if living things and Earth's processes did not keep it within bounds. Our planet's rocks and waters are packed with carbon itching to get airborne and oxidized. As it is, CO2 makes up around 3 parts per 10,000 in Earth's atmosphere. It's a modest amount, yet it has a disproportionate influence on the planet's temperature. Because 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.
The institutions at the forefront of climate change research are situated half a world away from my home in Adelaide, so for a time I flew frequently across the globe. One night when en route from Singapore to London, as we crossed the great Eurasian landmass, I looked out of the cabin window at a city illuminated below. Its network of lights stretched from horizon to horizon, and the lights burned so bright — with so much energy — as to alarm me. From a height of 33,000 feet the atmosphere seemed so thin and fragile — the breathable part of it lay 16,500 feet below our aircraft. I asked the airline steward where we were. She gave me the name of a city I didn't know. With a jolt I realized that the world is full of such cities, whose fossil-fuel-driven lights cause our planet to blaze into the night sky.
By late 2004, my interest had turned to anxiety. The world's leading science journals were full of reports that glaciers were melting ten times faster than previously thought, that atmospheric greenhouse gases had reached levels not seen for millions of years, and that species were vanishing as a result of climate change. There were also reports of extreme weather events, long-term droughts, and rising sea levels.
For months I tried to fault the new research findings and discussed them at length with friends and colleagues. Only a few people seemed aware of the great changes under way in our atmosphere. And some people I loved and respected continued doing things — such as buying large cars and air conditioners — that I now suspected to be very bad indeed.
By the end of the year, however, glimmers of hope were beginning to emerge, with almost every head of government in the developed world alive to the issue. But we cannot wait for the issue to be solved for us. The most important thing to realize is that we can all make a difference and help combat climate change at almost no cost to our lifestyle. And in this, climate change is very different from other environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss and the ozone hole.
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. And if you vote for a politician who has a deep commitment to reducing CO2 emissions, you might change the world. If you alone can achieve so much, so too can every individual and, in time, industry and government on Earth.
The transition to a carbon-free economy is eminently achievable because we have all the technology we need to do so. It is only a lack of understanding and the pessimism and confusion generated by special interest groups that is stopping us from going forward.
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 lights 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.
A final issue that looms large in discussions is the one of certainty. Four nations are yet to sign the Kyoto Protocol limiting CO2 emissions: the U.S.A., Australia, Monaco, and Liechtenstein. President George W. Bush has said he wants "more certainty" before he acts on climate change; yet science is about hypotheses, not truths, and no one can absolutely know the future. But this does not stop us from making forecasts and modifying our behavior accordingly. If, for example, we wait to see if an ailment is indeed fatal, we will do nothing until we are dead. Instead, we take medication or whatever else the doctor dispenses, despite the fact that we may survive regardless. And when it comes to more mundane matters, uncertainty hardly deters us: We spend large sums on our children's education with no guarantee of a good outcome, and we buy shares with no promise of a return. Excepting death and taxes, certainty simply does not exist in our world, and yet we often manage our lives in the most efficient manner. I cannot see why our response to climate change should be any different.
One of the biggest obstacles to making a start on climate change is that it has become a cliché before it has even been understood. What we need now is good information and careful thinking, because in the years to come this issue will dwarf all the others combined. It will become the only issue. We need to reexamine it in a truly skeptical spirit — to see how big it is and how fast it's moving — so that we can prioritize our efforts and resources in ways that matter.
What follows is my best effort, based on the work of thousands of colleagues, to outline the history of climate change, how it will unfold over the next century, and what we can do about it. With great scientific advances being made every month, this book is necessarily incomplete. That should not, however, be used as an excuse for inaction. We know enough to act wisely.
Excerpted from The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. Copyright © 2005 by Tim Flannery. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.