Exploring the Implications of Our Role as The Weather Makers

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Tim Flannery

In 2001, Australian scientist and author Tim Flannery was asked to advise the South Australian premier on topics related to science and sustainability. To understand what the big issues were, Flannery poured through journals like Science and Nature. He had also been disturbed by the findings of colleague Steve Williams' study of rising carbon dioxide levels in the mountain ranges of northeast Queensland, Australia. Rising temperatures brought about by global warming, Williams found, were driving wildlife species unique to those regions -- like the golden bowerbird and the Tornton Peak nursery Frog -- to increasingly high elevations.

"It didn't take me long to realize that climate change was an issue I needed to understand better," Flannery recently told Bookselling This Week. "About a year later I decided to turn my researches into a book."

In the March Book Sense Pick The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth (Atlantic Monthly Press), Flannery presents many of his findings related to climatology, paleontology, mammology, and other disciplines to help us understand climate change and how it dangerously affects life on our planet. He offers ways in which governments, as well as individual citizens, can effectively deal with global warming, climate change, and what is becoming a global climatic tipping point. "We are the generation fated to live in the most interesting of times," Flannery writes, "for we are now the weather makers, and the future of biodiversity and civilization hangs on our actions."

The Weather Makers details the havoc that humans have wrought on the Earth's ecosystem since the Industrial Revolution; shockingly, most of that havoc, he writes, has occurred in the last few decades.

According to Flannery, the rate of global warming is now 30 times faster than it was at the end of the Earth's final Ice Age. The main culprit: our collective emissions of greenhouse gases that are mostly produced by the use of fossil fuels, which release huge amounts of carbon dioxide. These gases, he reveals, are responsible for about 80 percent of all global warming.

Coal wages the most damage, yet other fuels can also cause horrendous damage to the environment. Flannery writes compellingly: "Fossil fuels -- oil, coal, and gas -- are all that remain of organisms that, many millions of years ago, drew carbon from the atmosphere. 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 circulation for eons. Digging up the dead in this way is a particularly bad thing for the living to do."

Flannery explained that "we are all weather makers because all 6.3 billion of the planet's humans are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and it is these gases that are changing our climate." Noting that developed economies, which rely heavily on fossil fuels are the worse polluters, he commented, "We Australians and Americans have a big job ahead of us compared with many others as we seek to reduce damage to the world's weather system."

As Flannery conducted his trenchant research, he realized that during his 20 years of fieldwork in New Guinea, he had seen lots of evidence of climate change. "It's just that I hadn't recognized it for what it was," he continued. "In 2001, I returned to an area of the island that had been rich virgin forest in 1985. An extreme el Nino event and fire had devastated the entire region, quite possibly driving to extinction mammal species that I had named just a few years earlier."

El Nino episodes affect our planet by creating drought in Australia and east Asia, while simultaneously bringing rain to the deserts of western South America. "It's a natural cycle, but climate change has recently altered it by intensifying and lengthening the droughts, as well as making them more frequent," Flannery explained. "Eastern Australia has been in chronic drought for most of the last eight years."

As part of his research for The Weather Makers, Flannery studied various textbooks in ocean and atmospheric chemistry and circulation to make sure he understood the findings correctly. Then he visited the Hadley Centre in Exeter, England, the leading institution for climate-change research, and spoke at length to scientists about their particular fields of study. "I studied the social implications of climate change," he said, "and tried to understand what was happening in regions like Melanesia and the Polar ice cap, and to tell particular stories that encapsulated the changes seen there."

Turning all of these scientific findings into a readable book wasn't easy, Flannery said. So what did he do?

"I asked my wife to read the first draft with an eye to identifying anything she didn't understand or that didn't seem clear. I also sent early drafts to my peers in a range of fields to ask for their critical comments. With all of their responses, I reworked the manuscript three or four times, and came up with the first draft."

An especially interesting section of the book discusses how climate conditions are inferred from ice and sediment cores. "I'm amazed at how actual bubbles of ancient air are preserved in the ice," Flannery said. "I've seen an ice core with a two-inch-wide band that dates from the year Christ was born. Because the atmosphere mixes so rapidly, theoretically the bubbles of air trapped in it could contain atoms from the Christ-child's first breaths."

And while the book offers fascinating findings, it also includes some very shocking predictions, among them the eventual disappearance of coral reefs and the extinction of polar bears. "Both are pretty shocking, and both will probably occur this century unless we reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases," Flannery said. "But the most shocking news overall is probably the huge threat that climate change represents to civilization. Imagine the sea rising 12 feet or more in the next century or so, and then consider what that means for hundreds of millions of people, as well as [for] infrastructure, around the world."

So BTW asked Flannery: What can people do to improve the situation?

"The most important things you can do: Reduce your own emissions as far as possible; tell your friends and work colleagues to do the same; and vote for someone who is deeply committed to the same ends. It's the only way to halt highly damaging climate change." He continued: "It's all about personal responsibility. Unless you have done everything you can to reduce your personal emissions, why should anyone take you seriously when you ask them to do the same? I guess it's not unique -- just commonsense."

While the climatic situation is bad now, it will inevitably get worse over time, he said. "If we see a 'break point' in the climate system emerge, we're in for trouble. The collapse of the Amazon rainforests might lead to drastic climate warming, while the failure of the Gulf Stream could plunge Europe and North America into a new Ice Age. Either is possible in coming decades, and both could occur swiftly -- over just a few years."

Still, Flannery feels his book isn't an angry declaration.

"If anything it is dispassionate, cool-headed, and incisive. I had no wish to write a polemic because what I believe we need now is good information on which to base our response," he said. Meanwhile, parents and teachers concerned about the environment will probably be happy to know that Flannery would like to write a version of the book for young adults. --Jeff Perlah