THE WEATHER MAKERS
Peter Christoff teaches at the University of Melbourne and is
Vice-President of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
parties to the annual United Nations Convention on Climate Change
met in Buenos Aires last year. At one point, while key bureaucrats
debated arcane points of phraseology, scientists in a separate
room delivered dire predictions about the melting Arctic icecap.
An Inuit elder described how global warming had already transformed
her homeland into something strange and dangerous. New plants,
vanishing animals, treacherous sea ice, rendered 1000 years'
tradition and adaptation useless. Within decades, her culture
would be extinct, along with the seals and polar bears upon
which it depends. This was climate genocide.
to convey to the bureaucrats this sense of desperate urgency?
The great importance of The Weather Makers lies in
its capacity to publicize climate change and its catastrophic
consequences at a time when media are scrutinizing the trends
behind massive cyclones, melting polar caps, the defrosting
tundra and retreating glaciers. Flannery is passionate about
educating us about global warming in the hope of disrupting
our -- and key decision makers' -- lethal complacency.
skills as a writer and ability to stir up public debate are
widely recognized and, here, keenly deployed. Like Jared Diamond
and Stephen Jay Gould, he has the ability, rare in Australia,
to take complex ideas and -- seemingly effortlessly -- make
them accessible. This is his most powerfully engaged book and
contains some of his finest prose. Employing a broad vision
of geological time, Flannery explains the mechanisms that have
driven the planet's climate. He brings to life the world that
laid down our store of fossil fuels just as effectively as he
popularizes the theories of Milankovitch, a relatively obscure
but brilliant theorist of the Earth's ice ages.
book captures your imagination through its extraordinary range
of argument, its vivid imagery, its wealth of research, quick
wit and richness of detail. It succeeds where equally worthy
but more prosaic recent books have failed. Given the span of
issues -- the origins of fossil fuels and the composition of
our atmosphere; theories of ice ages past, the possibilities
of a new ice age and the potential sources of climate catastrophe;
the extinction of mammals in the New Guinea highlands; the future
of the Great Barrier Reef; geosequestration and emissions trading;
the future of hydrogen power, geothermal power, wind power and
much more -- you need to read it carefully, twice.
this abundance is also a liability. Flannery has a bower bird's
habit for gathering bright objects, a lyrebird's capacity for
weaving others' ideas and exclamations into a mesmerizing tune
of his own and a scrub turkey's ability to hide things in a
large mound. At times, critical facts, issues and arguments
are buried and the book almost needs commentators to sift it
for key points. (The book's referencing is shambolic, its index
Flannery's transformative ambitions and his message of urgency,
it is surprising what lies buried in the book's middle. Here,
Flannery explains there is a lag of several decades before greenhouse
gases already emitted by burning coal, oil and gas are realized
as global warming: we are already committed to a further increase
in average global temperature. We have already endured an average
increase of 0.8 degrees since the Industrial Revolution. Growing
scientific consensus indicates that a rapid increase of more
than 2 degrees constitutes "dangerous climate change," causing
mass extinctions and social and economic disruption. Global
fossil fuel use has accelerated extraordinarily over the past
three decades. Therefore, there is no capacity for significant
additional global carbon emissions or time to waste in the transition
to a post-carbon future. But this point is lost; the tougher
conclusion is fudged.
problem of global equity runs through the politics of climate,
yet this barely rates a mention. Developing countries such as
China and India -- growing giants in terms of future emissions
-- rightly insist on "carbon emissions room" to increase their
standards of living. To remain within a safe planetary carbon
budget, commensurate deep cuts for the West are likely to be
not 60 or 70 per cent but up to 80 and 90 per cent of current
emission levels. To achieve this equitable balance rapidly involves
not just hoping for a technological escape route but also, for
us, significant demand management and reduced energy use. The
idea of "contracting and converging" requires the sort of politics
and regulation that Flannery barely considers. Instead, he mainly
emphasises voluntary action and the market.
is equivocal, even sanguine, about the future of nuclear power,
mainly because he does not consider the full weight of public
subsidies and the distortions they mean for the price of renewable
energy alternatives. Overall, political and economic analyses
are the book's weak suit, in an otherwise very strong hand.
in accidents, time almost freezes and we watch, horrified, fascinated
as events unfold in slow motion. But quick action may reduce
its impact. Flannery and many others now tell us climate change
is inevitable and potentially devastating. But we have a little
time to soften the blow.
this awareness, how should we see John Howard and those captains
of industry who are putting the foot on the accelerator? At
what point will they bear personal responsibility for decisions
that we, like the Inuit elder now, will soon understand to be
carbon crimes against humanity and other species?
review was first printed in Habitat, the magazine of
the Australian Conservation Foundation, December 2005.