In Print

The Weather Makers

Global debate is very close to home

By Julian Wise - February 15, 2007

"The Weather Makers," by Tim Flannery, Atlantic Monthly Press. 2006. 384 pages. $24 (hardcover).

Why should Martha's Vineyard be concerned with the global warming debate?

Two words: sea level.

If the warnings are correct, rising sea levels will start carving up our shorelines around the time the current crop of kindergartners are having their mid-life crises, turning beachfront houses into aquariums and creating a whole new category of water view estates. Tim Flannery's "The Weather Makers" is a comprehensive survey of the perils of global warming, exploring the archaeological record of atmospheric carbon levels, the current impact of our carbon-based economy on the biosphere, and the potential hazards lurking in the upcoming decades.

Flannery, a mammologist and paleontologist by training, wastes little time in presenting his thesis that man's love affair with carbon fuels has potentially catastrophic implications for the planet. By exploring the delicate interplay between the atmosphere - which he poetically refers to as "the great aerial ocean" - and the seasonal conditions on earth, he spells out how disruptions to the carbon cycle can have severe impacts on the earth's surface. By exploring the archaeological record he makes a compelling case that the temperate conditions we currently enjoy are a temporary respite between ice ages and periods of excessive warming. These conditions are a geological gift rather than an entitlement.

Flannery explains how much of the planet's carbon has been removed from the atmosphere and tucked inside the earth in the form of coal and oil. As humans have extracted and burned it, this carbon has returned to the atmosphere in high concentrations, warming the earth 30 times as quickly as it has with previous carbon build-ups. He paints grim pictures of mass extinctions and climate disruptions in the coming decades and centuries, even hinting at civilization collapse as the planet can no longer provide the abundant supplies of food and water that permit civilizations to flourish.

The last section of the book explores solutions to the climate crisis. Flannery describes corporate smokescreens and foot-dragging governments as impediments to reducing our carbon usage. He posits that the window of opportunity to make meaningful change and avert disaster is rapidly closing, and ordinary people cannot wait for their governments to act. Instead, they must take the lead by reducing their personal carbon emissions and pressuring their government to make hard choices. While President Bush takes his share of heat for cozying up to the oil industry and ignoring scientific evidence, Flannery also chastises the government of Australia as obstructionist and overly protective of its national coal industry.

In exploring alternative energy options (wind, solar, hydrogen, geothermal), Flannery illustrates how none is a magic bullet that will protect us from hard choices. Instead, he posits that we need to awaken from the collective dream of resource consumption without consequence. By wading into the murky waters of disaster prognostication, Flannery risks joining the ranks of Paul Ehrlich and other purveyors of environmental jeremiads (In 1968 Ehrlich wrote in "The Population Bomb" that by the 1970s and 1980s mass starvation would ravage the planet.) While Flannery gives more voice to global warming skeptics than Al Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth," he limits his focus to coal and oil industry flacks while omitting dissenting opinions from established scientists like Patrick J. Michaels (University of Virginia) and Sallie Baliunas (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) who question the veracity of the dire future scenarios.

Whether one buys Flannery's "now or never" argument for carbon reductions, it's difficult to finish this book without believing that mankind's attempt to have its cake and eat it too with resource consumption will prove futile in the end.

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.