Books: The Weather Makers

How Man is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth

By Wesley Yang

“SO THE OCEANS RISE AN INCH OR TWO,” a puckish friend said recently. “So what?” It was an aggravating question, not least because I didn’t have an answer. Most of us have heard by now that human activity is upsetting the atmospheric balance that has made the planet hospitable for human civilization. Heat-trapping greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, regulate the earth’s temperature; releasing the earth’s accumulated store of carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels is heating up the planet. But answering the decisive question—so what?—requires a fuller understanding of the complicated science of climate change than most nonspecialists have.

Australian biologist Tim Flannery has written a book that will equip the common reader with an understanding of why global warming will become, as he puts it, “the only issue.” The Weather Makers provides a remarkably thorough survey of the subject of climate change, bringing this abstract and diffuse issue to life.

Of course it’s not a particularly pleasant life. The possibilities that Flannery describes sound like doom mongering: three out of five species extinct by 2100, coastal cities inundated by rising oceans, hurricanes of terrifying force ripping apart our cities, drought leading to famine and disease on an unprecedented scale. (So what indeed.) But even the most outlandish of his scenarios proceeds from a daunting array of scientific evidence: 2005 was the hottest year on record, nine of the ten hottest years have occurred since 1990, and Greenland’s glaciers are melting at a rate ten times faster than previously thought. The earth is warming at a rate 30 times the speed of the warming that changed the planet from an icy wasteland to our present temperate climate beginning 10,000 years ago.

Flannery hopscotches around the globe to places where climate change has already had an impact—from the Costa Rican jungles to the Arctic Circle. Along the way he deploys almost every relevant scientific study written on the subject. The cumulative effect is devastating without being cumbersome: the studies are summarized deftly, and Flannery manages to be both comprehensive and concise.

His disquieting work ends with a measure of hope. We already have all the technology we need to move toward a carbon-free economy, he notes, and only entrenched interests and political resistance stand in the way of the transition. Britain cut carbon emissions by 14 percent from 1990 levels by emphasizing efficiency and existing solar, wind, and wave technologies—a reduction that the United States could surely replicate if the political will existed. In the meantime, he notes, “we can all make a difference and help combat climate change at almost no cost to our lifestyle.” (“If you wish to make a real contribution to combating climate change,” he notes, “don’t wait for the hydrogen economy—buy a hybrid fuel car.”) This bleak yet hopeful book tells what may become the central story of our time, a story that we still have the power to ensure is one of disaster averted.

Issue 25

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