What does it take to convince a skeptical public of a scientific fact? If nearly 150 years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, school boards and courtrooms are still arguing over whether to teach the theory of evolution in schools, how long will it be before people accept theories that have just recently been developed? Some evidence from recent psychology research suggests that the key is not to show why a phenomenon is true, but how it affects people’s daily lives.
The debate over global warming, initiated in the 1970s, seems to bear this hypothesis out. In 1974, Paul Crutzen, F. Sherwood Rowland, and Mario Molina were arguing that the ozone layer, which protects the Earth from deadly ultraviolet rays, was being depleted by human activity—most importantly, by the emission of chlorofluorocarbons. At first, the research was mocked: with all humanity paralyzed in fear of nuclear destruction at the height of the cold war, now the world was going to be destroyed by hair spray? But by the mid-1980s, when new research conclusively demonstrated that CFCs were causing the damageand that inhabitants of southern Chile (situated under a hole in the ozone layer) were developing skin cancer at alarming rates—the world took swift action, agreeing to the Montreal Protocol to limit ozone-depleting gases. By 2004, collective action reduced the size of the “ozone hole” over Antarctic by 20 percent. The lesson seems clear: when people are convinced that science can impact their lives in real ways, they can be moved to act quickly.
Current evidence that human activity in the form of greenhouse gas emissions is causing global warming at geologically unprecedented rates is considerably stronger than the 1985 evidence for ozone depletion that led to the Montreal Protocol. So why hasn’t authoritative global action been taken to limit climate change? I’d submit that it’s because people believe the measures they’d have to take to limit climate change will have a bigger impact on their lives than global warming itself. If action is to be taken, what will be needed is clear, forceful evidence that the cure for global warming isn’t worse than the disease. Tim Flannery’s new book, The Weather Makers, may be just the evidence the world needs.
The book consists of 36 mini-essays, each of which can quite nearly stand on its own, offering blow by blow counterarguments to those who say that global warming isn’t a problem with potentially disastrous, global consequences.
Perhaps most convincing is The Weather Makers’s presentation of the vast amount of knowledge about historical climate change that has been accumulated. The information puts our era into context, and provides a compelling rebuttal for those who say that a few degrees change in temperature is no big deal.
The book explains how a variety of geohistorical techniques have independently demonstrated that many of the epochal climate variations of the earth’s past can be explained by variations in the amount of greenhouse gases then present in the atmosphere. In the past, the earth has ranged from hundred-thousand-year ice ages that made vast portions of the northern hemisphere uninhabitable, to completely unglaciated periods lasting millions of years that turned nearly the entire planet into a primordial tropical swamp. The most dramatic and relevant of these episodes occurred 55 million years ago, when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose from around 500 parts per million (roughly 1.5 times the current level) to over 2000 parts per million, probably due to volcanic activity. The earth, already much warmer than today, heated by 5 to 10 degrees centigrade, causing mass extinctions on land. The atmospheric carbon dioxide was then absorbed by the oceans, where it was converted into carbonic acid, which in turn wiped out shelled marine life as their protective armor dissolved. Today, if atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to increase at current rates, the resulting climate change will be even more dramatic, because it’s starting at a point where many more animals—including ourselves—are adapted to a much colder planet.
Though the historical evidence was impressive to me, others may be more impressed by Flannery’s analysis of how global climate change is already affecting millions of people. The rise in sea surface temperature in the Indian Ocean, caused by higher concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases, have generated conditions that caused the annual monsoon rains in the Sahel region of Africa to diminish dramatically. Since the 1960s, the region has been experiencing a “drought” that is now better characterized as a permanent climactic change.
Drought is bad enough, but evidence suggests that global warming is also contributing to genocidal conflict in Africa. In the Darfur region of western Sudan, changes in climate have forced camel-herding nomads onto agricultural lands, and the resulting conflict, usually characterized as a racially-motivated genocide, has had a devastating impact. Flannery argues that the real conflict is not cultural, but practical: the “Arab” herders and the “African” farmers are not culturally distinct; they are merely competing for rapidly disappearing resources. The land cannot support the population residing there, and, since it has already been considerably changed by global warming, probably never will.
In another chapter, written before the 2005 hurricane season, Flannery presciently chronicles the increases in intensity of hurricanes. Remember the 2004 season, when four hurricanes ravaged Florida and the Gulf coast? His prescription for future hurricanes, as is typical for Flannery, is a measured one:
The U.S. Weather Bureau predicts that the 2005 hurricane season is likely to be more destructive than usual. The season may of course pass serenely, but with hurricane fuel increasing in the atmosphere, it is only a matter of time before the storms return with redoubled fury.
Flannery carefully held back from predicting that the 2005 season would be more devastating than 2004, because annual anomalies in the larger pattern could have made it appear as if the bigger problem was going away. As it turned out, 2005 was so bad it almost erased the memories of 2004—yet there is no reason to believe that even larger hurricanes won’t be in store for the Gulf region in the future.
Armed with evidence convincing enough to license hyperbole, Flannery time and time again chooses restraint and balance. In a chapter on how rising sea temperatures threaten coral reefs, he might have suggested that global warming will doom these wonderlands of aquatic diversity to oblivion, but instead he offers some hope that a few species of coral may survive hyperwarm seas and become the building blocks of new reefs in the future.
This restraint serves Flannery well. A skeptic could reasonably ask how reefs have survived up until now, if they are so fragile. Flannery admits that they may survive, but still explains that what remains of the reefs will be a stunted relic of a once grand spectacle. Moreover, only a few strains of coral appear to have the wherewithal to survive, and these are not the ornate structures that are the home to so many exotic species of fish and other sea life, but underdeveloped, ugly forms not capable of supporting much diversity. By 2050, if we do not take action now, the Great Barrier Reef will become, in Flannery’s words, “The Great Stumpy Reef.”
After 22 chapters of evidence demonstrating that global warming is a real threat, the final third of the book discusses solutions. While Flannery’s advocacy of individual action strikes me as overoptimistic (buy a Prius to save the planet!), his analysis of the international and governmental actions required to slow and eventually reverse climate change is impressively realistic. Flannery shows that a few small industries (most notably, coal mining and coal-based power companies) have managed to stifle efforts to control climate change. To create the same amount of energy, coal emits twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas, so the worst offenders appear to be controlling the debate.
What’s more, they’re doing it with junk science. The laughable coal-sponsored film The Greening of the Earth was cited by the first president Bush’s senior energy secretary as evidence that burning coal would lead only to increases in agricultural productivity, even though no responsible scientist would ever make this claim. While even most major oil companies have finally acknowledged that something must be done to combat global warming, coal companies, responsible for 40% of all energy consumed in the U.S., remain steadfast opponents of action. George W. Bush (perhaps motivated by $41 million in coal donations to his party) continues to listen to their propaganda, omitting mention of climate change from his recent energy-focused state of the union address and offering no political solutions to global warming.
Flannery offers convincing evidence that the Kyoto Protocol (still opposed by two of the world’s biggest polluters, the U.S. and Australia) is the best way to begin to slow global warming. He acknowledges Kyoto is not perfect, but it’s a start, and just as the Montreal Protocol was strengthened twice before finally showing modest results improving the ozone layer in 2004, Kyoto will eventually need to be modified.
Flannery also offers evidence against the old conservation is bad for our economy argument. Comprehensive studies have shown that projections predicting economies stifled under eco-regulations have systematically overestimated the economic damage. The truth is that companies can adapt quickly to regulations, as demonstrated by the case of Nortel following the Montreal Protocol. It invested $1 million in new equipment, but ended up saving $4 million in waste disposal and CFC purchase costs.
Estimates of the cost of implementing the Kyoto Protocol vary wildly, from a modest $1 billion a year by the Clinton administration, to $378 billion a year by the U.S. Department of Energy. In reality, no careful analysis of the costs has been done—and as past research has suggested, though it’s difficult to predict how industry will respond to new regulations, it’s likely that industry will find ways to reduce costs and even save money while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, while real change is kept at bay with nightmare scenarios of recession, the earth continues to warm.
On a human time scale, climate change proceeds slowly. The global warming we see today was caused by carbon emissions two decades ago, and even if all carbon emissions stopped tomorrow, the planet will go on warming for another two decades. If we continue at the same rate, by 2040 the Amazon rain forest will begin to collapse, destroying the most biologically diverse region of the planet within six decades and accelerating climate change by killing its massive carbon-removing trees. By 2080 accelerating melting of the mile-deep ice cap over Greenland could cause the Gulf stream to stop flowing, turning Europe into a bitter-cold wasteland and the southeastern U.S. into a desert. Even if we act now to reduce the rate of global warming, we won’t be able to stop it until 2050.
So will The Weather Makers convince the world that it needs to change its ways? Many of those who have read it, including England’s Prime Minister Tony Blair and members of the Australian government, have cited it as an influence in their decision to take decisive action to limit climate change. Those who fail to read it will be doing themselves—and the world—a disservice.
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