Global warning Two different approaches to addressing climate change and its consequences
Keeping global warming below 2°C, and indeed “as close as possible” to 1.5°C, as was agreed at last year’s climate conference in Paris, is an almost impossble challenge. Two thought-provoking books address how it might be met. Atmosphere of Hope, by Tim Flannery, makes the case for a solution with renewable energy and carbon sequestration through both natural and manmade means. More radically, but also necessarily, Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade takes an in-depth look at geoengineering, thus breaking a major taboo.
Flannery’s climate science discussion focuses largely on the impacts of weather events and climate trends which Flannery attributes, to a greater or lesser extent, to human influence. To me, as a climate scientist, this seems a bold move.
The science of attribution of impacts to current climate change has only recently got under way, and it is fraught with complexity and scientific caveats. Relying on such science is therefore a risky move in an arena where vocal critics are ready to pounce on the slightest mistake in communicating its nuances. However, Flannery is experienced enough to make his message strong but still defendable.
But delivering such a message is in itself not without risk. Given his aim to inspire hope for the future, there’s a danger that Flannery could dash these hopes himself at the outset by giving the impression that things are already beyond repair. To be fair, he does highlight recent research providing reassurance on certain specific risks – hurricane frequency is not expected to increase, and die-back of the Amazon rainforest is not a foregone conclusion, so active conservation of the forest is not a lost cause. However, Flannery still gives the impression that the current “sixth great extinction” is largely due to climate change, when in fact biodiversity loss is predominantly a consequence of direct human impacts such as habitat loss. While he does acknowledge this, the point is somewhat buried amid his climate-related examples of species under threat. This risks a backfire – if biodiversity loss is presented as all down to climate change, then this implies that only halting climate change could stop it, so other conservation measures could (wrongly) seem pointless. A clearer recognition of non-climate influences on biodiversity would give greater hope of heading off a major extinction event.
Flannery is also largely dismissive of the idea that we might live with at least some measure of climate change. His discussion of adaptation to a changed climate overlooks most of the vast amount of scientific research in this area. In the past, talk of adaptation did seem to be viewed as defeatist, but since climate change is already happening, there is no escaping the fact that some adaptation is going to be necessary even if global emissions are reined in. If the aim is to give hope, the scope to adapt ought to be explained.
Flannery’s main reasons for hope concern
Tim Flannery ATMOSPHERE OF HOPE
Solutions to the climate crisis 282pp. Penguin, Paperback, £7.99.
978 0 14 198104 8
Oliver Morton THE PLANET REMADE How geoengineering could change the world
428pp. Granta. £20. 978 1 78378 095 2
the energy system and carbon uptake. He views the fossil-fuel economy as falling out of favour for reasons independent of climate policy, and renewable as building up sufficient momentum to have a chance of making a significant impact. While he has little time for nuclear power, he makes a good case for human interventions in the carbon cycle reader wondering what really is possible.
It is already well recognized that negative emissions will probably be necessary if global warming is to be kept below 2°C, and with Flannery all but ruling out nuclear energy, it’s likely that his vision would require very substantial contributions from enhanced carbon sinks and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). The true potential and limits for these need to be laid out if the hope is to be tangible – otherwise it could easily be thought of as just wishful thinking.
This is especially critical in the context of threats to biodiversity – if the global ecosystem is to be actively managed to help reduce or even reverse climate change, what are the implications for species that play little direct role in this? How much space will they have left? Are there win-win solutions or will there be difficult decisions on trade-offs? All this is left unexplored.
While it is clear that we are far from having all the answers, Flannery’s wide-ranging
A seaweed farm, Iwate, 2012
through enhancement of natural carbon sinks and creation of artificial ones.
Much of this illustrates the need to think on a large scale – vast seaweed farms, integrated energy systems coupling renewable energy production with battery storage in electric vehicles. It’s fascinating reading. Frustratingly though, the analysis lacks a clear, quantified scenario of how these huge transformations might be achieved. This leaves the review of the different options does indeed suggest that decarbonization might be feasible. However, without a clearer model and a more integrated view, Flannery’s hope for decarbonization seems rather more like crossed fingers than a convincing action plan.
This huge difficulty provides Oliver Morton with the starting point for The Planet Remade. Indeed, the disconnect within the Paris Agreement is taken up on the opening page of the book, where he challenges the reader to consider whether the risks of climate change should be avoided, and whether bringing global carbon emissions to virtually nothing will be very difficult. He categorizes the players in the climate debate according to their answers to these two key questions. Most people in favour of the usual environmental policies are, he says, the “Yes/No” group – yes they wish to reduce the risk, but no, they don’t think it will be difficult to reduce emissions. Those against climate action are the “No/Yes” group – no, they do not see climate change as a major source of worry, and yes, they see huge problems with reducing fossil fuel use.
Morton places himself in a third group – “Yes/Yes”, and in Paris it turned out that the United Nations is in this group as well. The Paris Agreement aims to keep global warming well below 2°C in order to minimize climate risk, but the commitments of the world’s governments to emissions cuts do not come anywhere near what would be needed to do this. Although the Agreement is intended to set in train a process of ratcheting up the emissions reductions commitments over time, the fact that this is not mapped in detail at the outset shows that it is far from clear how this will be achieved.
Morton’s argument, therefore, is now quite pertinent. We should at least think through the potential alternative to rapid, total emissions cuts as the only means of reducing climate change. We may well need to at least consider the possibility of other deliberate interventions with the climate system – or “earthsystem”, to use the phrase coined by Morton. The idea of such interventions – geo-engineering – can bring into play concerns over ethics, risks and unmanageable responsibilities. Morton gives a comprehensive, in-depth and highly readable discussion of geo-engineering and its wider context.
Unlike Flannery, Morton focuses very little on the impacts of climate change and more on the actual workings of the climate system. He does not seem to feel the need to convince his readers that climate change is a problem – instead, he wants them to understand how the climate works, so they can see what kind of interventions could be made, and what the effects of these might be. To my mind, this helps elevate the book to a level beyond the mere imparting of information.
Morton has long been part of the community considering the Earth and its life as a system, including those who have given active consideration to James Lovelock’s Gaia theory. Morton also considers himself part of what he calls the “Geoclique”, the group of scientists, writers and thinkers who collaborate to varying degrees of proximity as part of their exploration and discussion of different aspects of geo-engineering. Morton discusses a number of examples of how humans have intervened in the climate system and its large-scale chemical cycles. He argues that the invention of the Haber– Bosch process, central to manufacturing
TLS JULY 15 2016