(I start with a sports analogy, quoting the sportswriter Joe Posnanski, but I will keep it short and, I hope, painless. The only background needed to read it: the Kansas City Royals are my favorite baseball team. They are horrible, have been for many years. Many fans assume they have been unlucky.
Consider just three items:
1. The best hitter in baseball one of the best hitters ever played high school ball in Kansas City. Thats Albert Pujols. What are the odds a player that good would play a few minutes from Kauffman Stadium? Hardly anybody in America knew about him. He was not taken in the first _10 rounds_ of the draft. How lucky can you get?
2. Most of the star Royals from the 1970s and 1980s live in town and are dying to help the team. These were players who won year after year. Between 1975 and 1990, only the Yankees and Red Sox won more games than the Royals.
3. The best mind in baseball lives in Lawrence and was one of the worlds big Royals fans. Thats Bill James. Last week, he was picked by Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, along with George W. Bush, the richest man in China, and the guy who created the Sudoku craze. What are the odds this guy would be here, would love the Royals and would not have a job in baseball?
Point is: Luck is what you make it. The Royals did not draft Pujols. They rarely use the knowledge and experience of those former players in town. And the Red Sox, not the Royals, hired Bill James (and, shortly thereafter, won the World Series). Alec Baldwin delivers the killer line in Glengarry Glen Ross: Id wish you good luck, but you wouldnt know what to do with it.)
Tim Flannerys the Weather Makers is, I believe, the best book yet written about the earths weather and climates, and the ways and reasons that those climates are changing on us. Flannerys had a nifty career path en route to becoming one of sciences great explainers. He started as a bearded and muscular young explorer, clambering through dense forests and up uncharted mountains. He's kept doing these things, while becoming first a leading nature writer and then as he kept returning to old grounds to discover beloved life-forms extinct, the forests slashed and burned a leading ecologist and environmentalist.
The Future Eaters was, for me, his previous masterwork. A natural history of Polynesia and his native Australia, it began as a rhapsody on the beautifully odd interlinkages by which species come to rely on each other. Then it became a detailed, frightening warning against the ways these linkages and webs are being stomped, poisoned, or confused out of existence by humans and the pets and parasites we bring with us. Climate change was _not_ one of its topics: a decade ago, Flannery was a skeptic about global warming, and thought there were better things to worry about.
I have no idea whether hes religious, seeing evolution as Gods workshop, but he could be: he begins from a love of life, creation, in all its forms. He would surely have loved to live free from politics, studying and enjoying a nature that changed slowly, holding its balance. You could call him a tree-hugger, and if walking through a national park just makes you annoyed by the bugs, maybe that sounds like an insult. I dunno: watch the movie Winged Migration sometime, safe indoors, and just make sure youre so immune to natures charms. Or look at the (very brief) section of colored photos in Weather Makers: thats where my wife Cindy first turned, going Ooooh! Froggies! at a picture of two gorgeous golden toads. She paused: I suppose, if theyre in this book, they arent happy froggies. I read the caption: The golden toad is the first species demonstrated to have become extinct due to climate change. It vanished from its Costa Rica habitat in the late 1980s.
Books like the Weather Makers dont usually make me sad Royals fandom has me used to crushed hope, and Id far rather get bad news from a friendly and brilliant man before its too late to change it, than from plastic-haired reporters on the scene after. But Im looking at the toads huge round inquisitive eyes right now, and I should stop before I get teary-eyed. (I collect frog dolls, frog figurines, and blankets with pictures of frogs and lizards; now you know how to buy me Christmas presents, so shut up.)
Christians and other Bible fans often vote for Republicans, which means voting against the Endangered Species Act, against limits on factory farms that spill toxic cow-poop, and for the pollution of the Arctic Wildlife Preserve. But to me, Christians should be the most passionate of environmentalists. Once you believe God put every species here for a reason, you should want to make sure theyre kept around. Right?
But you dont need to love God or our fellow animals to take the Weather Makers to heart. Tim Flannery's #1 sentimental connection is to humans; why, his best friends are humans. As scientists learn more and more some of the evidence in this book wasnt discovered until 2004 and 2005, even we have reached the point where no climate scientists are left who doubt that global warming is real, human-caused, and changing our lives already.
The insurance companies agree, loudly and with fear. Weather-related damages in 1998 alone were greater than for the entire 1980s, and weather damages have doubled every seven years for three decades. When Flannery says such a rate of increase implies that by 2065, the damage bill resulting from climate change may equal the total value of everything that humanity produced in the course of a year, their CEOs dont feel this is a silly game with numbers. Our military planners have agreed about climate change too, enough to draw up and plan for frightening scenarios.
Even the CEO of British Petroleum agrees. Oil, gas, and coal are the chief causes of increased carbon in the atmosphere, and carbon is the chief cause of global warming, so B.P., like many oil companies, was a founder in 1989 of the Global Climate Coalition, an expensive lobby devoted to faking evidence that global warming isnt real. But in 1997, Lord Browne broke ranks Its almost impossible to express the depth of support from within the company for the position weve taken and hes moved to establish B.P. among the leading makers of solar cells.
The books Foreword is written by the CEO of Duke Energy Corporation (hey! I send them bill payments every month!), who notes that 70% of all people alive today will be alive in 2050, so climate change affects almost every family on the planet. By book's end, you should be ready to take seriously Flannerys claim that global warming is more important than every other political issue put together
because if its not resolved, the other issues will mostly be decided for us.
Which brings me back to luck, and the real reason Weather Makers doesnt depress me, even as it reminds me that our civilization could disappear from under us if we dont take natures (or Gods) hints seriously. We humans have already been lucky that such a book can exist, for at least three reasons, two of which I didnt know about before:
--- Remember the hole in the ozone layer? Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were invented in 1928, a wonderful chemical for refrigeration and aerosol sprays. By 1974, Flannery reports, people were flinging one billion pounds of the stuff into the air each year. For comparisons sake, thats a gas (a gas!) weighing roughly as much as every car in an average city combined; more than Roseanne Barr and John Goodman, also combined; or more than the combined hot air breathed by Congress.
Yet only then did three scientists figure out that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer. It took ten more years for scientists, in general, to join them in the warning. But then, within a few years and treaties, CFCs were banned and despite DuPoints warnings, the world economy stayed safely afloat.
Our good luck: Chlorine is almost identical to bromine, and bromofluorides would have served the same tasks CFCs did. Bromine happened to be slightly more expensive. If bromine had been less expensive, BFCs would have been the Next Big Chemical of the 1920s, and they are 45 times as deadly as CFCs to the ozone layer. Decades before anyone had a clue what was happening or even what the ozone layer is for, namely keeping our eyes, skin, and immune systems safe from U.V. radiation we all would have been enduring unprecedented rates of cancer, blindness, and a thousand other ailments; [and] our food supply would have collapsed.
That wouldve totally sucked, and it wouldnt have even been fair. A religious argument might be that God stepped in to save us from accidental self-destruction to give us a fair playing field. We stopped the CFC habit, and are being offered the chance to stop the global warming habit as well.
--- Another piece of luck I didnt know about is what Flannery calls global dimming. See, the earth has gone through large changes in the atmospheres carbon content before, although rarely anything like this fast. The last time atmospheric carbon doubled as its very likely to have done before this century is over was 55 million years ago, causing massive extinctions. At that time, according to the geologists, the earths temperature soared by up to 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Computer models of climate, for a long time, had a hard time understanding why our own climate wasnt experiencing temperature jumps of, say, 9 degrees. Yet the earths temperature actually went down from the 1940s to 1970s, and even now, for all the early damage caused, has risen by little over one degree F.
Global dimming is what climate scientists now call the cooling effect created by the sun-blocking pollutants and particles in the air including those created by burning oil, gas, and coal. It counters the global warming. The pollutants dont stay in the atmosphere very long, while the carbon stays for many decades; the warming outlasts and becomes stronger than the cooling. But when the entire U.S. air fleet was grounded for three days following 9/11, and stopped polluting the sky, there was an otherwise unexplainable 2-degree jump in the earths temperature.
Overall, the modelers estimate that weve caused 9-plus degrees of warming, versus 8 degrees of cooling. Which gives us breathing room (or coughing room): another lucky chance to act wisely.
--- More simply, it is a lovable fluke of the human brain that our scientists are figuring out the world right before, instead of right after, it is changed forever. Its like how historians and students, paid by Franklin Roosevelts Public Works Administration so they didnt starve, documented thousands of folk-tales, oral histories, folk songs, and regional accents right before, not after, they disappeared. Or how Tim Flannery discovered hundreds of species of animals and plants before, not after, their fates were sealed.
People are curious buggers its what makes us so much fun and the How does this work? instinct runs a valiant, unflagging race against the I wonder what happens if I push the shiny red button marked Do Not Touch? instinct. Both are instincts I possess in large amounts, lest you think I judge.
Making use of this luck, Flannerys Weather Makers does the following things:
(1) Explains how climate historians do their jobs. How, you might wonder, can we possibly _know_ what happened to the climate 55 million years ago, or 10 thousand years ago, or in the 1400s? We cant be certain, of course, but the scientists guesses come from a variety of sources, and Flannery gives us a tour.
(B) Explains the different layers of the atmosphere, and how they affect the weather.
(III) Gives an overview of the history of climate change, including how climate change during human history has shaped human history. He's guiding us through a complex topic: when the earth warms or cools, this can start feedback cycles for various reasons, or might not for other reasons, while different parts of the world are affected in very different ways.
(Catorce!) Explains how, in 1976 and then in 1998, the climate went through magic gates which have already changed wind, rain, and water level patterns in semi-permanent ways our challenge is to help keep climate changes effects limited and bearable, not to make them never happen. Here are the books first long discussions of how very easy it is to trigger extinctions: to pick just one of his many examples, Crocodiles and alligators
produce only males when hatched at higher than 89.6 degrees F, and only females when hatched at less than 87.8 degrees F.
To pick another, matanim possums a species Flannery discovered for the world, though he freely grants that he met often with natives who knew of it for millennia were among many species that had stayed healthy by being too deep in the dense forests of Telefomin for the hunters to damage them much. A 1997 drought both magic gates made the El Nino current more frequent, vicious, and drought / flood-causing devastated the forest, and suddenly even mediocre hunters were slaughtering the matanim en masse. As of Flannerys 2001 visit, hes pretty sure the matanim, and many of its forest-mates, are now extinct.
(The American Enterprise Institute, I realize, would call the alligators and matanim lazy welfare-state bums for expecting hard-working taxpayers to keep a sensible climate and rainfall for them. However, until there were human cities and highways blocking their way, the animals and trees could migrate with slow natural climate changes. Besides, when one absurdly fragile species dies, other species who depend on it are in trouble, as Flannery also illustrates.)
(FIVE) Discusses the politics of environmental treaties. This includes many causes for hope. The original Montreal Protocols on CFCs were weak and not very useful, but once signed, were made tougher, tougher, then tougher again. Soon CFCs, which do not appear in nature, will be gone from this earth. (Theyll linger in the air for centuries, but the damage is already repairing itself.) Flannery has similar hopes for the Kyoto Protocols on carbon emissions, and he describes its current workings, and his hopes, in some detail.
(f) Explains the politics of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Michael Crichton portrays it as a conspiracy of extremist scientists, but Flannery explains the panels structure, in which every word in their reports requires unanimous consent. The governmental reps from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and China (the worlds leading oil user, oil producer, and coal user) all political appointees, none of them scientists argue hard to keep it mush-mouthed. Yet even the IPCC, even under these circumstances, warns that global warming is real, damaging, and going to get worse.
(007) Discusses alternatives to coal, gas, and oil. A natural gas economy would be a temporary improvement, but only that; a hydrogen economy, he argues to my mild surprise, wouldnt do any good at all. Pumping carbon into the oceans does not seem, from early experiments, like a good idea; artificial photosynthesis could be a nifty technology, but only far in the future. Nuclear energy might be useful, though Flannerys calmer about its risks than I. Luckily, wind, sun, and steam power have been used for millennia, and Flannery explains their vast recent improvements.
(8, 8, i-forget-what-8-is-for) Speculates on whether climate change is becoming a human rights issue and a property-rights issue for the courts. Some fascinating lawsuits have been filed, whether by New England states or a village of Eskimos whose food supply has been destroyed, and Flannery talks of more that could follow. The United States and Australia are emitting three times as much carbon per citizen as any other country in the world, so as global warmings footprints become more and more unmistakeable, we may be ever easier to finger for the damage we cause to sunken islands, flooded resort owners, farmers, and hunter-gatherers. They own the land: if we break it, do we have to buy it?
(ix) And finally, hands the issue over to us. The Weather Makers is not the _best_ book on how you personally can stop contributing to global warming (Paul Hawkens Natural Capitalism has more, cleverer, gadget-happier ideas), but its ideas make sense, including one contacting my power company to choose green option energy I just acted on today. Oh, and the prices of solar panels are coming way down; Flannerys installed his own, and he says the price of them, by 2010, should be easy to afford for any homeowner who's sick of electric bills.
In the end, Flannery sees three possible outcomes. Perhaps the Kansas City Royals will be a metaphor for humanity: well fumble the chances God or luck gave us, buy Ford Explorers for the world, melt the ice caps, sear the deserts, and unravel the basis of civilization, as most of us die while the rest farm dry, nutrient-poor land. Perhaps, like the Baltimore Orioles, we'll be honor guards for mediocrity: well cut back our carbon addiction, but only a little, til we're forced to hire an all-powerful government to do it for us, running our lives with tight rations and armed guards. Contrary to Fox Newss claims, thats not what liberals want.
Or perhaps well respect our opportunity, fix our ways, and learn that solar, wind, and geothermal power and for that matter a good insulation guy werent nearly as scary as all that. Well probably still burn oil for airplanes, but theyll eject their fumes into the troposphere, block our sunlight, and do almost as much good as harm.
Perhaps, that is, well act like the smartest species on earth. Because thats what we are (and well firebomb the asss of any dolphin who argues). Lets make it a prouder, less ambiguous honor than the Spice Girl who can actually kind of sing.