Sunday, December 6, 2009


Tim Flannery doesn't beat around the bush in his new book. We are at the point of no return, he says

Reviewed by Andrew Nikiforuk
[reposted from The Globe and Mail]

Nations that export fossil fuels often find it grossly inconvenient to believe in man-made climate change, and understandably so. Who really wants a responsible carbon budget that respects the finite nature of the atmosphere and the oceans when you can make a killing by exporting dirty oil? Real innovation might even result in a loss of hydrocarbon jobs and easy revenue for lazy governments, and that's bad.

Therefore, climate change driven by fossil fuels must be a hoax; a scientific fraud or another attempt by elitists at the United Nations to impose one world government on us all. So, long live the carbon liberation movement and Exxon Mobile.

Whenever I get e-mails from these happy carbon makers, I kindly invite them to open a profitable business on lifeless Mars, where CO2 has become the dominant gas. I also recommend that they try fishing on an ocean of carbolic acid.

Now or Never: Why We Need to Act Now to Achieve a Sustainable Future, by Tim Flannery, HarperCollins, 167 pages, $22.99
Tim Flannery's important and elegant essay, Now or Never, probably won't sway many members of the oil-exporting crowd or bridge the solitude. But it might help to broaden a grassroots political movement that forces our political leaders out of the camp of libertarian carbon makers and into the common-sense realm of caring about our children. Flannery, a world-renowned paleontologist and specialist in the evolution of mammals, argues that we will probably fail to achieve sustainability unless we observe an ancient commandment: “Thou shalt not steal – even from future generations.”

So this essay doesn't beat about the bush. The author of the bestselling The Weather Makers[ reviewed on PAEDITORSBLOG--tr] and Australia's proud version of David Suzuki, Flannery makes a convincing case that we are about to provoke a dangerous biological meltdown driven by climate warming and our addiction to fossil fuels. “Humanity is now between a tipping point and a point of no return,” he writes, “and only the most strenuous efforts on our part are capable of returning us to safe ground.”

Given that the atmosphere is the smallest of the world's vital organs, it is also the most vulnerable to carbon pollution. Flannery soberly notes that the oceans are 500 times larger than the great aerial sea, and they are already acidifying. The last time the polar ice caps melted, 250 million years ago, the ocean became green with algae and belched hydrogen sulphide. The fishing was really bad.

Here's the climate problem as the best science sees it. The consumption of fossil fuels has taken CO2 to astonishing levels of 385 parts per million in the atmosphere. The evidence suggests that we are about to surge to 450 ppm. The latest science warns that we can't avoid a Martian-style carbon economy (and not much business takes place there) unless we stabilize emissions at 350 ppm. That requires some restraint, which is not our most polished virtue as a species. Moreover, international climate scientists have “underestimated the scale of the task by two-thirds,” Flannery adds.

The solutions, Flannery admits, are not elegant. A carbon-trading scheme as proposed by the centrist Obama administration really won't start a green revolution by itself. Burying carbon from coal, the source of about 40 per cent of the problem, remains a wild science experiment that irrationally requires the burning of more coal. Electric cars equipped with batteries that boast a high storage capacity could solve the intermittent nature of wind and sun. Reclaiming tropical rain forests is a no-brainer. Eating less meat and eating locally should be part of every North American menu. Protecting grasslands from soil erosion with holistic management techniques is proven and low-cost. But in the absence of leadership, we are not doing much at all except calling burning of fossil fuels “sustainable.” That's how thieves behave.

Flannery wants to believe that the civilization that abolished slavery – and slave exporters thought that was a really damn inconvenient crusade – can do the same with oil and its carbon legacy. But given the appalling performance of countries such as Canada in relation to the problem, he doesn't think there's a yes-or-no answer about avoiding disaster.

Flannery's provocative essay ends with a number of short responses to his passionate call to action. Journalist Bill McKibben encourages readers to visit and do something to protect biological investments such as your children's future. The great entrepreneur Richard Branson advises the business community to really step it up by “creating ways of giving financial value to eco-services provided by rain forests.” Gwynne Dwyer, who has written a terrifying book on climate change, suspects that we will hit runaway global warming without Zeus-like geo-engineering of the atmosphere. Peter Singer, the animal-rights activist, chastises Flannery for not advocating for radical reductions in ruminant livestock population, a source of nearly one-fifth of the world's emissions. And Canada's Alanna Mitchell, who has chronicled the rapid destruction of life in the oceans, champions the power of hope.

Years ago, the great Catholic thinker Ivan Illich wrote that high-energy-consuming societies ultimately degrade what is truly human with their speed, pollution and unhappiness. In other words, energy grows at the expense of equity. He thought it would be impossible to solve the energy/carbon crisis by consuming more energy. But what Illich called the “the rain dance of time-consuming acceleration” is about to end. In many ways, Flannery's wonderful essay is a moral appeal to restore equity, and in so doing to become human again. Or let the chaos begin.

Andrew Nikiforuk is the author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent. It won the City of Calgary W.O Mitchell Book Award and the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award, and was a 2009 finalist for the Grantham Prize .