What does climate change mean? How will global warming affect our lives? Is it the cause of wilder storms and more frequent drought? Are these events inevitable?
Tim Flannery makes these urgent issues completely accessible. He tells the fascinating story of climate change spanning millions of years to help us understand the predicament we face. By burning fossil fuels we are increasing the levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, causing our planet to become warmer.
Every nation is affected differently by these changes but we have one thing in common – we are now the weather makers, and the new climate we are creating threatens the future of our civilisation.
The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery was first published in 2005 and it is a great introduction to climate change. While some of the science did go over my head a bit, Flannery writes well for the general public. As an Australian scientist and environmentalist, Flannery has held a range of positions in universities and museums. In his work as a mammalogist he has discovered a number of new mammal species, but he says that it was a visit to Papua New Guinea in 1981 that first alerted him to the role that climate change plays in the survival of species. He currently holds the position of Chief Councillor of the Climate Council, an independent organisation that keeps the Australian public informed about climate change.
The Weather Makers is divided into five parts and each chapter begins with a quote from a scientist about earth, climate and the impact of change. Some of these quotes date back to at least 100 years, showing that concern about climate change is not some new fad. We have known about this for a long, long time.
As far back as 1661, the effects of burning coal was already being recognised. So much coal was being burned in London that it was known as the “suburbs of Hell.” Medical records of the time, scant as they were, cite a number of causes of death that are both humorous and unintelligible to us today, such as “affrighted”, “rising of the lights” and “mother.” This last one was not a reference to infanticide, but to the belief that “the organs of the body were rather like the inhabitants of a village. If they were unhappy they could revolt and wander off in search of a better situation.” Keep that in mind the next time you choose to abuse your body. Funny as that sounds, the symptoms of “mother” resemble lung disease, and “mother” was a lot more common in the “suburbs of Hell” than it was out in the countryside.
As Flannery highlights, by the end of the 19th century scientists already understood about the role of carbon dioxide. By 1938 there was already evidence that the world was warming and by 1950 the impact of climate change on species was already being seen. The example of the Golden Toad was particularly heart breaking. Only discovered in 1966, scientists noticed that by 1987 drier conditions were having a significant impact on the toad’s breeding cycle. While an imbalance between the male and female populations led to a mating frenzy, only 29 tadpoles survived for more than a week. By 1989 there was just one solitary male – the last of his species.
We only need to read Flannery’s description of the Ambon Harbor in Indonesia to see the impact that our modern way of life has on the world around us. In 1857 Alfred Russel Wallace described the Harbor as “one of the most astonishing and beautiful sights I have ever beheld….corals, sponges, actiniae, and other marine productions, of magnificent dimensions, varied forms and brilliant colours…numbers of blue and red and yellow fishes, spotted and banded and striped…” Flannery then reports how he sailed down this same Harbor in the 1990s and saw “no coral gardens, no medusae, no fishes…just opaque water …thick with effluent and garbage…rafts of faeces, plastic bags and the intestines of butchered goats.” Just makes you want to cry.
And yet after so many years of accumulating evidence, the calls for action continue to fall on deaf ears. Those who advocate a wait and see approach, will find that by the time they see, it will be too late. As Flannery explains, there is a delay between the time of environmental damage and its consequences. The effects of the gases that are already in the air now, may not be seen for another 30 or 40 years. Research conducted in 2004, suggests that even a small rise in global warming, say up to 1.7ºC, could lead to the extinction of almost 20% of species. An increase at the larger end of the scale, over 2ºC, could lead to the loss of up to a 1/3 of species. If we wish to avoid that future, we need to take action now.
If global warming continues unabated, there is even a prediction that some cities may need to be abandoned. Just this week a report on the ABC suggests that without intervention, Melbourne and Sydney may become unliveable within decades due to rising temperatures. Australia is known for its extremes: droughts and floods; bushfires and cyclones, yet it is heat that claims more peoples’ lives every year. I remember the 40ºC heatwaves of my childhood in Adelaide, but there are predictions that Australian summers could see temperatures of 50ºC or more.
While this all sounds very depressing, Flannery offers hope to readers, saying that the future is in the hands of consumers.
“If everyone who has the means to do so takes concerted action to rid atmospheric carbon emissions from their lives, I believe we can stabilise and then save the cryosphere. We could save around nine out of ten species currently under threat, limit the extent of extreme weather events so that losses of both human life and investments are a fraction of those being predicted and reduce, almost to zero, the possibility of any of the three great disasters occurring this century.”
At the beginning of The Weather Makers, Flannery takes the time to explain the Gaia hypothesis, where everything on earth – land, sea, air, species, both animal and human – are all intimately and irrevocably connected. In demonstrating the relationship between human activity and climate change, Flannery also shows us the way forward. By adopting a more sustainable way of life we can make a difference and change the course we are currently on.
I quite enjoyed Flannery’s book, even if the predictions are alarming. Sometimes we need to be shocked into action. Given that it was published in 2005, there are probably more up to date texts as climate change research rapidly changes future prospects, but it is a good place to start. The snap for this week features a few things pertinent to climate change: plants and animals, two things that bear the brunt of our actions; and a rainfall chart and weather house – two things by which we can measure the changes in our own climate. As The Weather Makers was one of my final reads for 2020, I am claiming it for the Gaia Reading Challenge for 2020 hosted by Sharon from Gum Trees and Galaxies. You can check out the Gaia Challenge for 2021 here.