Time is short but it is still possible to avoid a climate crisis, according to two new books, one each from either side of the Tasman. Tom McKinlay reports.There’s a crisis in Professor Tim Flannery’s house.
It sounds like it might have something to do with the sixth mass extinction.
That’s the mass extinction brought on by global warming, referenced in his new book, Atmosphere of Hope.
In it he quotes Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 study that confirmed the current global rate of extinction is about 1000 times greater than the normal or background extinction rate.
Inasmuch as we tend to hear of extinctions after the fact, they might be expected to involve whimpers rather than bangs.
Species quietly slipping out of existence as the environments that support them become slowly more hostile.
But what is going on at Prof Flannery’s place is something else.
There’s a cacophony, a determination to not go quietly. And there’s also an alternative explanation.
The ruckus is courtesy of a 3-year-old with strong views about nappy changing, explains Prof Flannery down the phone line from Sydney.
The crisis abates and something resembling peace is restored, at least as far as the phone can pick up.
So the Australian climate scientist can turn his attention to the matter at hand, the imminent release of his new book.
It too is concerned with the present and future of 3-year-olds.
Atmosphere of Hope is something of a misnomer.
It argues that there is now little of that most precious commodity, little hope of the international community doing enough to keep global warming on the right side of the 2degC ”guardrail” agreed at 2009’s Copenhagen summit.
On the phone, Prof Flannery insists hope remains but argues, as he does in the book, that to keep the world’s climate from becoming unmanageably hot and dangerous for todays 3 years olds, we need to commit to what he calls ”third way” processes and technologies that will allow us to remove carbon from the atmosphere directly.
The prospect of keeping global warming within 2degC of pre-industrial levels by cutting emissions alone is fading, he says.
That’s one take on the world’s most pressing existential crisis.
Another is courtesy of Associate Professor Ralph Chapman, director of Victoria University’s graduate programme in environmental studies, who is on the phone from Wellington, where all seems calm.
However, the man who has been working on climate change since 1988 – he was a Kyoto negotiator for New Zealand – prescribes urgency rather than calm, and also has a new book to argue for it.
Time of Useful Consciousness: Acting Urgently on Climate Change takes as its starting point a phenomenon familiar to pilots.
The ”time of useful consciousness” is the ”time between when one loses oxygen and when one passes out, the brief time in which some life-saving action is possible”.
That’s where we are with climate change, Prof Chapman says, so the question becomes: ”What actions in this time period are truly vital?”
So far so grim, but both men are writing in order to catalyse the efforts they say can still turn things around.
First, though, they provide reminders of why the time for action is upon us.
Quoting the World Bank, Prof Chapman writes: ”The science [of climate change] is settled … Our world is on thin ice.”
Tipping points such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheets are not far off (estimated to occur at about 1.6degC of warming above pre-industrial levels) and even the slightly more distant prospect of a 2.7degC rise altering the Gulf Stream threatens if the current emission pathway towards 3degC warming continues.
We have already warmed the world by about 0.9degC.
Prof Flannery chimes in with warnings about ocean acidification – also caused by CO2 emissions – which is already ”having severe economic and environmental impacts”.
Of course, both books are out as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks loom in Paris in late November and December, and Prof Flannery’s (due on shelves next week) follows quickly on the heels of his country’s ”vastly inadequate” carbon dioxide-cutting target of 26%-28% on 2005 levels by 2030, set as part of the Paris process.
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