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Counting the losses
on 30 January 2006
"Not another book on climate change!", you lament. Readers may feel surfeited by the rash of books on "global warming" appearing in the past few years. The feeling is understandable. The situation should be considered an indication of how serious the problem is for all humanity. In this case, the author introduces a little-considered aspect. Tim Flannery, whose keen eye and bountiful wit always offers something new presented in a easily readable way, will not leave you jaded nor have your head nodding in ennui. Although Flannery does address some questions dealt with elsewhere, he adds the most significant topic of all - the future of life.
As a zoologist, Flannery has extensive field experience in the forests of New Guinea and elsewhere. He's written of human impact on large animals in North America and Australia. Here, he writes of human impact on all life. Instead of hunting animals to extinction, humans are modifying the entire biosphere through pollutants and gases. This indirect imposition has already killed off at least one species, he demonstrates. In explaining how the Golden Toad went extinct, Flannery sets the scene expansively. The Toad wasn't just a local phenomenon, but died out due to wide-ranging changes in ocean temperature, air mass movements and changes in rainfall. This combination of influences resulted in what appeared to us as a minimal change in habitat. To the Golden Toad, that "minimal change" proved catastrophic. The object lesson is clear. How much change will the species humans rely on for survival tolerate? Flannery, citing James Lovelock's "Gaia" hypothesis of the biosphere as a tightly woven "system", argues that the tolerance for change is meagre. And human-induced change is squeezing the tolerance downward. Up to 30% of all major species are under threat of extinction during this century.
Flannery notes how much needs to be learnt about our impact on the biosphere. Only a generation ago we had identified half of the "greenhouse gases" and scientists still contested whether their influence would warm or cool the planet. Now, he stresses, the warming effect is clearly dominant. The result of that warming is unfolding before us right now. More significantly, the consequences of today's conditions will not be fully realised for a generation. When they become apparent they will be far too severe to reverse. The time to take preventive action is now, not in a decade or more. The reason for prompt action refutes the "climate sceptics" who argue that climate change is "natural" and requires adaptability, not severe crisis-preventing action. Flannery explains how this view is mistaken and misleading. The rate of change today far exceeds any past natural process, and its effects may last many millennia. All examples of past climate change show cascading processes, where one small change induces later, more complex or far-reaching results. With today's rate of change so rapid, Flannery argues, the cumulative effects are unpredictable. But they won't be pleasant.
Flannery's presentation is that of the convinced scientist and caring individual. His abilities as a science writer provide us with clearly spelled out conditions and solutions. He is an ardent supporter of personal steps to be taken to reduce that rate of change underway around us. He also shows how industries and governments can contribute to slowing the threat to our biosphere and thus, our children's future. In fact, just about the only negative thing that can be said about this book is its chaotic "References" section. There is a logic in there somewhere, but in this reviewer's opinion, it's to make you go back to the text to cross-check and relearn the point. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]