“It is all too possible that we will fail to achieve sustainability, and that the blind watchmaker will once again…reset the balance of a severely diminished living Earth.”
That’s the possibility that Tim Flannery hopes we can yet avoid. He makes the statement early in his essay Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now to End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future, in the course of setting out his view of Earth as a living whole, following James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis.
The evolutionary process has arrived at a system in which humanity can contribute intelligence and self-awareness to the functioning of Earth – or set the process at naught and turn back the evolutionary clock.
Flannery’s earlier book The Weather Makers, reviewed here, was his major contribution to advancing public awareness of climate change. Now or Never echoes and updates the urgency of the earlier book. His regard for Lovelock’s thinking remains high, in terms both of the Gaia metaphor and of the extremity to which we have come, but he resists Lovelock’s conclusion that the damage already done is too great for amendment.
After his initial Gaia musings Flannery has an illuminating chapter on how we are shuffling matter among Earth’s three great organs – crust, air and water – and thereby creating an imbalance. He writes of Earth’s contrast with the planets without life, such as Mars and Venus, where the great bulk of the atmosphere is made up of CO2. On our living planet the difference is that over eons enormous quantities of carbon have been drawn into Earth’s crust in the form of coal, oil, natural gas and limestone. Our bringing to the surface and burning these stored sources, combined with the destruction of forests and the degradation of soils, has created an imbalance whereby the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached a level not seen for 55 million years.
The impacts are already alarming. Flannery confesses to find it increasingly difficult over the past two years to read the scientific findings on climate change without despairing. Most dispiriting are the changes occurring in the Arctic, which render hopelessly inadequate much of the human response to the crisis so far. Flannery has an excursion into the possibility of oceanic death, concluding with the fearful vision of Peter Ward in Under a Green Sky.
He turns then to the work of James Hansen and colleagues in their 2008 paper and concludes that humanity is now between a tipping point (where greenhouse gas concentration reaches a level sufficient to cause catastrophic climate change) and the point of no return (when that concentration has been in place sufficiently long to give rise to an irreversible process). We still have a few years before we reach the point of no return, but there is not a second to waste. Energy use must change drastically and we must also draw CO2 out of the air. Otherwise we enter Lovelock’s new dark age.
Turning to solutions Flannery spends time on clean coal technology, not because he is enamored of it but because the world, and China in particular, has gone so far down the road of using coal as an energy source that he sees little choice but to pursue a solution that involves coal. Not instead of renewables, but along with them. Resignation rather than enthusiasm marks his treatment of the subject.
On renewables he notes the US government clean energy initiatives and the development of trading schemes to put a price on carbon, adding that regulation will also have to be part of the strategy. Not having the space to review all the means of generating electricity without carbon emissions, he selects one hopeful example from plans in Denmark to ally electric cars to wind energy which is currently under-utilised at night. He sees it as a sign that wind energy can compete directly with big oil.
CO2 must be drawn down from the atmosphere. High-tech methods remain on the drawing boards for now, but tropical forests are “prodigious engines of atmospheric sanitation”, and Flannery surveys ways of supporting tropical reforestation, preferably under local management. Funding reforestation is in all our interests, and is also a way of repaying a debt we owe to the poor who are disproprtionately affected by the global warming we have caused. Flannery is an advocate of charcoal made by pyrolysis being ploughed back into the soil as a form of carbon sequestration and soil improvement. Vigorously pursued on a global scale it could pull 5 percent of global CO2 per year.
He takes a look at ways in which farming management processes may enhance soil carbon significantly, mentioning a number of new practices worth pursuing, including holistic management and nitrification inhibitors. Farm-based ecological efficiency is described in Polyface Farm in Virginia, a mixed-farming undertaking which has integrated a wide variety of plants and animals into productive and sustainable enterprise.
Before concluding Flannery acknowledges that desperate measures may be called for to avert disastrous melting of the Greenland ice cap in coming years, and believes that a measured dose of sulfur to the stratosphere to cause global dimming may yet be something we have to consider “if all else fails”.
“If we are successful in finding a sustainable way of living in the twenty-first century…” It’s a much bigger “if” in the author’s mind than he or any of us would wish, but there’s no escaping the reality. Gaia has brought us to a unique position and role on planet Earth. That’s the philosophical understanding from which Flannery operates, and he warns that if we don’t that exercise that role responsibly and maturely we will bring disaster on ourselves. The carbon we have freed, “like a malign genie, threatens the entire world.”
The book includes a number of interesting invited responses to the essay. Among them Bill McKibben endorses the seriousness of the situation and urges 350.org activism as a way of acting. Richard Branson imagines a world where the best scientists collaborate with the best entrepeneurs and finds ground for optimism. Peter Singer welcomes Flannery’s impact on public and political awareness and agrees that there is no time to waste, but takes issue over the implications of eating beef.
Gwynne Dyer notes that whether we talk of human beings becoming the consciousness of Gaia, or just see us as the same old self-serving species we always were, we are taking control of the planet’s climate, and we may need stop-gap geo-engineering measures to win extra time to get emissions down before we hit runaway warming.
Tim Flannery’s informed intelligence, ranging thoughtfulness and humanity is as apparent as ever in this essay. Short and accessible, its urgent message could not be plainer. One hopes its readers include any policy makers who still need a wake-up call as to the reality of what we are doing to the planet.