Two questions greet any new book on global warming: How bad does it look now? and Is this the book that will finally convince everyone to do something about it? As Tim Flannery, the highly respected Australian biologist and science writer, makes apparent, the answer to the first question is, Very bad. In fact, the publication cycle of books such as Flannery's The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth can scarcely keep pace with the increasingly grim news.
Ecological havoc is well under way in the polar regions and tropical uplands—places populated by plants and animals that have adapted to these extreme conditions and now literally have nowhere else to go. Here the extinctions-to-come are all but inevitable: The long life of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means that even if all greenhouse-gas emissions cease tomorrow, we're locked into a substantial level of global warming through 2050. Widespread narrowing of biodiversity and large-scale alterations of many of the planet's familiar landscapes now seem likely by the end of the century if "business as usual" continues. The effects this scenario might have on human civilization would, of course, be dire.
The complexities of climate—and of understanding climate change—have benefited the energy industry and its political mouthpieces, who have used the public's aversion to scientific intricacies (and its understandable difficulty with separating spurious from legitimate claims) to run interference long after the scientific community has become convinced of the reality, cause, and threat of global warming. Flannery excels in his careful efforts to explain—in lay-accessible terms and flowing prose—how climate change happens; how the powerful feedback loops that characterize the surface of the planet can lead to rapid and violent climatic destabilization; why the current climate change is different from others in the prehistoric record; and how we know what the range of possible results will be. None of his explanations are simple, and for each he provides a selective tour of climatology, paleontology, chemistry, ecology, population biology, computer modeling, and more.
The weather makers of the title are, of course, me and you and everyone we know, and Flannery's closing exhortation is for us to adopt a sense of personal responsibility. He attends to the many competing alternative energy sources, explaining the pros and cons of each, and outlines how a multipronged strategy is probably the only way to minimize the damage (and why, incidentally, the proposals of the current US administration are all but meaningless). His tone, however, is neither pushy nor preachy; the facts alone call for fast and dramatic action at all levels of society. But the bar this kind of book sets for itself is high, and this leads back to the second question posed earlier. Can The Weather Makers be the long-awaited Silent Spring for global warming? As others have observed, entire books have been written on the inability of climate change to gain traction as an issue in this country. Let's hope that The Weather Makers finds a large readership. We should look to it and to books like it—and not to significant climatic events—to turn the tide of indifference. For by then, all evidence suggests, the tide will be alarmingly high and rising fast.