I turned from being relatively indifferent to, perhaps, even, a skeptic about, global warming, into someone who takes its peril quite seriously, when I first read Tim Flannery’s 2001 book, The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth. Flannery has now written a new book, more ominous in its purview than The Weather Makers, entitled: Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now to End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future. This new book reminds us of several salient facts. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a century or more. No matter what we do now to cut greenhouse emissions, global temperature will, almost surely, rise somewhere around two degrees Celsius. That already represents a possible tipping point, with serious side effects. Rise in temperature of three or more degrees Celsius could push us beyond a mere tipping point to a point of no return. Imagine my chagrin, then, to learn that, even if all goes as well as might be expected in Copenhagen, the proposed changes (if implemented! Few countries who signed the Kyoto protocols in 1997 actually met their targets for emission reductions) would be above a 3 degree Celsius target.
While Flannery holds out hope to avoid ocean acidification (the evil twin of global warming), he does remind us that the ocean can die. When the ocean did once die some 250 million years ago, 95 percent of all life forms perished as well. Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water does. It serves less well as a carbon sink. But even when the oceans absorb CO2, the peril remains that acidification will endanger coral reefs and many fish species, especially those which form crusts. Flannery wrote, this fall, a review of James Lovelock’s recent book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning for The New York Review of Books. In that review, Flannery tries to refute Lovelock’s stark conclusion that humans lack the foresight, wisdom and political energy to forestall catastrophic climate changes. Lovelock who famously proposed a Gaia hypothesis, i.e., that the earth works as a whole system to sustain conditions for life, now foresees a revenge of Gaia which will lead to a near unbearable (and civilization destroying) 9 degrees Celsius increase in global temperature.
Although Flannery continues to hold out hope of avoiding a catastrophic point of no return ( as, for example, with the melting of the Arctic perma-frost which would unleash bombastic belches of methane now buried there), he is not overly sanguine. Thus, he notes that: ”it is all too possible that we will fail to achieve sustainability… If we are to avoid catastrophic failure, we will need to learn very fast." Again, he states: “There is now a better than even risk that, despite our best efforts, in the coming two to three decades, earth’s climate system will pass the point of no return.”
There are no magic bullets to address climate degradation. We need multiple changes and, thus, to learn fast. Coal is terribly carbon intense. We need either to phase it out soon as a fuel (Flannery proposes its phase out by 2030) or find some way to capture carbon and bury it. Yet there has been almost no serious efforts at carbon storage of coa emissions.. Moreover, carbon storage demands intensive water usage. With water also becoming a scarce commodity, its wide usage for carbon storage seems folly. A melancholy fact is that, in the last decade, as energy efficiency has increased, so too intensity of carbon emissions has also increased.
Clearly, fighting de-forestation should be uppermost in any program to reduce CO2 emissions. Something of the order of 22-42 percent of all carbon emission increase is due to de-forestation. To stop it ( and compete against those who want lumber), we will need clear subsidies to guarantee both stopping the denuding of tropical forests and replanting. We will also need satellite surveillance to guarantee compliance.
Flannery discusses the impact of pyrolisis, i.e. turning crop and forestry waste into charcoal and burying it in the soil. This would both increase the fruitfulness of arable land and, potentially could reduce U.S. carbon emissions by almost 10 percent. In one place, Flannery entertains--what strikes me as a dangerous experiment—the stop-gap measure of injecting sulphur into the stratosphere to cause a global dimming. No one sees this experiment as anything more than a mere stop-gap measure to buy more time for global emission reductions.
A number of commentators to Flannery’s essay push his proposals further. Bill McKibben insists that we need to learn to eat more locally and, thus, reduce the energy misuse in flying fruits and vegetables all over the world. Peter Singer would immediately ban all raising of beef in order to reduce methane gases. In the end, Richard Branson’s question is the one to ponder: “What does an economy that uses only the resources of a single planet look like?”
Copenhagen can not be an end point. Whatever is finally achieved there must be seen as only a first step. Another climate conference will occur next year in Mexico City. Perhaps, what at Copenhagen is only, at best, an inadequate blueprint might, then, become a true and verifiable treaty.
John Coleman, S.J.