Heatwaves, hurricanes, flooding, drought, extinction. No-one can accuse Tim Flannery of understating the effects of global warming. And there's no doubting his passion for the subject. Once sceptical about climate change, he's now a fully-paid up member of the global warming warning brigade. His chapter headings alone – "Peril at the Poles", "The Carbon Dictatorship", "Boiling the Abyss" – signal that he's nailed his colours to the mast. And those colours are all green.
Not so long ago, climate change was confined to the inner reaches of scientific journals. Now it’s front page news. Hardly a day passes without another instance of wild weather being blamed on global warming. Flannery believes the changes we’ve seen in weather patterns, seasons, biodiversity and, above all, rising global temperatures have a single, man-made cause. Fossil-fuelled industrial development is the villain of the piece – from coal-fired power stations to the infernal combustion engine. So busy have we been in pillaging the Earth‘s resources that it’s only when the planet started fighting back that we woke up to the terrible consequences.
Of course, he’s aware that not all agree with this argument, and so he sets out to support it with an avalanche of evidence. At times, the reader risks being engulfed by statistics, and some of the scientific vocabulary requires both a deep breath and a running jump. Even so, Flannery’s genuine concern for all forms of life on the planet shines through.
But he has to tread carefully. Scary talk about runaway warming, may lead his readers to conclude that it's too late to do anything. Or, as Irving Berlin didn't write: there may be trouble ahead, but let's face the music and turn up the heating. Flannery insists the problem is still soluble, but tackling it will take action by every government, every business and every gas-guzzling, trash-tipping, pollution-pumping one of us.
After braving 200 pages of bleak prognostications, it’s a relief to reach an environmental success story. Flannery calls the 1987 Montreal Protocol the world’s first victory over a global pollution problem, and without it life on Earth would have been in deep trouble. A hole in the planet’s ozone layer risked exposing us to dangerous ultra-violet rays from the sun. The Montreal agreement banned the fluorocarbons that were eating away at this layer, and there are now hopeful signs that the hole is healing.
Despite this good news, Flannery insists prevention is always better than cure, a view that’s reinforced when turning his fire on the energy sector. Just as the tobacco industry spent many decades in denial about the link between smoking and lung cancer, he says, energy companies have been similarly sluggish in facing up to the impact of fossil fuels on the environment. But while he’s scathing about the automobile, Flannery appears resigned to the increasing volume of air traffic and believes aircraft will continue to spew carbon into the atmosphere long after other forms of transport have gone green.
At one point in this book, Flannery speculates that researchers investigating the impact of climate change on mountain regions may have given up because it was all too depressing. It's an odd observation, but if true, who could blame them? Global warming may be a hot topic, but talk of imminent catastrophe is enough to send anyone running for the prozac.
Yet, far from being alarmist or defeatist, Flannery is a convincing advocate of the need for urgent action. Perhaps, if enough of us heed his warning, a Tim Flannery of the future might be able to write a book telling the story of how we saved the planet.Powered by Sidelines