No Climate For Inaction

Two books on why it's time to tackle global warming


How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth

By Tim Flannery

Atlantic Monthly Press -- 357pp -- $24

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Editor's Review

Four Stars
Star Rating

The Good A compelling tour of the climate's history with disturbing thoughts about what comes next.

The Bad The narrative may be a bit technical for some readers.

The Bottom Line A profound, passionate, and troubling work.


Man, Nature, and Climate Change

By Elizabeth Kolbert

Bloomsbury -- 210pp -- $22.95

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Editor's Review

Four Stars
Star Rating

The Good Illuminates the question of climate change accessibly.

The Bad At times, it can seem too much like a random travelogue.

The Bottom Line A highly readable account of the problem.

As scientists reckon with fast accumulating evidence of climate change, some observers have become resigned to a cataclysmic future. Others deny that we are altering the climate at all. Yet a few writers are synthesizing what has been learned, in the belief that better understanding and public involvement can help fix what's broken.

That's the mission of two of the best recent books in this field. In The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, Australian scientist Tim Flannery offers a compelling, far-flung tour through the history and science of the Earth's climate, with disturbing conclusions about what may come next. In Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker, keeps the science to a minimum and offers a more accessible exploration. Both writers agree with Kolbert's statement that "In legitimate scientific circles, it is virtually impossible to find evidence of disagreement over the fundamentals of global warming" or mankind's role in it.

Don't be misled by Flannery's action-thriller title. It refers to how man-made agents are altering millennial rhythms of the weather in ways that we are beginning to understand but cannot control. Geological records show us that in the past, sudden climate shifts have more than once wiped out large percentages of Earth's species. This time, man may be no exception: "If humans pursue a business-as-usual course for the first half of this century...the collapse of civilization due to climate change becomes inevitable," he writes.

For all of its technical sophistication, Flannery's book is a surprisingly passionate work, finely balanced between science and personal experience. The opening lines record the author's reflections on a visit to the high grasslands of Papua New Guinea some 25 years ago. This equatorial island north of Australia is a hothouse of one-of-a-kind creatures, such as meter-long rodents and long-beaked birds, and it remains largely unexplored by humans.

But not untouched. Even 25 years ago, Flannery now realizes, signs of the effects of man's rising CO2 output were evident. The jungle had begun to encroach on the grasslands from lower altitudes, a sign that the cool, mist-soaked forest and its countless, highly specialized flora and fauna were dying off, giving way to the hotter, less wet conditions of lower climes. Since then such changes have multiplied. The warming and drying out of Costa Rica's cloud forests has already doomed carnival-colored toads. In the Arctic, disappearing pack ice is decimating polar bear populations along with a host of animals that depend on the remains of the bears' prey.

Climate change is already beginning to alter mankind's environment. For example, though viewed as a temporary problem, the decades-old drought in Saharan Africa is part of a permanent shift of rain patterns and higher temperatures. In Darfur one can see a foreshadowing of future climate-related conflicts: Driven by the desertification of once-rich grasslands, herders are fighting farmers for space. Will Europe react peaceably, Flannery asks, if, as many models suggest, the Gulf Stream shuts down and sends millions of Scandinavian refugees southward, fleeing their suddenly deeply frozen homelands?

Kolbert's book covers some of the same ground as Flannery's and has equally discouraging implications. Originally published as a three-part series in The New Yorker, her work brings alive the plight of those affected, from Alaskan Eskimos uprooted by melting permafrost to rare butterflies in Britain doomed to ever-shrinking habitats. Refusal to respond to such obvious evidence, contends Kolbert, is "deeply, even obscenely, self-serving."

Action by concerned consumers is crucial to help stir corporations and governments to respond, Flannery argues. Replacing a gas guzzler with a hybrid vehicle can cut CO2 emissions by up to 70%. But perhaps the most vital step, and one that is tentatively under way, is to "de-carbonize" the power grid: Replace coal-fired plants with cleaner natural gas units en route to nuclear and renewable sources. Urging utilities to make green power available can spark this process.

While Kolbert's work illuminates the question of climate change in a more readable, less scientific narrative, Flannery's is in many ways a more complete and profound work. His final message: Don't be paralyzed by indifference or fear. Do begin to act personally and politically. Now.

By Adam Aston

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