Warm future in the offing

Updated: Apr 30 2006, 05:46am hrs
The news reports are becoming starker, more common. The Earth is getting warmer, the worlds ice sheets are rapidly melting, species are dying off and scientists are predicting a potential rise in the worlds oceans that could devastate coastal cities in our lifetime.

The long-term prognosis is even bleaker.

Enter Tim Flannery, an Australian scientist, explorer and conservationist who has written a highly readable account of Earths past and present climatological condition, a book at once grounded and reverent.

The Weather Makers takes readers on a tour of Gaia the organism we are born, live and die onacross the eons, from its formation through the dynamic evolution of the earliest living creatures to the present heyday of Homo sapiens.

What emerges is a picture of a unique environment that has seen dramatic nature-driven temperature shifts, tectonic upheaval, the extinction of myriad exotic species and the creation of new ones throughout the millennia.

All the while, the great aerial ocean of Earths atmosphere has maintained an equilibrium of livability singular in the known universe. But that equilibrium is threatened now in a way it never was before: by human activity.

The argument centres on the production of carbon dioxide, or CO2, the most abundant of the so-called greenhouse gases. CO2 is produced whenever living things decompose or something is burnt.

That production has increased many times over since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when the journey first began toward an enormous reliance on fossil fuels for energy.

Tim Flannery Atlantic Press $24; Pp 357
Rising levels of CO2 increase the amount of heat that is retained in the atmosphere. The more CO2 in the atmosphere, the hotter the planets temperature.

The worlds oceans absorb much of that CO2, but the warmer the oceans get, the less they can absorb. And the cycle continues.To begin stemming the warming trend, CO2 emissions must be reduced by 70 percent over the next 45 years.

Hybrid fuel cars, green energy providers, switch to nuclear and solar sources of energy and a political commitment to emissions reductions are all needed, and theyre doable now.

The transition to a carbon-free economy is eminently achievable because we have all the technology we need to do so, Flannery writes. It is only a lack of understanding and the pessimism and confusion generated by special interest groups that is stopping us form going forward.

US contributes one-fifth of the worlds greenhouse-gas emissions, making this nation particularly responsible for the state of the global climate.

And yet, US, along with Australia, has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, the only international treaty devoted to combating climate change through the curbing of greenhouse-gas emissions.

The economic impacts would be too great, US leaders argue. But the costs will be far greater in the long run if all nations do not take the science seriously and act, Flannery counters.

Flannery completed his book prior to the destruction wreaked by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which tore into the Gulf Coast region last year. In an afterword, he notes that such storms may not be anomalies now on.

There is growing evidence that global warming is changing the conditions in the atmosphere and oceans in ways that will make hurricanes even more destructive in the future, he warns. The underlying message is simple. We need to do something, and we need to do something now.

The twentieth century opened on a world that was home to little more than a billion people and closed on a world of 6 billion, and every one of those 6 billion is using on average four times as much energy as their forefathers did 100 years before, he writes. Already, some are feeling the effects.

The Inuits of Canada, Russia, Greenland and Alaska, have reported thawing ice caps that affect their hunting seasons, the presence of polar bears in hitherto unfamiliar places and non-indigenous species in the Arctic. Consider them the canaries in the coal mine.

This is an important book for anyone interested in the future of this planet.

NY Times