- Politics and Social Issues
Global Warming 7--How Close to Catastrophe? Five Books on Global Warming
How Close to Catastrophe? Pretty Close Says James Lovelock!
If you want to ruin your day read Bill McKibben's reviews of five books on Global Warming in the November 16, 2006 issue of the New York Review of Books. Here's a sample excerpt:
"James Lovelock is among the planet's most interesting and productive scientists. His invention of an electron capture device that was able to detect tiny amounts of chemicals enabled other scientists both to understand the dangers of DDT to the egshells of birds and to figure out the ways in which chlorofluorocarbons were eroding the ozone layer. He's best known, though, not for a gadget but for a metaphor: the idea that the earth might usefully be considered as a single organism (for which he used the name of the Greek earth goddess Gaia) struggling to keep itself stable.
".....Through a series of processes involving, among others, ice ages, ocean algae, and weathering rock, the earth has managed to keep the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and hence the temperature, at a relatively stable level.
"This homeostasis is now being disrupted by our brief binge of fossil fuel consumption, which has released a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Indeed, at one point Lovelock predicts--more gloomily than any other comnpetent observer I am aware of--that we have already pushed the planet over the brink, and that we will soon see remarably rapid rises in temperature, well beyond those envisioned in most of the computer models now in use--themselves quite dire. He argues that because the earth is already struggling to keep itself cool, our extra increment of heat is particularly dangerous, and he predicts that we will soon see the confluence of several phenomena: the death of ocean algae in ever-warmer ocean waters, reducing the rate at which these small plants can remove carbon from the atmosphere; the death of tropical forests as a result of higher temperatures and the higher rates of evaporation they cause; sharp changes in the earth's 'albedo,' or reflectivity, as white ice that reflects sunlight back out into space is replaced with the absorptive blue of seawater or the dark green of high-latitude boreal forests' and the release of large amounts of methane, itself a greenhouse gas, held in ice crystals in the frozen north and beneath the sea.
"Some or all of these processes will be enough, Lovelock estimates, to tip the earth into a catastrophic hotter state, perhaps about eight degrees centigrade warmer in temperate regions like ours, over the course of a very few decades, and that heat will in turn make life as we know it nearly impossible in many places. Indeed, in the photo section of the book there is one picture of a red desert captioned simply 'Mars now--and what the earth will look like eventually.' Human beings, a hardy species, will not perish entirely, he says' in interviews during his book tour, Lovelock has predicted that about 200 million people, or about one thirtieth of the current world population, will survive if competent leaders make a new home for us near the present-day Artic. There may also be other survivable spots, like the Biritsh Isles, though ne notes that rising sea levels will render them more an archipelag. In any event, he predicts that 'teeming billions' will perish. .."
"What's amazing is that even Al Gore's fine and frightening film 'An Inconvenient Truth' now lags behind the scientific cutting edge on this issue--the science is moving fast....But very few understand with any real depth that a wave large enough to break civilization is forming and that the only real question is whether we can do anything at all to weaken its force...
"...an enormous program of building nuclear reactors is our best, indeed our only real option..."
Bill McKibben also reviews four other books which raise concerns about global warming but which are less dire in their predictions and remedies:
"The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate in Crisis and the Fate of Humanity" by James Lovelock, Basic Books, 177 pp. $25.00
"China Shifts Gears: Automakers, Oil Pollution and Development" by Kelly Sims Gallagher. MIT Press, 219 pp. $52.00
Solar Revolultion: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry by Travis Bradford, MIT Press, 238 ppe. $24.95.
"World Changing: A User's Guide for the 21st Century," edited by Alex Steffen, Abrams, 596 pp. $37.50
"Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises," edited by Architecture for Humanity, Metropolis, 336 pp., $35.00 (paper)