Talking about the Weather
Finally, there are the really large forces, the kind that can and often do overshadow even important media, economic, and political issues. Weather catastrophes have become a frequent fact of our lives, and every tsunami or hurricane whips up more passion in the debate over global warming. The last of this year’s selections, Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, will help you see debates about climate science and energy policies in a new light.
Tim Flannery, a mammologist and paleontologist who serves as director of the South Australian Museum and professor at the University of Adelaide, started out as a skeptic about global warming. His book explains in scientific but understandable, even eloquent, terms what made him change his mind. Professor Flannery does an entertaining job of quickly sketching out a big picture and a long view. An understanding of the radical danger of sudden atmospheric temperature change requires knowledge of how Earth came to support life, why the ocean is so important, and why humans burning fossil fuels for the past couple of centuries may have unwittingly triggered an irreversible change in an environment that supports 6 billion people.
The good news, if there is any, is that nobody knows for certain whether these climatic changes have caused irreversible damage. Professor Flannery acquaints us with the evidence that we know exactly how much carbon we are putting into the atmosphere and that we can curtail its emission enough to avoid further damage. That’s where science becomes a political issue. Although a few diehards will continue to argue that the science doesn’t prove the existence of global warming — and Professor Flannery introduces the fundamental research so you can judge for yourself — the important arguments from this point onward focus on what we are going to do about it.
The solution he supports is dramatic: First, reach an international agreement to cap carbon emissions at a level where civilization might not be severely disrupted by climate change. Next, estimate how quickly emissions need to be cut back. Finally, divide the resulting “carbon budget” by the number of people in the world and allocate emission limits to nations according to the size of their populations. This course will require a degree of international cooperation we haven’t come close to achieving. Just look at the failure of the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases.
What Professor Flannery makes perfectly clear is that we’re heading down a dangerous road, but we can and must do something about it. Weather has shown its terrible power to make our other concerns seem trivial. It’s hard to worry about cultural production or urbanization when you are faced with the devastation of superstorms and tsunamis.
Howard Rheingold ([email protected]), author of Tools for Thought (Simon & Schuster, 1985), The Virtual Community (Addison-Wesley, 1993), and Smart Mobs (Perseus, 2002), coined the terms virtual community and smart mobs to describe the social phenomena that have emerged via the Internet and mobile telephony. He teaches digital journalism at Stanford and participatory media at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication.