This article is part one of a three part series on Global Warming. This article is about Mark Lynas’s book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, 2008.
Mark Lynas is a British journalist who lives near Oxford University and Oxford’s Radcliffe Science Library which houses tens of thousands of scientific papers containing all the major climate studies done in the recent and not so recent past. He spent several years pretty much living in the Radcliffe Library researching this book. He read almost everything and then sorted all of the information he gleaned into different temperature categories. His book begins with the changes that would occur in our world with a one degree Celsius warming all the way up to six degrees Celsius. He says that he has been very careful to include only information from the most prestigious peer-reviewed science journals. If you are the kind of person who likes reams of precise details, this is the book for you. There are certainly far more details in this book than I can possibly remember.
This is a good basic book on climate change. Lynas explains climate change beginning with the greenhouse effect which is pretty simple: The earth’s atmosphere has always contained a certain percentage of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. This CO2 lets the short wave length radiation from the sun through and then these rays hit the earth and warm it. The earth re-radiates longer wave length heat radiation but the CO2 won’t let most of this long wave radiation out again. The more CO2 in the atmosphere, the more trapped heat and hotter the earth gets. The CO2 in the atmosphere acts like a green house, the heat gets in but can’t get out. We need some CO2 in the atmosphere or all the sun’s heat would be lost and we would quickly freeze to death, but too much CO2 leads to overheating, i.e. climate change.
During the ice age, roughly 8000 to 18,000 years ago, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was 190 parts per million (ppm). Before the industrial revolution it was about 280 ppm and now it is about 392 ppm. Currently CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing about 2 ppm per year and average world temperature is climbing in lock step with it. Many experts agree that 400 parts per million CO2 will probably cause a temperature rise of about two degrees and that after this, so many tipping points will have already been crossed, or soon will be crossed, that climate change will become unstoppable, that the point of no return will have been passed.
Bill McKibben, a well known environmental organizer, writer and activist, and his group, 350.org, say that 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere is the most that the earth will tolerate without serious consequences. They say that 350 ppm is the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2. Obviously we are already well past that point. However, McKibben and 350.org say that it is still not too late; they say that it is still possible to return to the 350 ppm level and save the earth from the worst of climate change. Go to the 350.org website.
CO2 is produced whenever previously living plants and animals, which all contain carbon, are oxidized, i.e. whenever they burn or rot. Whenever coal or oil or wood is burned, whenever currently living vegetation or trees or animals rot, whenever previously frozen tundra or peat thaws and finally rots, then CO2 and other greenhouse gasses are emitted. Living plants do the opposite, they take CO2 out of the air as part of photosynthesis and store carbon in various carbon sinks such as trees, coal, oil, limestone, clam shells, the ocean etc. Carbon is always being exchanged between the atmosphere and various carbon sinks. This is called the carbon cycle and it is part of a healthy biosphere.
Unfortunately man with his hugely ramped up burning of fossil fuels during the last 200 years has injected hundreds of billions of additional tons of carbon into the atmosphere in the form of CO2 and thrown the carbon balance of the earth out of kilter. As a result, the earth is getting hotter and hotter every year. Some of the results are fairly easy to predict and some are still unknown. None are very pretty.
In a couple hundred years, a blink of the eye in the life of the world, human beings have squandered millions of years of the sun’s concentrated energy that has been stored in the oil and coal stored in the earth. We have blown through a large part of the earth’s stored energy in a 200 year long gluttonous, wasteful party. And in the process we have upset all of the earth’s carefully balanced survival systems.
Lynas says that it doesn’t take much of a warming to cause a lot of change in the earth’s biosphere. He stresses this all through the book and as early as the introduction he reminds us that 18,000 years ago at the height of the last ice age temperatures were only 6 degrees colder than now, but this small temperature difference caused huge ice sheets that stretched completely across North America. New York was buried under a slab of ice more than a mile deep. Missouri and Iowa were frozen tundra. All this with a drop of only 6 degrees. And the devastation of a rise of six degrees in temperature, Lynas says, is even worse.
Actually climate change is happening right now. For example the last 20 years have been the hottest in history. 1998 was particularly hot, it was, in fact, the hottest year on record. According to a study sponsored by the European Union, the 2003 heat wave caused at least 71,449 excess deaths in the Europe, far more that the American war dead in Vietnam. The number and strength of mega hurricanes and storms is now far higher than in the past. Katrina, Wilma, and Rita all caused horrendous damage. Not all of these changes can be directly attributable to climate change, but scientists say that the increased frequency and the greater severity of these events can be directly blamed on climate change. The hotter the earth gets, the more of these events we will see and the worse they will be.
The rest of Lynas’ book is a chapter by chapter explanation of what happens in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 degrees of warming. Global devastation begins with desertification , the death of the oceans, the melting of the ice caps, massive floods, hurricanes, the rise of the oceans by 30 or 70 or 100 feet, the melting of the arctic permafrost, the burning of all South America, the end of the Asian monsoons, the drying up of all the major rivers out of the Himalayas and the Karakoram Ranges, the massive migration of people whose climate is no longer liveable and possibly ends with the final extinction of many species, possibly including the human species. Many scientists are now concerned that it will be very difficult for humans to survive a 6 to 7 degree Celsius rise in average global temperature. And Lynas, as well as the authors of the other two books that I am reviewing in these series of articles, points out that none of this may be very far in the future; it may come as soon as the middle of this century or by the end of this century or by the end of the next century. The uncertainly comes from the fact that no one knows exactly when the worst of the climate tipping points will be reached.
This very quick summary of Six Degrees comes nowhere close to doing justice to the book. Lynas spends several hundred pages detailing and carefully documenting what can’t be called anything other than the end of the world. This is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. I know that this sounds like hype and exaggeration, but after reading the book, it is hard to come to any conclusion other than time for the human race is very rapidly running out.
Toward the end of the book Lynas presents a very practical plan for making at least a good attempt at averting the worst of climate change. He says that we need to accept the fact that some pretty bad stuff is going to happen no matter what we do, but that there are things that can be done. What doesn’t work, he says is to put all of our effort into just one project, like solar collectors or wind generators. We need to use a whole series of what he calls wedges.
Wedges are action plans that start out very small and get progressively larger and larger as the years go by. Some of these wedges might be 1) Increasing vehicle mileage to 60 miles per gallon, 2) Building more efficient buildings that can be cooled and heated with a fraction of the energy now required, 3) Building many smaller and more efficient electrical generators, 4) Building more solar photovoltaic electricity collectors, 5) Building many more wind generators, 6) Stopping the destruction and burning of tropical forests and peat beds which is the biggest contributor to climate change right now, 7) Give up on silly solutions like ethanol made from corn, 8) Radically cutting the distance people drive every year by building more and better mass transit systems.
Lynas says that all of these things are very do-able right now and that doing them would not break our economy; in fact it would probably improve it. He also briefly discusses the current climate change denial that so many of us are involved in which is keeping us from implementing any of this do-able plan.
In my next newsletter I will review Fred Pearce’s book, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change, 2008. This book is, I think, the best of the three books I am reviewing.