Saved by the Plague

This piece appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 12 January 2007

Somewhere on my office floor lies a much-hurled copy of State of Fear, Michael Crichton’s swivel-eyed conspiracy thriller in which the “myth” of global warming is exposed as an elaborate scientific fraud, perpetuated by corrupt environmentalists as a means of prolonging their funding. The novel itself is wonderfully inventive, not least in its appropriation of a scholarly apparatus including footnotes, appendices and a fully annotated bibliography; but even Crichton’s most dedicated readers must have been a little taken aback when, in September 2005, he was called before the United States Senate as an expert witness on climate change. According to James Inhofe, the Republican Senator responsible for inviting him, global warming remains “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”, a sentiment endorsed by a number of the energy companies which funded Inhofe’s election campaign, though — much to the Senator’s irritation — not by any of the climate scientists whose work was examined at the hearing. Crichton, however, was only too happy to endorse the Senator’s views, blithely dismissing the “so-called” scientific consensus, while hinting that the scientists in question might be acting from an awareness that their continued funding depends on delivering the desired results.

Crichton’s characterisation of mainstream scientists as a herd of compliant sheep plodding after grant allocations has gone on to become a powerful weapon in the climate sceptics’ armoury, and in spite of the overwhelming evidence that human-enhanced climate change constitutes a real and imminent threat, the atmosphere of mutual suspicion continues to worsen, particularly in the United States, where anyone with something to say on the matter is assumed to have a vested interest. Even William F. Ruddiman, the recently retired Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, and author of a standard climate science textbook, has felt it necessary to issue the following disclaimer at the end of Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum, his brilliantly provocative new account of the long history of climatic variation:

I have never received any funding from either environmental or industry sources. All of my career funding has been from the government, and over 99 percent of it from the National Science Foundation, which is widely regarded by politicians of many views as the model of a well-run government funding agency (based on its reliance on competition and peer review). All of the funds used to write this book came from my retirement annuity earned at educational institutions.

Ruddiman’s declaration stems from the wariness of someone who has seen his ideas pressed into service on both sides of the climate change divide. The Ruddiman Hypothesis, as this latest work is beginning to be known, was first developed some five years ago in a series of papers in specialist journals, but it has been expanded here into a book-length thesis in which a complex arena of argument and analysis is presented with impressive clarity. Ruddiman’s contention is that human activity has been influencing Earth’s climate not merely for the past 200 years — a truth now (almost) universally acknowledged — but for the past 8,000 years, due to the impact of major innovations linked to the development of farming. From the Iron Age onwards, northern China, large areas of Central and South America, and the fertile crescent of the eastern Mediterranean suffered wholesale deforestation, usually in the form of deliberate burning, followed by the introduction of irrigation agriculture, activities which, even then, served to jettison millions of tons of carbon and methane into the Earth’s fragile atmosphere. “Before we built cities, before we invented writing, and before we founded the major religions”, writes Ruddiman, “we were already altering climate. We were farming.”

Ruddiman is well aware that the thought of early pastoral communities living just as unharmoniously with the natural world as we do today goes against some of our most cherished beliefs, but nevertheless, the evidence is there. Slash-and-burn land clearance began in earnest some 8,000 years ago, and by 1000 BC, according to Ruddiman, most of China’s vast forests had gone, as had those of India, southern and western Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean, the lowlands of Central America, and the highlands surrounding the Peruvian Andes. According to Ruddiman’s calculations, those 5,000 years of relentless clearance released something in the order of 200 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere — a budget comparable with the estimated 300 billion tons that have been released since the start of the industrial revolution. Large-scale irrigation, meanwhile, spread across Southeast Asia to China, where vast artificial wetlands were created for the cultivation of new strains of rice. Flooded rice fields are now a feature of every continent except Antarctica, but the methagenic microbes which thrive in such oxygen-poor environments have turned them into one of the planet’s principal polluters, sending huge volumes of methane (a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide) into the increasingly anthropogenic atmosphere.

     But the really startling part of Ruddiman’s analysis comes when he looks at what happens to the climate whenever human activity is curtailed. Mysterious oscillations in the carbon signal over the past 2,000 years sent him “into the history books”, where he discovered that the steepest declines in the CO2 record all occurred immediately after major plague pandemics, when population crashes saw significant areas of abandoned farmland revert back to new forest cover. The near-global Justinian Plague of 540-42 AD, for example, which killed an estimated 40 per cent of the populations of Europe and the Middle East, was followed by the first extended CO2 minimum that appears in the recent ice-core record, while the subsequent plague-free interval from the 740s to the mid-1300s “correlates reasonably well with the rebound of the CO2 trend”. Similarly, the Black Death of the late 1340s, which swept away at least a third of the European population, was followed by another sudden CO2 decline that almost certainly played a part in the advent of the Little Ice Age, a 600-year cooling phase that began in the 13th century, and which ended with the introduction of modern coal-fired technology. If the Ruddiman Hypothesis is correct, it will add an entirely new dimension to our understanding of climate change, since it shows that rampant human activity has been capable not only of warming our world, but of cooling it down when it stops. The implications for action today could not be any clearer, although Ruddiman, being firmly of the view that science and politics do not mix, is not one to issue calls for a decarbonized economy.

Tim Flannery, however, certainly is, and every chapter of The Weather Makers, his powerful and convincing summary of just about everything we know about climate science, constitutes an eloquent plea for a global consensus on reducing CO2 emissions by a great deal more than the paltry 5.2 per cent (by 2012) agreed under the Kyoto Protocol. Like Ruddiman (whose hypothesis he welcomes), Flannery argues that past events hold the key to understanding present choices, and he reminds us that the political will to avert environmental catastrophe has been successfully activated before. Remember the hole in the ozone layer? During the 1970s, researchers discovered that ozone concentrations above Antarctica were thinning out with disturbing rapidity, and that consequently the level of ultraviolet (UV) radiation reaching the poles was increasing at an unprecendeted rate. “The Earth’s sunscreen”, as Flannery describes the ozone layer, was disappearing fast, although it wasn’t long before the anthropogenic culprit had been nailed. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had been invented by industrial chemists in the late 1920s, and their low cost and remarkable stability soon saw them put to use in an array of applications, including refrigerators, air conditioners, solvents and propellants. By 1975 spray cans alone were pumping half a billion tonnes of them into the atmosphere, and by 1985, worldwide production of CFCs stood at almost 2 billion tonnes per year. But as climate scientists were beginning to discover, the problem with these artificial compounds is that once they have evaporated into the stratosphere, they are soon broken down by UV radiation, and their chlorine atoms released. Since a single chlorine atom can destroy up to 100,000 ozone molecules, even over the Earth’s mid-latitudes, it was becoming apparent that the hole over Antarctica was merely the opening rend in our planet’s protecting veil.

It was obvious that action needed to be taken to curb the use of CFCs, and in 1978 the U.S. government took the lead by outlawing their use in spraycans. Three years later, the United Nations Environment Program proposed the creation of a global convention guaranteeing the protection of the ozone layer, a proposal which led to the signing, in 1987, of the Montreal Protocol, “a signal moment in human societal development”, as Flannery describes it, “for it represents the first ever victory by humanity over a global pollution problem.” Compared with the ongoing Kyoto fiasco, the Montreal agreement was a model of swift international action, with every developed nation in the world — including the current Kyoto rebels, Australia and the United States — willingly committing themselves to the total elimination of CFCs from all industrial processes by 1996. Ten years on from the Montreal deadline, and the ozone hole has already reduced by an estimated 20 per cent, and is on course to have entirely restored itself by the middle of the 21st century.

So why, given such a powerful precedent, is there still so much foot-dragging when it comes to limiting greenhouse gas emissions? Under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, which was drawn up in December 1997 (although it only actually came into force in February 2005, having been delayed by the antics of Iceland and Russia), the signatory nations are obliged to enact only the most superficial of measures to achieve their agreed reduction targets, yet most of them are on a steady course to fail. Even Denmark, which Flannery praises as “the home of the modern wind industry” (21 per cent of Danish electricity is now sourced from wind turbines) has proved unable to curb its rising CO2 emissions, and will only meet its Kyoto commitment by spending more than a billion dollars on carbon credits bought from eastern Europe.

Flannery’s impatience with the carbon credit system, an economic card-trick which does nothing to actually bring down emissions, flares into anger when he considers the “self-interested” conduct of his own country, Australia — the world’s highest per-capita greenhouse emitter — which not only refused to ratify the Kyoto agreement, but also managed to negotiate a carbon allocation 8 per cent higher than its 1990 emissions, a “special deal” trumped only by the concessions granted to Iceland (a nation now free to increase its carbon emissions by a whopping 10 per cent). “If you’re confused by this, don’t worry”, writes Flannery, “so is the rest of the world”.

But we should worry, because if the developed nations are struggling to meet even the preposterously lenient targets agreed under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, how are they going to manage the 60-70 per cent reductions (by 2050) that many, including Flannery, consider necessary for the stabilisation of the climate? “Action is needed now”, he urges, “but there is no need to wait for government to act. You can do it yourself”, and he goes on to outline the benefits of the now familiar checklist of emissions-limiting actions that every household can make, “none of which requires serious sacrifices”: change your electricity supplier, install a solar panel, switch to low-energy light bulbs, turn off appliances, walk whenever possible. Performed in their millions, even the smallest individual actions can contribute enormously to the Kyoto reductions, but, as in Al Gore’s list of “10 Things to Do” which appears at the end of An Inconvenient Truth (“use less hot water”; “check your tires”; “plant a tree”), the rhetorical mismatch of scale between grim apocalyptic warnings and cheerfully mundane solutions can make the problem seem more, rather than less, overwhelming. Will half-filling our kettles really have an impact on a climate regime that is already committed to several degrees of future warming, regardless of any measures we might put in place today? Isn’t it all too little, too late, and instead of making minor adjustments to the workload of the national grid, shouldn’t we be preparing to adapt to the worsening climate ahead?

James Lovelock certainly seems to think so, and the forecast with which he ends his passionate, if confusing, polemic The Revenge of Gaia, is for a climate “that could easily be described as Hell: so hot, so deadly that only a handful of the teeming billions now alive will survive.” Perhaps surprisingly for someone who describes himself as green, Lovelock has little of Flannery’s faith in the benefits of renewable energy, and none at all in wind power, which “through crude and unsustainable industrial development, is already devastating some unusually beautiful countryside.” He estimates that some 276,000 wind generators would be needed to supply Britain’s current electricity needs, a prospect that seems to fill him with horror, though I must admit that I found the figure surprisingly low, since, even excluding all built-up areas (along with national parks), it works out at less than 3 turbines per square mile. But as Lovelock points out, the wind doesn’t blow with any consistency, and, even in Denmark, turbines require high levels of backup from the national grid. Lovelock’s solution, which has not endeared him to environmentalists, for whom (up to now) he has been an inspirational figure, is a new generation of nuclear reactors: fission to begin with, since it’s all we have, but with the holy grail of fusion energy firmly in mind. “We have no time now to experiment with visionary energy sources”, he writes: “civilization is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear energy now, or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.” As far as the radioactive legacy is concerned, Lovelock remains curiously unmoved, arguing that the waste produced by fossil fuel energy has proved far more dangerous and difficult to dispose of than anything produced by a reactor. He even offers to take delivery of a year’s worth of nuclear waste for burial in his own back garden, using the heat from its decaying radioactive elements to heat his home for free. As he points out, “it would be a waste not to use it.”

Readers of Lovelock’s first book, Gaia (1979) will already be familiar with his faith in the technological fix, since it was in its pages that he advocated the wholesale release of CFCs into the atmosphere as a means of averting the imminent ice age, going out of his way to condemn the United States’s aerosol ban as an example of “bad science”. Although Lovelock now concedes that he was woefully mistaken, he retains his fondness for such sci-fi solutions, and The Revenge of Gaia is full of proposed “macro engineering options” for the amelioration of climate change, including the positioning of giant silver sunshades between the Earth and the Sun, the artificial production of marine stratus clouds across a wide area of open sea, and, in a formulation bearing an uncanny resemblance to his earlier CFCs idea, the release of vast sulphurous contrails into the stratosphere as a means of simulating the cooling effect of major volcanic eruptions.

In contrast to Flannery’s scaled-down solutions, which at least offer the means of achieving immediate reductions, Lovelock’s leaps of technological faith appear to be taking him ever further from the deep ecology which influenced the development of his Gaia hypothesis, a new way of understanding planet Earth as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, biological and human components. Although the hypothesis has not been promoted to the status of a recognised scientific theory (as Lovelock claims it has), most earth scientists are broadly in agreement with the main contention of the Gaia idea, although few would ever be caught using Lovelock’s term, being understandably wary of its mythical connotations. Lovelock, however, insists on the need to personalize “the living Earth”, arguing that “metaphors are more than ever needed for a widespread comprehension of the true nature of the Earth and an understanding of the lethal dangers that lie ahead.” But too much imagery can overwhelm an argument, and there are passages in The Revenge of Gaia where the sheer preponderance of metaphor and simile threaten to overburden what is, after all, an easily grasped proposition: that we are running out of time to do something serious about climate change. Instead, I found it distracting to be told that humankind is behaving variously like: “the passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail”; “someone addicted to a drug that will kill if continued and kill if suddenly withdrawn”; “sailors who burnt the timbers and the rigging to keep warm”; “a careless and thoughtless family member whose presence is destructive and who seems to think that an apology is enough”; “the smoker who enjoys a cigarette and imagines giving up smoking when the harm becomes tangible”; “passengers on a large aircraft crossing the Atlantic Ocean who suddenly realize just how much carbon dioxide their plane is adding to the overburdened air”; and “a revolting teenager, intelligent and with great potential, but far too greedy and selfish for our own good”. I think we get the picture.

Lovelock ends his book with the thought that it may well be too late to avert “a global decline into a chaotic world ruled by brutal warlords on a devastated Earth”, and he urges us to “listen to the deep ecologists” and let them be our guides to the future terrain. He particularly recommends the work of the ecologist Stephan Harding, whose Animate Earth is an explication of his attempts to establish a healing, intuitive, “holistic” relationship with our visibly suffering planet. I tried very hard to like Harding’s book, much of which is written with passion and insight, but I was unimpressed by its facile dismissal of much of Western scientific culture as “a soulless world of bare facts devoid of inherent meaning”, as well as by its equally facile endorsement of the ecological purity of “traditional” non-Western cultures, a virtuous realm — according to Harding — of “intuitive perception”, in which “nature is truly alive, and every entity within it is endowed with agency, intelligence, and wisdom.” Even Lovelock draws the line at such essentialist banality, pointing out that Australian aboriginals, “often claimed to be an example of natural humans at peace with the earth” were responsible for the slash-and-burn clearance of much of their continent, while Ruddiman’s description of the systematic hunting to extinction of Australian (and North American) wildlife, which was well under way at least 5,000 years ago, leaves little room for comforting myths about a lost Edenic past. “Peace upon you, Aboriginals”, as Lovelock writes: “you are no better and no worse than us.”

Harding is right, however, to look towards the only future available to humanity, one in which new ways of living cooperatively with the earth will have been found. It would be an achievement unprecedented in the whole of human history, and, as Tim Flannery reminds us in the closing pages of The Weather Makers, ours is the generation fated to begin to take responsibility, “for we are now the weather makers, and the future of biodiversity and civilisation hangs on our actions.”

Richard Hamblyn


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