The Weather Makers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

In The Weather Makers, Tim Flannery addresses a phenomenon that scientists agree is both real and critical but with which few others care to come to grips: climate change. It exists, much of it impelled by human-caused global warming, and it is accelerating. The book, in fact, is a brilliant popular account of science, economics, and politics. Frank and thorough, Flannery manages to sound more optimistic than alarmist and maintains a balanced tone about a threat that nevertheless appears to be dire.

For nonscientists a book such as Flannery’s poses a dilemma at the outset. It concerns a problem of potentially apocalyptic proportions, a problem that is also viciously controversial, at least outside of scientific circles. Much has been written about climate change since the 1980’s, some of it sensationalized, hysterical, scoffing, accusatory, quasimystical, ideological, or gainsaying, and almost all of it by scientists. The dilemma lies in whom readers should trust. They must trust someone, because they are unlikely to have the time or skills to evaluate the evidence and the sources of evidence that an author uses and because the topic is so important. In fact, it is the topic of first importance.

Flannery is a biologist, paleontologist, and self-taught climatologist with a distinguished record in university teaching and research; even better than those credentials for readers are his clear, simple prose and unaffected tone. Initially a skeptic about climate change himself, he relates how events in 2004 changed his mind. Now he is gravely concerned and eagernearly impatientin his desire to inform others. He does not try to titillate readers with disaster-porn, dwell on blame, or establish himself as morally superior. Instead, he wants to warn fellow inhabitants of this planet as a good citizen would warn neighbors that their house is on fire. That quality above all others earns the reader’s trust.

First readers must understand the nature of the problem, and so Flannery reserves the book’s opening sections for explanations of basic climate, ocean, and earth science. These sections are gems of clarity. He starts from the premise that the world environment is a complex, integrated system that makes life possible (like some biologists he views the biosphere as a superorganism, the Gaia hypothesis) and that changes in any one part of the system affect other parts. He describes the atmosphere, explaining the nature of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), and how they trap heat. A key fact is that atmospheric carbon dioxide more than doubled in the last 150 years and is accumulating ever more rapidly. Most of the increase is human caused, the byproduct of modern technology and resource consumption. He also explains the effects of solar cycles and the importance of the world’s oceans and then he compares the modern era with past climatic eras. Another essential point emerges. Human civilization has been possible only during the “long summer” of the last eight thousand years because conditions have been just right for agriculture and cities.

Humanity has been too successful. The progress and population expansion are now altering the environment on a worldwide scale, producing pollutants that are warming the globe at a rate many times faster than any previous era for which atmospheric scientists have data. Many of Flannery’s statistics must be considered slowly, carefully, because they are overwhelming in scope and importance. For instance, in 1986 Earth’s five billion people for the first time used all of the earth’s sustainable resources. Now the population of 6.3 billion uses 20 percent more resources than are sustainable, and that deficit will increase with the expansion of the population until at least 2050. This resource consumption directly creates pollution on an astonishing scale. Speaking of only one year (2002) and only one pollutant (CO2) still challenges comprehension: twenty-three billion tons released into the atmosphere, 41 percent from coal, 39 percent from oil, and 20 percent from natural gas. Two worrisome effects of the increasing greenhouse gases are already being felt: the change in weather patterns and the rise of ocean levels.

However, as Flannery takes great pains to explain, the complexity of the world environment includes many self-regulating physical processes that scientists refer to as “feedback mechanisms.” They are both negative, which inhibit climate change, and positive, which magnify it. Feedback mechanisms make it very difficult to predict what the future holds and, in particular, what humanity stands to lose from climate change. To extrapolate future conditions, scientists rely on computer-generated “global circulation models.” Flannery explains in general terms what these do (there are ten basic models), how they work, how reliable they are thought to be, and...

(The entire section is 1998 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

American Scientist 94, no. 4 (July/August, 2006): 373-375.

Booklist 102, nos. 9/10 (January 1, 2006): 32.

Business Week, March 27, 2006, p. 120.

Discover 27, no. 4 (April, 2006): 71.

Nature 440 (March 2, 2006): 27-28.

The New York Review of Books 53, no. 12 (July 13, 2006): 12-16.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (March 12, 2006): 8-9.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 40 (October 10, 2005): 44.

Science 311 (March 10, 2006): 1379.