Sunlight and Seaweed, Climate Wars and The Long Goodbye

[Australia] These three short books are contributions, from distinctly different angles, to the long-running and so far not particularly productive climate debate in this country.

They are all easy reads. They are all lively and passionate. Of the three, Tim Flannery’s Sunlight and Seaweed is by far the most interesting and constructive. He engages the imagination by first sketching a picture of Malthusian environmental apocalypse, then arguing that by 2050, with wisdom and determination and lots of innovation, we could live in a much better world than we do now.

Climate Wars, by Mark Butler, is a lucid and interesting political pamphlet by the federal opposition environment spokesman. It is marred by its blatant political partisanship in asserting that Labor and only Labor can save the country from climate catastrophe, or at least put policies in place consistent with our international obligations as he understands them and the country’s economic viability. The argument is worth having, but he presents only one side of it. It would be interesting to see a considered and dispassionate response from Green and Coalition perspectives.

Not the least interesting aspect of Anna Krien’s The Long Goodbye is that she fires more than one broadside at the ALP, federally and in Queensland, in ways directly at odds with Butler’s attempt to depict the party as the white knight of environmental politics.

Krien’s primary concern is the Great Barrier Reef and, if her analysis is correct, we are bidding it not so much a long goodbye as a rapid farewell. Her essay suffers from a flaw common, unfortunately, to quite a few of the Quarterly Essays — much as one may enjoy reading them — which is a tendency to embed a serious argument in a highly discursive and often personalised narrative that obscures more than it illuminates the central points at issue.

Flannery is a celebrity environmentalist because he writes books that popularise and dramatise the geophysical and economic challenges we face in the 21st century, given our huge numbers and our soaring appetites for material consumption, food and water, with all the strains this clearly is putting on the ecosphere.

This new book is among his best. Parts of it are first rate in drawing attention to the pollution of the Earth and the fascinating innovations that are arising in response to our problems. His chapters on solar energy technologies and aquaculture and the uses of kelp are wonderfully thought provoking. His observations concerning the shocking condition of China’s soil, air and water as a direct consequence of its hectic and poorly regulated industrial and urban development during the past few decades are well informed and sobering.

But China’s environmental problems were serious even before this. As Judith Shapiro pointed out in her 2001 book Mao’s War Against Nature, even unsuccessful efforts at development can cause grave harm. The longer perspective was sketched out brilliantly by Mark Elvin a generation ago in a long essay called Three Thousand Years of Unsustainable Development in China, which looks like a droll oxymoron. His magisterial 2004 book The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China showed there was nothing at all droll about the matter.

Flannery’s opening chapter is called The Population Bomb. He endorses Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome on the population “bomb” and the “limits to growth”. Yet he goes on to predict not only that the global human population will stabilise in the 21st century somewhere around nine billion but also that innovation, imagination and determination will enable us to feed all these people at a pleasant standard of living in a greener and more pleasant world than now by 2050.

A pessimist will embrace the first claim and dismiss the second. An optimist will embrace the second claim and dismiss the first as merely Malthusian, with an assertion that technological innovation and global markets will give us this outcome — provided utopian socialists and ecological enthusiasts don’t derail growth in the meantime.

Flannery wants to have it both ways. What’s interesting is to consider that he may be right. At least he is not simply predicting doom and disaster. What is not clear is how, exactly, he thinks the utopian vision he sketches out is to be achieved by 2050 and what he means by “determination”.

Across the spectrum, the climate and environment debate is too often characterised by extraordinary vagueness and even complete ignorance of climate science. All three of these authors take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warnings as a benchmark. None of them discusses the deeper background to the matter.

Yet that deeper background is vital if we are, collectively, to get a handle on this ominous and confused controversy and act in ways that may, if not by 2050 then within this century, get us to something like the world of Flannery’s dreams: clean energy, green cities and abundant, nutritious food.

We need to remind ourselves that almost everything we know about the geophysical history of the Earth and the ecosphere has been learned very, very recently. This is particularly true of the long-term history of Earth’s climate. Across the past several million years, as our human ancestors evolved, the global climate was highly changeable and for long periods highly volatile, with abrupt and dramatic alterations in global average temperature much greater than are being forecast even by alarmists for the 21st century.

The problem was not greenhouse gases but other things. The Holocene, which is the period since the end of the most recent ice age, has been unusually stable. That stability — a kind of climate homeostasis (as Krien observes in a neat little footnote) — has been the precondition for the flourishing of our species and the development of agriculture, cities and trade. Brian Fagan’s The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization (2004) is a good introduction to the subject. This “long summer” has seen numerous fluctuations in global temperature, both warming and cooling, and these have had appreciable consequences.

Our present concern is about whether we are generating the largest shift seen within the Holocene — and also a mass extinction. The prehistory of all this is beautifully set out by William J. Burroughs in Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (2005). If you are serious about understanding climate science, read this book as a matter of priority.

The primary problem we have had in generating agreement about what is happening, what it signifies and what to do about it is that the matter has only in recent decades come into scientific focus, it is highly complex and the overwhelming majority of people simply do not grasp the science at all.

The consequence has been a slanging match between interest groups and advocacy groups that has failed to advance the debate in enlightening ways. But even if we had overwhelming consensus on the science — as it is widely claimed we do — getting clarity and consensus in public policy in short order is another matter again.

It would have been good to see Butler reflect on this. A good introduction to the problem is David G. Victor’s Global Warming Gridlock: Creating More Effective Strategies for Protecting the Planet (2011). To get your mind around the economics and risk analysis questions, a good place to start is William Nordhaus’s The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty and Economics for a Warming World (2013). And regarding the overall attempt of our lot to manage the Earth, as distinct from feeling dependent on its natural cycles — and as distinct from recklessly plundering it — a fine start is Richard B. Alley’s Earth: The Operator’s Manual (2011).

The politics of all this is vitally important. In a passage at the end of his little book, the visionary in Flannery looks back a century and asks who, in 1916, when “there was not a single communist country on Earth”, would have anticipated that by 1950 there would have been such a spread of communism, as well as massive technological innovation, including the invention of jet aircraft and nuclear weapons.

He refers to all this simply as “technological and social change”. He does not pause to reflect on the fact the communist revolutions, born of utopian vision and ruthless political violence, were catastrophic. Their approaches to public policy, to history, to science and above all to economics were reckless and destructive. The environmental movement must not see them as in any way a model for rapid and radical change. Joseph Stalin’s forced collectivisation (1929-31) — undertaken at speed against the express, cautious advice of his state planning organisation, Gosplan — caused a man-made famine that took millions of lives and impoverished the Soviet agrarian economy for generations.

Mao Zedong’s so-called Great Leap Forward (1958-61) was even more calamitous. It caused the largest man-made famine in history, taking the lives of 35 million to 45 million people, all because Mao thought he could overtake the West in five to 10 years.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that the basic scientific picture of climate and environment right now is accurate; getting to anything like what Flannery hopes for by 2050 will require highly intelligent policies.

Given the present rate of innovation and growing awareness of the scale of the problem, we would do well to heed the political lessons of the 20th century and go by the old maxim “more haste, less speed” in rising to our collective challenges. That will require steady nerves and improved capacity for fruitful, complex ­debates.


Photo: Environmentalist Professor Tim Flannery predicts a better world by 2050.

View original article at: Sunlight and seaweed, climate wars and the long goodbye





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