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Mired in a methane war

This user-friendly guide to the perils of being environmentally unfriendly is unlikely to swing many votes in the legislature of public opinion



Mired in a methane war

It should be a signal that this book, with its amiable demeanour, might be able to swing some sceptics' votes.

THE LAST GENERATION: HOW NATURE WILL TAKE HER REVENGE FOR CLIMATE CHANGE

By Fred Pearce

Published by Transworld, 2007 edition

Available at Asia Books, Bt550

Reviewed by Paul Dorsey

The Nation

Thirteen pages into "The Last Generation" you're given the word "megafart". Thus, like a classroom full of prepubescent boys, anyone fretting that the book will be "too scientific" for them can relax, have a giggle and get on with some proper learnin' up. The publishers and reviewers make much of author Fred Pearce's approachability, but he drops the word megafart often enough that some readers will want to keep their distance.

It should be a signal that this book, with its amiable demeanour, might be able to swing some sceptics' votes. The title and the apocalyptic cover - a city skyline on fire - suggest that this might be the warning that persuades everyone to write to their member of parliament and say, "I don't care how much you raise my taxes, just save my planet!"

But if Pearce is supposed to be a proselytiser, or the awaited messiah, he's far too gentle to convert any ba-a-ad sheep. Though clearly convinced that action must be taken now if civilisation is to be rescued, he's forced to keep retreating almost from the start. Precise predictions hide in carbon dioxide fogs; agreement sinks to the bottom of semantics. "The Last Generation" is ultimately all about scientists arguing among themselves.

This is not to say that Pearce, the environment consultant for New Scientist magazine, doesn't land some righteous punches. That nonsense about weather satellites failing to confirm global warming, which Britain's Channel 4 recently repeated in a much-publicised documentary, is felled in the early rounds. If you can stay awake for the rest of the fight there are more points scored, though on obtuse technicalities more than replay-worthy knock-downs.

Climate scientists must sort out their tribal differences first before the general public will emerges to bend politicians' arms. The Bangkok Municipal Administration's vow last month - in the midst of a vast and pointless global conference here on the subject, no less - to reduce exhaust emissions, create more green areas and turn off some lights is all well and good as the thermometer licks 40 degrees. But Australian Prime Minister John Howard is typical of the world's vote-rollers when at the same time he advocated prayer as the solution to the six-year drought withering his country's crops.

And Fred Pearce is going to have to take on Fred Singer of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, whose website twists the truth by admitting there's a serious problem, then says things like this: "Should we ruin our economies and cause tremendous hardship for people to counter a phantom threat? That's a leading question, of course; climate warming does indeed seem far away and a minor problem at that. There is a sure threat to human existence, however, and that is the near-certainty of a coming ice age. Geologists tell us that the present interglacial warm period will soon come to an end. Perhaps greenhouse warming can save us from an icy fate."

If there's no ice in the Arctic, obviously you can get at the valuable minerals there more easily. Plus, the permafrost is already well thawed in Siberia and it's quite beautiful. Canadian farmers will benefit from longer growing seasons. So goes the counterpunch.

People who would rather spend their money on Saabs than science are counting on groups like the Cooler Heads Coalition (GlobalWarming.org), whose members include the far-right "free marketers" of the Americans for Tax Reform, American Policy Center and National Center for Policy Analysis, and the Small Business Survival Committee and JunkScience.com. This is where the big money is, and a lot of it ends up in the pockets of scientists willing to play devil's advocate all hot summer long. This is why there's no reliable consensus on global warming.

Pearce stresses that he didn't call his book "The Last Generation" to imply that those now living are toast, but that we're the last to have enjoyed a stable, predictable climate, the one that's now coming to an end after 13,000 years. From now on, he quotes worried researchers as saying, there will "probably" be ferocious planetary forces showing up - mega-droughts and super-hurricanes, maybe the Gulf Stream switching off, Asian pollution perhaps shutting down the monsoon. These "monsters", as Pearce's sources call them, "will be sudden and violent".

It seems, he is told, that we are poking a snoozing drunk with a stick, knowing full well that he'll be mean once aroused. It appears, he concludes, that we are already on "a rollercoaster ride of lurching and sometimes brutal change". The "Earth's biggest ever fart" occurred 55 million years ago when the icy enclosures containing a trillion tonnes of methane melted. The gas raised the ocean temperature by 10 degrees and killed off almost as many species as that dinosaur-dooming asteroid. This "could" happen again, Pearce advises.

He harvests these colourful analogies as he globetrots throughout the book to visit the scientists in the field, at the various places, mostly arctic, where there is evidence of serious trouble brewing. Along the way we can sometimes add to our knowledge about climate change, occasionally subtract, but usually wait for someone else to tell us the answer.

Eventually we close the book informed about the "tipping points" man has crossed and keeps crossing, but no wiser, really, about whether we have already reached the frontier of no return, which is confidently described (if it comes to that) as goodbye to Bangkok, London and New York within decades, and as Pearce puts it, "toodle-oo to Tuvalu" within years, the Pacific impatient to submerge its atolls.

Among the love-gushes emitted from the blurbosphere to help sell the book, I like the quote from James Lovelock, whose own treatise, "The Revenge of Gaia", was genuinely scarier. "We are now at war with Gaia and have no chance whatever of winning," Lovelock writes here. Pearce, he says, though not quite accurately, "analyses the battlefield and will guide us to a sensible retreat to the place where we can negotiate a peace".

This is the sort of language buzzing around the issue of Iraq like flies on a corpse, and by now it's become acceptable to most thinking people. Unfortunately, when it comes to global warming, we don't even have a polling consensus yet, never mind an exit strategy.

 

 


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