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Friday, March 28, 2008

"The Last Generation: How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change" by Fred Pearce

book review on by Stephen A. Haines, Ottawa, Canada

Once, climate was seen like a sedate matron, ambling along at a measured pace. According to Fred Pearce, the climate is more like a drunk, lurching from one place to another in sporadic, unpredictable lunges. Rapid climate change was once considered a local phenomenon. Older, unprepared civilisations in one region staggered under shifts of weather, collapsing in the heat, but easily replaced by more efficient neighbours. Research has shown, argues Pearce, that the entire globe is interconnected through complex patterns. Even the starting points of climate changes are hidden in the mists of time. Until today. Now it's the byproducts of our society that are prompting the changes. How drastic these may be and where the changes will be most severe is the subject of this excellent, if very frightening account.

Fred Pearce has been in the climate investigation reporting business for nearly twenty years. He knows the players and he understands their work. His intimate knowledge of their views and the science behind those outlooks provide a sound foundation for his summation of how climate change is occurring. And it is occurring, he argues. It's happening so fast that he can confidently assert that this is "The Last Generation" that will enjoy anything like climate stability. That lurching drunk is more powerful and less predictable than previously imagined.

With his long experience to buttress his presentation, Pearce covers all the bases. Moving from polar ice through ocean currents to wind patterns, he provides a thorough examination of the issues and the people studying them. The eminent Wally Broecker, who proposed "the Great Ocean Conveyor" circulating polar water around the globe is carefully described. Pearce doesn't want to invoke Broecker's ire over a mis-statement. Lonnie Thompson, who has likely spent more time above 6000 metres altitude than any other lowlander alive, offers his critique of Broecker's model as the initiator of climate change. These men are the "elder statesmen" of climate investigation. The journalist has met them all, but he also introduces us to the "newcomers" in the field. Peter deMenocal is continuing the work of Gerard Bond on "solar pulses" of energy, while Mike Mann's "hockey stick" graph of temperature increase updated Charles Keeling's earlier records on carbon dioxide increase rates. In a few cases, the later worker has almost eclipsed his forbear as Milutin Milankovich is the name associated with relating climate with Earth's orbital shifts instead of that of James Croll, the crofter's son who worked that out in the late 19th Century.

New minds, asking new questions and probing with modern instruments, have produced fresh viewpoints on climate change. The most significant pattern among those views is that major climate change is in the offing. It will be likely very soon and very abrupt. Warming air and warming seas are providing lubricant for the ice caps in Greenland and the Antartic. Will these ice mountains soon slide into their neighbouring oceans? El Nino, the enigmatic countervailing wind in the Pacific Ocean is becoming more frequent in its occurrences. Are we headed for a permanent state of monsoon-inhibiting forces? Neither simple nor immediate answers are availble to answer those questions, as Pearce and his interviewees admit. That circumstance gives the "climate sceptics" a wedge to challenge the whole idea of climate change as a serious threat. The author draws on his resources to dismiss that objection, asserting that even the resistance to anthropogenic causes of today's climate disruptions no longer is tenable.

For Pearce, the issue isn't whether climate change is occurring - it is, and we are the cause - but rather how rapidly it will develop into a clearly visible threat. It's not important who's "leading the dance", the Poles or the Tropics, it's important that we recognise that threatening change is taking place now. Since the impact is already apparent, we must undertake efforts to reduce the effects and protect ourselves. We have already created "Another Planet" by the introduction of massive use of fossil fuels. Our children will be living on that orb, and we must help safeguard their future. He adopts a list of solutions originally proposed by Robert Socolow of Princeton University. These "wedges" - so called because they will start as minimal changes, but grow in strength and effectiveness with the passage of time - will reduce the load of carbon we're placing into the environment and let us return to a more stable climate condition. If the Earth needs an AA to survive, it is these wedges that will provide the therapy. The time to apply the therapy, however, is NOW.

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