How To End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future

Reviewed: Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now To End Climate Change and Create A Sustainable Future, by Tim Flannery. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2009.

In his new book on climate change, Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now To End Climate Change and Create A Sustainable Future, eminent scientist and author Tim Flannery refers to two vital concepts. The first is "tipping point." The climate tipping point is the point at which the greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere reaches a level sufficient to cause catastrophic climate change. The second is the "point of no return." This is reached when the concentration of greenhouse gas has been in place sufficiently long to give rise to an irreversible process.

Flannery believes the world’s climate is between these two, and is rapidly approaching the point of no return. It will get there unless we act, and act quickly. In the book’s long essay by Flannery – there are also several responses from other environmentalists — he lays out a number of actions that could reverse this slide to no return, while conferring other benefits as well.

One effective way of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere is by growing trees, but in the great forests of the tropics quite the opposite is happening. Cutting down tropical forests to clear land for agriculture is instead a major source of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. This practice doesn’t even do the farmer much good. After a few years the soil is exhausted and the farmer has to move on. Indeed, no one benefits; villagers who live in the region lose a renewable source of building materials, food, and medicine. We all lose a vital opportunity to stabilize the climate. Clearly the present situation is "lose-lose."

It could be reversed to "win-win." Flannery shows several ways in which reforestation can take place in the tropics, to the benefit of the poor in the region and of the entire population of a climate-threatened world. Unfortunately, they require willingness to spend some money that, admittedly, is currently scarce. And they require political will that so far hasn’t been demonstrated. 

A second strategy for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere while conferring benefits is through pyrolysis. This is an everyday phenomenon that involves the heating of biological matter in the absence of oxygen. It happens when the outer layer of biomass burns, but the inside doesn’t, as in frying, roasting, and toasting. Charcoal is a product of pyrolysis that can be made using crop waste, animal waste, even human sewage. The process generates energy and when the charcoal is plowed back into the soil carbon is permanently removed from the atmosphere.

This addition of charcoal improves the soil in several ways. For one thing charcoal is very porous and its pores contain residual nutrients. They also contain bacteria and soil fungi essential to healthy plant growth. Charcoal also holds moisture and, because of the soil’s improved moisture retention, plants have longer access to any fertilizer applied.

Flannery estimates that the charcoal strategy could, optimally, sequester 10 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. He discusses several other tactics that can remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere while conferring other benefits: holistic management of grazing, a return to mixed farming, and more local consumption of food to reduce the need for transportation and storage, which require vast amounts of energy, Each of these is limited in the struggle against global climate change, but vigorously implemented the total could stop the move toward the point of no return. 

Flannery mentions one other possible — and desperate — solution if the climate closely approaches irreversible change. Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, noting that large volcanic eruptions have an immediate cooling effect on the Earth, argues that we could use the world’s jet fleet to inject a measured dose of sulfur into the stratosphere to cause global dimming. This "last resort" is high in potential risks, and Flannery mentions it with no enthusiasm. Nevertheless, in one of the essays at the end of Now or Never, its author vigorously endorses Crutzen’s idea.   

On the other side of the ledger, contributions to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are substantial. During the first eight years of the twenty-first century emission of carbon dioxide has continued to increase. Developing countries, notably China and India with their huge populations, have increased their number of cars on the road, and with that their combustion of fuel. Flannery doesn’t even mention this source of greenhouse gas, no doubt because he realized that there is a bigger problem. These countries are rapidly increasing their use of the especially "dirty" fuel, coal, to meet their sharply rising energy demands.

The vast emission from burning coal in developing countries, not to mention in the US, could be reduced either by retrofitting the plants to capture the carbon or by using "clean coal." Retrofitting, Flannery explains, is both "economically and technologically challenging." How the required technology will be developed and how the huge retrofit will be financed is far from clear. As for clean coal, despite all the talk about it, it doesn’t yet exist, and Flannery describes initiatives to develop it as "enough to drive one to despair."

For years the US government and industry partners funded the planning of a promising clean coal power plant known as FutureGen. The plant was designed to burn coal with great efficiency and to capture the carbon dioxide and store it underground. The project could have been a valuable tool against climate change, but in January of 2008, astonishingly, the US Department of Energy announced that it was withdrawing funding of the project.

Flannery thinks it likely that we will continue to steal from future generations — from our children and grandchildren — and so to reach the point of no return. He lays some of the blame for that theft on "the Bushes and the Cheneys" advocates of unsustainable growth and of senseless war that, in addition to its immorality, wastes resources needed elsewhere. An obvious consequence of that advocacy is their well-known opposition to action against climate change.

If the future looks grim, it’s not yet cast in stone. We still have a choice; namely to make societies that, a Flannery writes, seek "to eliminate poverty and great inequalities of circumstances and wealth, and in which care . . . for one another is manifest in day-to-day life" Such societies are best-equipped to give consideration to future generations and so to deal with the great challenge of the century.

Some will argue that believing we can build such societies is hopelessly utopian, and even if we could do it, we couldn’t do it fast enough. Yet many of us have been working to achieve just such societies. It’s surely a great irony that the threat of catastrophic climate change may help bring success in that effort.


Photo from Flickr by Takver