Tim Flannery, Now or Never: Notes by Lynn McDonald

Tim Flannery, Now or Never: Why We Need to Act Now to Achieve a Sustainable Future (Toronto: Harper Collins 2009). Notes by Lynn McDonald

Tim Flannery is a leading Australian primatologist and climate change expert. His influential "The Weathermakers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth," 2005, is a major contribution on the long lead up to climate change. His shorter 2009 book, "Now or Never: Why We Need to Act Now to Achieve a Sustainable Future," makes the case for immediate action. Flannery angers many climate change activists for having advocated nuclear power (albeit in a qualified way, as a temporary measure, as a less harmful option than coal, for places like China, but not for places like Ontario). He does not do this in "Now or Never," but he will anger many environmentalists for defending meat eating, including beef, and categorizing vegetarians as faddists. Yet he invited a number of people to comment, including Peter Singer, who gave an excellent rebuttal on meat production--especially beef.

The book starts and ends with Gaia imagery, which turns off some people (myself included), while it charms others. For example:

"Gaia will pass from an unconscious to a conscious means of control. Either that or we will fail to achieve sustainability, and Gaia’s newly attained consciousness, which is made possible only by our global civilization--will vanish, perhaps to be lost forever." (P 12)

But the urgent message can be delivered straight, which also he does.

In his chapter “The Climate Problem,” Flannery explains that the “painfully conservative” statements of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were the product of its consensus structure, and the members included such countries as the United Sates, China and Saudi Arabia. Its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report said only that it was “very likely” that global warming was human caused, meaning with 90% probability.

Flannery’s analysis switches back and forth from the long-term development of life on Earth, the formation and reformation of continents, and the immediate challenge of climate change. He addresses such questions as why the oceans are not getting saltier every year, and will not end up like the Dead Sea, the prediction of 19th-century scientists. Water is renewed in long cycles, of 10 to 100 million years, through hydro-thermal vents.

The important role of the oceans in mitigating global warming is explained, with the absorption of carbon from the atmosphere, but which becomes acidic in solution. (This is done in greater detail and very nicely by Alanna Mitchell in her 2009 book "Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis.") Flannery’s book has a curious mistake,  references to “carbolic” acid, presumably meaning “carbonic acid” (p 22).

The special vulnerability of the Northern Pacific is noted, where deep water is rich in CO2 and depleted in oxygen. With global warming calciferous sea creatures in the North Pacific are confined to the top layer. Sea mammals and sea birds depend on them for food, and their habitat is declining with global warming. In time all the world’s oceans will suffer the same fate (p 24).

“The atmosphere is the smallest, most vulnerable, yet most vital of Earth’s organs” (p 24). The heart of the problem is our shifting of matter between the three great organs of nature (Gaia in Flannery’s terms), altering the balance that permits the life of so many species. Digging up dead, fossilized forms of carbon and burning them releases CO2 into the atmosphere. Deforestation and soil degradation also add carbon to the atmosphere. In just 200 years the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen by 30%, from 280 ppm to 380 (p 26). (Flannery uses parts per 10,000, here transposed to the more usual form.) In 2008 carbon emissions increased by 2.2%. Not for 55 million years has such an imbalance existed.

In “A New Dark Age” Flannery resumes James Lovelock’s bleak assessment, of his "Revenge of Gaia," 2006. Perhaps a few survivors in Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula will remain as the sea rises, extreme weather and glacier disappearance. Starvation and warfare are inevitable (p 28).

The IPCC in its 3rd Assessment Report, 2001, predicted a rise in global average temperature from 2.5 F to 10.4. By its 2007 report scientists realized that the worst case scenarios were happening.

The full implications of these new studies have yet to sink in among those negotiating the global treaty that is supposed to protect humanity from dangerous climate change. The negotiators continue to argue on the basis of the old projections, which call for action far less urgent than what is actually required. Worse, the negotiations grind on as if we had an eternity to achieve outcomes. (p 29)

Flannery dates his own sense of despair from the 2007 Assessment Report. North Pole melting was noted by scientists in 1975, but it seemed then that this might be part of a natural cycle. By 2008 polar ice had been melting by 8% per decade for 30 years. The prediction that this ice would disappear by 2100 has been moved up and the speed of melting has increased. Arctic air is warming 4 times faster than the global average (p 31). Fish in the Bering Sea have already moved 500 miles further north.

A devastating example of ocean death occurred 250 million years ago, when 95% of life perished. The great diversity of creatures was replaced by purple bacteria and green sulfur bacteria, which thrive on low levels of oxygen and high hydrogen sulfide (p 37). The scenario Flannery describes has global warming disrupting currents, warming ocean depths and stilling winds and currents. The bacteria that thrive in these conditions emit sulfur into the atmosphere, which rises and destroys the ozone layer (p 38).

James Hansen is cited, in a paper of October 2008, for warning that the Earth’s climate is twice as sensitive to CO2 pollution as IPCC projections had suggested. There is already enough GHG pollution in the atmosphere to cause 3.5o F rise, a temperature not seen for 2.3 million years. Further, perhaps half of the warming has been masked by other pollutants, which cause “global dimming,” by reflecting sunlight back into space and thus cool the Earth. These substances, such as sulfur dioxide and aerosols, are dangerous to human health. China and India may curb their emission by subsidizing electrical generation that avoids or reduces them, such as scrubbers in power plants (p 39). With a reduction in global dimming, the forces that cause global warming will have a greater impact.

Flannery describes the point of no return as that when greenhouse gases have been in place long enough for the global warming process to be irreversible. He argues that we have passed the tipping point, and have “not a second to waste” (p 43). He cites Hansen and others that we must reduce the 385 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 ppm, by phasing out conventional coal burning by 2030, aggressively reducing CO2 by carbon capture and by keeping tropical rain forest and agricultural soils as carbon sinks (p 44). Yet the IPCC built reductions into their prediction scenarios that are not happening; cars are more energy efficient, but this has not led to reductions in GHG emissions (p 45). The task of achieving reductions is far greater than had been imagined (p 46).

The hoped-for reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States through “clean coal” development will not occur, as the federal government in 2008 reversed its announced plans. India and China will not knock down newly built electrical plants (p 49). A “clean development” plan with polluters in Europe paying for Chinese emissions abatement will not happen, because American Republicans will not allow such help to the “enemy.” Flannery offers one practical suggestion towards mitigation of coal-caused emissions, an intellectual property treaty to ensure that clean coal technology be made easily available to China. He gives precedents of such arrangements in other areas (p 55).    

In “America’s New Leadership,” Flannery flags President Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, some $40-75 billion to promote clean energy and measures for weatherizing and greater efficiency (p 57). He argues that the G20 countries have a better chance at brokering a climate deal than the older G8 grouping (p 59). The United States is moving to a price on carbon pollution, but price increases have had a limited effect on gas consumption. It would need a price of $300 per metric ton of carbon to make a significant reduction, he argues, or far more than has been contemplated (p 61). The car industry needs regulation, not just price increases (p 62). He salutes the Danish example of electrical production from windmills and electric cars. Since windmills produce power at night, when it is less needed, the surplus can be used to store power for electric cars (p 64).

“Trees for Security” explains how trees get rid of CO2 pollution already in the atmosphere. Plants are astonishingly effective as carbon eaters, able to remove approximately 8% of atmospheric carbon per year (p 65). But plants die and rot, releasing the carbon again. In northern parts, forests can actually contribute to global warming, that is, if a dark forest replaces snow-covered land its effect in sequestering carbon would be more than offset by its greater absorption of sunlight (p 67). Tropical forests accordingly are especially important for carbon sequestration. Yet in just one century half the tropical rain forests have disappeared. In some countries, like Papua New Guinea, de-forestation is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions (p 68). Flannery recommends sponsorship of projects to preserve rain forests, to be managed through the Internet, with the results on reliability made available (p 70).

In “Revolution in the Feedlot,” Flannery makes a pitch for pyrolysis, or charcoal production, arguing that it not only generates energy, but the charcoal improves soil and sequesters carbon permanently (p 77). A study published in 2008 in Nature gives the numbers, which are encouraging, but the process is expensive (p 82).

Flannery’s “Animal Solutions” chapter argues for holistic management techniques, giving as an example those pioneered by Allan Savory. In this method cattle are moved periodically in small paddocks; they eat everything in their grazing area and leave dung, which enriches the soil for future growth. Larger numbers of cattle can be raised on the same amount of land, and with less use of medicines, for the moving about breaks the parasite cycle (p 87).

In “Farm-based Ecological Efficiency” Flannery makes similar arguments for “sustainable enterprise,” combining the production of eggs, broilers, beef, hogs and rabbits, citing the practices of Joel Salatin (p 94). “Eggmobiles” are moved about over the land; the chicken manure enriches the soil and pigs turn it over. Certainly what Flannery describes is a far better life for the animals concerned, and he condemns conventional feedlot intensive farming (p 97). But he calls vegetarianism “faddism” (p 98).

His final chapter, “Age of Sustainability?” gives Flannery’s sad estimate of a better than even chance that humanity will pass the point of no return (p 100). He suggests that the 8th commandment, not to steal, should also forbid stealing from future generations (p 103). He ends with another look at Gaia. The injustices, conflict and pestilence of the 21st century will not be its defining challenge, which rather is “to bring sustainability to a species that has not known such a condition since it manufactured its first tool” (p 107). He hopes that Gaia “will achieve intelligent control” of the world, or the blind watchmaker may tinker on as in the last 4 billion years. “If we fail, all of our species’ great triumphs, all of our efforts, will have been for naught” (p 107).

Peter Singer’s response to the book tackles Flannery’s pro-meat analysis, arguing no less than that not eating beef is the best way for people in affluent nations to achieve a rapid reduction in their contributions to climate change (p 132). He offers an interesting argument about the relevant impacts of methane and CO2. Experts have typically  gauged their assessment of the impact of the various greenhouse gases over a full century (p 133), so that methane from ruminant animals has not seemed as urgent as CO2 from fossil fuel burning. Singer argues that if a shorter period is considered, 20 years, methane reduction becomes crucial, for 2/3 of the methane disappears in 10 years. He quotes Flannery himself that we have not “a second to lose” (p 134). For some countries, notably Australia, Brazil, India and U.S., cattle are the most important sources of global warming, if the 20-year span is considered (p 135).