Writing the Climate

Tim Flannery and Elizabeth Kolbert on the accelerating pace of global warming

Writing the Climate
Illustration By Doug Potter

In March, less than a month after announcing what's been described as the most ambitious municipal climate-protection plan in the nation, Mayor Will Wynn sat on the Paramount Theatre stage moderating a discussion between two prominent researchers and writers on global warming. One was journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, known best for her 2005 New Yorker series "The Climate of Man" (later expanded into the book Field Notes From a Catastrophe). The other was Australian scientist Tim Flannery. Formerly known, among other things, for discovering and naming more than 30 new mammal species over the course of his career, Flannery has achieved worldwide acclaim for his climate-change expertise since his book The Weather Makers was published in January 2006.

Flannery's book provides an impressively comprehensive explanation of the science, politics, and millennia-spanning history of climate change – kind of like a one-stop shop for global-warming education. It provides as well a useful vision for how we can change course. Most notably, The Weather Makers is an undeniable call to arms, driving home the message that our responsibilities are clear and urgent. As one New York Times reviewer wrote, "[Y]ou will never again look at an electric-light switch in quite the same way."

One of the distinctive things about Flannery's argument is the absence of emphasis – generally ubiquitous to the climate change discussion – on the foreboding burden we're "leaving to our children." Flannery's concern is much more immediate – and it's the immediacy that drew him to climate change in the first place. "I was trained as a geologist," he says. "It was hard to understand that change could be so swift. And then once I realized that, I thought, 'Surely people are sorting these big issues out.'" But once he began to do more research, he saw that, in fact, these big issues are not being sorted out and are far more urgent than he'd understood. "I'd grossly underestimated the ability of climate change to be a disrupter in my lifetime," he realized.

Photo courtesy Grove/Atlantic Inc.
Photo courtesy Grove/Atlantic Inc.

Flannery did not leave this sense of urgency behind when he spoke at the March panel, part of Spark: KLRU's Engaging Speaker Series. The conversation began predictably enough: weather patterns, ice caps, science. Then Wynn did what any good moderator would do and initiated a subtle attempt – with a transition question about invasive beetle species – to direct the discussion toward actual living things. Flannery leapt at the opportunity and soon steered the conversation far beyond beetles. "You know what I fear?" he said. "Severe dislocations, melting of the ice caps, changes in resource availability. We'll see people spending trillions to secure their real estate. Then there's the money we'll spend on sourcing water, tens or hundreds of millions of refugees, disruption to global trade as port functions decrease. After September 11, you know the fear – the propensity for government to act violently. Consider that, in a world much poorer. And all this could happen perhaps in my lifetime."

Crossing the Rubicon

Flannery, at 55 years old, sees that doomsday scenario as a possibility in his lifetime. Even more frightening are the things that we are already "committed to" – a phrase he borrows in his book from the UK's Hadley Centre for Climate Change. Those commitments are the unstoppable effects guaranteed by the carbon dioxide we've already put in the air: another degree of warming over the next century, a minimum 50-centimeter rise in sea level (which has implications for coastal flooding and erosion; the intrusion of saltwater into our rivers, wetlands, and aquifers; and the destruction of much beachfront property), and the disappearance of many of our mountaintop ecosystems, particularly in the U.S., because the animals and plants that must survive at high altitudes have nowhere else to climb. As Flannery points out, based on the most persuasive available research, these things will happen no matter what – and barring major reversals in policy and practice, this list of "commitments" can only grow.

Global warming seems to be everywhere in the media right now, and in case you've been wondering why, the most immediate reason is the 2007 assessment report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Portions of this assessment will be released periodically throughout the year (the most recent, "Mitigation of Climate Change," was released just two weeks ago), and the reason they warrant such fuss is that they come from the U.N.-appointed body of experts that governments look to as the most trusted authority on climate change. The IPCC achieves this authority through its mandate to find consensus – it must report only the data and predictions to which everyone agrees – and it reports this consensus every few years (the last assessment was published in 2001). The two notable things about the 2007 assessment are: 1) The news is dire, and 2) it's based on all the best research through 2004 but includes no data from the years since, thereby excluding some especially significant events.

The worst news has come from the Arctic ice sheet, where the rate of melt accelerated by "four to five times" in the summer of 2005, Flannery explained to his Austin audience. The following winter saw an impeded rate of ice formation, followed last summer by another large melt. This acceleration has major implications for sea-level rise (the IPCC's sea-level predictions don't include full uncertainties about ice sheets); and worse, it suggests the initiation of the many positive feedback loops that accelerate climate change – one being the exposure of more dark ocean (which absorbs heat) relative to white snow (which reflects heat back out into space). "I've been astonished by the scale of change in the past two years," Flannery said.

Writing the Climate

To avoid runaway warming, it will take large-scale carbon-cutting initiatives – along with "carbon sequestration," for which there are many methods, each with its own headaches and prohibitive expense. The U.S. and Australia (together, the largest offenders in carbon-dioxide pollution, not to mention the sole abstainers among major industrial nations on the Kyoto treaty to reduce emissions) have done more to hinder than help these initiatives. Flannery describes the two countries as the "Bonnie and Clyde of climate-change denial" – but he adds that in the last year, Australia has undergone a serious shift in attitude.

With an unprecedented number of Australians now subject to water-rationing due to drought, climate change has become the country's No. 1 political issue. As the fall election season approaches, both the liberal and conservative parties are vying to design the better climate-protection initiatives (hence a recent ban on incandescent lightbulbs). Now that this "Rubicon's been crossed," Flannery told the Spark audience, it won't matter who wins. In fact, he said, he's "been quietly egging on the bidding war" – a task he's been well-placed to take on since January, when Prime Minister John Howard named him Australian of the Year for his contributions to public understanding of climate science.

Adventures in Climate Change

While Flannery spoke with passion and a sense of immediacy, Elizabeth Kolbert was more reserved, speaking earnestly of the problems we're "leaving to our kids" and emphasizing the importance of prudence. "The climate record shows that the climate can shift violently," she said. "There's a threshold you can cross, but you can't cross back. ... We don't know what that threshold is, but it seems we want to err on the side of caution." Her scientific expertise was impressive, but it was her insight into the psychology and politics of global warming that was especially valuable – and no less persuasive than Flannery's own call for action.

After her appearance in Austin, I spoke with Kolbert about how she became interested in global warming and how she felt about the larger implications of her work. She explained that with a background in political reporting (she'd covered city hall before her move to The New Yorker), she, like many of us, only knew about global warming from what she'd read in the general media. With frustration, she realized that "it's still not possible for people ... to really tell from the coverage: Is this really the most important issue on the planet or not?" Her move to The New Yorker presented the chance to pursue that question and resulted in a three-part series and eventually a book.

Writing the Climate

"It's an unusual way to go about writing a story," she told me, "because I sort of had a topic before I had the story. But it's the same as anything, you know? You talk to a lot of people." She began by traveling to Greenland, where she spoke to scientists who were studying the climate record through examining ice cores, and they said to her, "Absolutely, global warming is real. It is happening." She traveled to the now-legendary Shishmaref, Alaska, where residents had voted to relocate the entire village thanks to the alarming rate at which the ground was melting below them and the coastline was dropping their houses into the sea. And she went to the Carbon Mitigation Initiative – a project funded by Princeton University, BP Corp., and Ford Motor Co. – where she was told that, in most cases, such as with nuclear power, for instance, "It is the lay community that is more exercised, more anxious. ... In the climate case, the experts – the people who work with the climate models every day, the people who do ice cores – they are more concerned."

Everywhere Kolbert went, the news was the same, and it was undeniably affecting real people, now – except in New Orleans. She expected to find anticipation there of the sea-level rises climate change might bring. "But when I called around about that," she recalled, "there was nothing going on – and now we know fatally that nothing was going on." In the Netherlands, where much of the land is below sea level, she encountered an entirely different philosophy. "They take planning for rising water extremely seriously," said Kolbert. She went on to explain that the national government has responded with a program called Room for the River. "They're just literally buying people out and evacuating areas they anticipate will be flooded during times of very high flow, and they're hoping to protect the big cities or bigger towns by just buying out these agricultural districts."

The contrast cannot be overstated between the Netherlands, a nation mobilizing around climate change, and the U.S., a nation denying it. But while explanations for the United States' lethargy typically place the blame on the coal and oil industries, Kolbert has a more nuanced perspective. "When you start to pull apart the way we live, especially in this country, it's so tied up with abundant fossil fuels," she pointed out. "Any politician who challenges that and says we have to take that on – you're not just taking on the oil industry and coal industries, which are very powerful industries, you're really taking on our way of life. And that is not politically very attractive to anyone."

She made no apologies for U.S. policy makers, pointing out that she'd spoken to many of the presidential candidates, that they're "quite knowledgeable" on climate change, and that they should be leading public opinion. "We seem to have given up on that kind of leadership surrounding an issue like this," she said, "and that is why we're in the situation that we're in." But at the same time, Kolbert made a powerful argument for the responsibilities we all bear, particularly in giving our politicians a reason to stick their necks out. "Look at when the Clinton administration tried to encourage an energy tax," she said. "They heard this tremendous hue and cry. So unless there are people saying on the other side of things, 'We understand the problem. We understand that something has to be done here that may lead to higher energy prices for some forms of energy but lower energy prices for other forms of energy, but we accept that, and we're signing on'well, then only the people who are saying 'I don't want that,' they're the only people getting heard."

The Future Is Now

Writing the Climate

Getting heard, of course, is difficult for everyone in the global-warming melee, where conflicting messages have the public as despondent about the problems as the solutions. The hardest message to relay, Kolbert felt, is one that she herself couldn't appreciate until she really immersed herself in her research. The "heart of the matter," she said, "is the way in which there's a huge time lag in the system so that climate changes are already guaranteed ... absolutely assured. We will not feel it and see it for a few decades, and that is a huge problem with communicating to people. Now people can look around and see signs of climate change, but what they're seeing are really things that were already produced by our actions 20, 30, 40 years ago. And what we're doing now, you know, we're leaving to our kids."

Global-warming messaging is a virtual minefield of these problems. The concepts are simply too numerous and too complex for anyone's patience, and those concepts that do get through are often so overwhelming that they're paralyzing. This problem is the bane of the environmental community, where talking about trees and animals warrants snide remarks even among liberals, and essays like "The Death of Environmentalism" (a notorious 2004 article by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus) accuse environmentalists of telling Americans "what they can't have and can't be, without ever telling people what they can have and can be." Considering the myriad topics environmentalists are supposed to avoid these days (doom-and-gloom scenarios, anything that doesn't "activate" the values of the political majority, anything involving the word "environmental"), it's a surprise they say anything all. But it explains why Kolbert's approach – a sort of eco-tour of the communities affected by climate change – manages to cut through the clutter.

Still, Kolbert couldn't avoid the other problem plaguing the global-warming message: the tendency for the message itself to keep changing. "When I was writing the book, people were saying, 'Well, the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer by 2080.' And then now people are saying, 'Well, based on these trend lines ... it could be ice-free by the year 2060.' ... And then there were some people who did some model runs that said under certain conditions you could get an ice-free Arctic in the summer by 2040. Okay, so [that's] when some of us still hope to be around," said Kolbert. "It's hard to really appreciate because most of us haven't been up to see the Arctic ice cap. It's like ... how does that affect me? But I can guarantee you it affects you."

These trends accelerate those studied in the IPCC report and highlight once again the urgency of the situation, both environmentally and politically. At this point, says Kolbert, a "bad bill" out of Congress is her biggest fear. "We're not gonna get two cracks at this," she explained. "We just don't have time anymore to just sort of do a pilot project. The days for doing that were 25 years ago. ... We don't feel like we're in crisis mode, because we don't feel that warming that's already in the pipeline, and that's what has to be impressed upon us, that we are in crisis mode, and we don't have time to hang around and fiddle with things. ... You have to also think about this in the context of the whole planet. It's bad enough because we are still producing a quarter of the world's carbon, but it also sends a signal to the rest of the world."

During the audience response following the Paramount discussion, Kolbert and Flannery fielded the question that never fails to come up in global-warming discussions: What do we do about India and China? Flannery replied that China's third-wealthiest man produces solar panels, and he discussed renewable-energy innovations in India as well – his point being that despite their increasing industrialization, the perception that these countries won't respond to the crisis is misguided (and unfair considering that the U.S. has for so long emitted more carbon dioxide than either China or India). What we really need, both Flannery and Kolbert emphasized, is for the U.S. to respond, especially as we approach Kyoto's 2012 expiration.

"When people trash Kyoto and they say Kyoto's not enough, they're absolutely right," said Kolbert. "Kyoto's not enough. But now we don't even have that, so the framework that was supposed to lead us forward doesn't really exist, and until the U.S. acknowledges some responsibility here, I just really truly do not see how we're going to cope with this."

Flannery's closing remarks in March were positive. He pointed out that this "catastrophic failure of leadership opens doors for leadership at all sorts of levels," and he cited Austin's climate-protection plan as an example of that kind of leadership. Of course, Austin is up against a lot. Texas emits more carbon dioxide than any other state in the country, and though TXU's proposed coal plants have dwindled from 11 to three, the proposed Waco-area Oak Grove Plant alone could cancel the efforts of Austin's bold endeavor.

Even if we stop all man-made emissions of carbon dioxide today, the Earth will continue warming, and that warming is likely to initiate the positive-feedback loops that cause the additional release of more CO2 (as permafrost and other carbon sinks thaw and become carbon sources instead). No one knows where lies the threshold that will guarantee us Flannery's "severe dislocations, melting of the ice caps, changes in resource availability"; some argue that we've likely passed it already. But many scientists agree that it would be risky to let the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide go beyond 450 parts per million, and we loom dangerously close to that threshold already. Right now, the CO2 level stands a little above 380 ppm (though it's arguably around 430, if you consider the "carbon dioxide equivalent" of methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere). In 2005, the number increased by 2.4 ppm – a little higher than some years, but a little lower than others.

It doesn't take a math whiz to realize that these numbers put us beyond the days of just worrying about our children. It's time to begin worrying about ourselves. end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle