Bookmarks Issue: 
Tim Flannery

A-TheWeatherMakersIn this best seller in Australia, Flannery, a noted Australian paleontologist, presents alarming evidence of human-induced climate change. Thirty-five short chapters introduce topics ranging from climate history and variability to global warming, El Niño, and the greenhouse effect. Showing how all elements of ecosystems relate (gases, temperatures, ocean currents, animal habitats, etc.), he argues that carbon-dioxide pollution is destroying our environment. Flannery calls for shifting our reliance on fossil fuels to renewable power sources like wind, geothermal, and solar energy. He also castigates the industries and politicians who try to discredit global warming. "If humans pursue a business-as-usual course for the first half of this century," Flannery concludes, "I believe the collapse of civilization due to climate change becomes inevitable."
Atlantic. 352 pages. $24. ISBN: 0871139359

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"It is such honest and spirited writing that makes this book a compelling read, and one that could melt public ambivalence. … But Flannery doesn’t leave the reader in hopeless despair." Lori Valigra

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"[The Weather Makers is] a cogent and readable exposition of global warming, distilling the latest scientific research into easily accessible language." Jack Reardon

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Reading The Weather Makers is like hearing a terrific and powerfully absorbing lecturer on a topic that concerns us all. The moments of confusion, however, tend to undermine Flannery’s cause, which, if we are to take what he says in earnest, is too important not to have gotten just right." Mark Svenvold

Chicago Sun-Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Nor does Flannery address industry arguments that global warming and its consequences involve so many uncertainties that further research is needed before mandating draconian changes. Rather than refuting such arguments, Flannery simply dismisses them as ‘propaganda.’" Jim Ritter

Issues the books compare

This book was reviewed in tandem with Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert. The books are compared below.

Bucking the trend: Kolbert, claims the Los Angeles Times, "gently but firmly dislodge[s] us from our sense of historical exceptionalism"—that is (and Flannery poses the same argument), we have now reached the point of no return. Kolbert points out that a 2-mile-long, 400,000-year-old ice-core sample from Antarctica reveals that today’s levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are approaching new highs. Flannery writes that while global warming occurs naturally, temperatures are now increasing 30 times faster than ever recorded.

Your SUV and the U.S. President: Both authors blame the rise in carbon dioxide and methane emissions on us—and our use of oil and coal. "The 20th century opened on a world that was home to little more than a billion people and closed on a world of 6 billion," Flannery writes, "and every one of those 6 billion is using on average four times as much energy as their forefathers did 100 years before." Critics agree that Kolbert’s most interesting chapters address how ExxonMobil, General Motors, lobbying groups, and the United States (which, along with Australia, has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol) manipulate and deflect information presented by climate scientists.

The good news: Only the Chicago Sun-Times saw the benefits of global warming for some regions—and criticized Flannery for downplaying them. "Higher carbon dioxide levels might increase crop yields. Canada and Russia could enjoy longer growing seasons and the ice-choked Northwest Passage might become navigable." That’s one way of looking at it.

The bad news: Global warming is, and will continue to be, a major player in geopolitics. Flannery cites as an example the struggle in Darfur. Carbon dioxide emissions exacerbated aridity, which, in turn, led to migration, competition, and genocide. While this causal chain convinced most reviewers, the Los Angeles Times questioned Flannery’s faith in our ability to alter our behavior. Kolbert pessimistically believes that we’re destroying ourselves. "She is not optimistic," says the New York Times, "in large part because it appears that Anthropocene man can’t be counted on to do the right thing."

Critical Summary

Kolbert’s and Flannery’s arguments, evidence, and conclusions should surprise few readers. Given existing scientific knowledge, neither author (and no critic) doubts that global warming is real, with terrible consequences looming ahead.

The difference between the books largely comes down to tone and style. Kolbert, a reporter for the New Yorker, provides an excellent primer on climate change. Praised for her elegance and accessibility, she offers a loose travelogue with "the clearest view yet of the biggest catastrophe we have ever faced" (Los Angeles Times). She takes her science seriously—from sulfate droplets to recarbonization—and rarely lets her belief in impending catastrophe cloud her objectivity. Flannery’s book may appeal more to activists. However, the Chicago Sun-Times thought that his passionate clarion call to action undermined sound arguments; others criticized scattered information and incomplete discussion on ways individuals can counteract climate change. Still, like Kolbert, Flannery elucidates complex concepts in climatology, paleontology, and economics. In the end, both books ask a crucial question: "Will we be lauded by future generations for heeding the advice of our best scientific minds, or remembered hereafter as counterexamples—as paragons of hubris, of a colossal failure of the imagination?" (Los Angeles Times).