Globally warned – review of Hamilton and Hansen
Tony Kevin, author of Crunch Time (refer to this BNC guest post), recently published a review of two climate-change-related books in The Age newspaper (Melbourne’s daily broadsheet). Unfortunately, the review only made the print edition — there is no permanent online record. As such, Tony asked me if I would reproduce them here on BNC, which I’m happy to do so…
Globally warned, Books, The Age, Saturday 13 March 2010, Section A2, page 22 – Tony Kevin
‘Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance To Save Humanity’, by James Hansen, Bloomsbury, $35
‘Requiem for a Species: Why we Resist the Truth about Climate Change’, by Clive Hamilton, Allen and Unwin, $24.99
After 8000 years of quite stable, human-friendly climates, is Earth now re-entering a period of climate disequilibrium, with disruptive effects on human populations and our civilisation itself? Are man-made greenhouse gas emissions since 1750 the main trigger? Can this global warming be checked in time to prevent its worst consequences for our children and grandchildren? How? Is human society up to the challenge?
These large questions engage two new books: one by a leading American climate scientist and the other by a respected Australian ethicist. James Hansen and Clive Hamilton are equally committed to radical climate action, though they have followed very different roads to this conclusion. Both are passionately at odds not only with climate-change denialists and fossil-fuel lobbies, but also with self-serving politicians and environmental organisations that have, in Hamilton’s scathing verdict, been ‘sucked into the political game of influence-peddling and media management, with their leaders resigned to incrementalism’.
Such works of advocacy must be judged by their effectiveness in public education and persuasion. Their literary merit or reading enjoyment are means to this end.
Hansen, a Midwestern scientist who disarmingly admits to lacking tact and guile, and who would rather be doing scientific research, felt forced to take an activist political stand. He writes a folksy but compelling account of the evolution of climate science and its policy impact in the US over the past decade. His unswerving adherence to scientific method and truth gives Storms of My Grandchildren great credibility. His story of his colleagues’ efforts to alert American politicians and society to climate change risk has excitement and pace.
In 2001, Hansen joins an Academy of Sciences team that has the task of briefing incoming president George Bush. Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney shrug off the inconvenient fact that the main driver of dangerous global warming is carbon dioxide emitted by coal-burning power stations and motor vehicles. A contrarian leading scientist on the academy team sows doubts, giving the administration convenient rationalisations to defend the energy status quo. Hansen, sidelined, realises he must become a better advocate.
He becomes more radical in ensuing years, informed by his growing mastery of an increasingly sophisticated and predictively strong climate science. In 2009, he endorses writer Bill McKibben’s ambitious ‘350.org’ agenda, calling for a maximum 350-parts-per-million global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration.
He now rejects the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change-supported 450-parts-per-million maximum as insufficient protection for the planetary climate. He rejects Kyoto-style global carbon emissions trading schemes as invitations to corruption that will fail to meet emission targets in time. He supports a simple carbon tax, civil disobedience against coal energy, and early recourse to nuclear as well as renewable energy: ideas well outside the frame of the current liberal discourse on climate change.
For Hansen, our generation is clearly failing in its duty of responsible stewardship of the planet’s climate stability for our children’s sake.
He dismisses Australian government climate policies as ‘greenwash, demonstrating token environmental support while kowtowing to fossil fuel special interests.’ He is hardly less critical of Barack Obama. Hansen doesn’t go deeply into climate-change denialism; for him, it mostly signifies the power of fossil-fuel interests.
Storms of My Grandchildren is brilliant science-based advocacy for mainstream readers, convincing in its urgent projections of global climate change under business-as-usual emissions, supported by clear explanations of the complex fast and slow feedbacks, inertias and accelerations involved in climate change. Hansen relies mostly on the planet’s paleoclimatic history and contemporary observational data. He stresses the limitations of climate modelling.
Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species has an analytical, cerebral tone: intellectually powerful and relentlessly researched, it is at times dispiriting, though the final magisterial chapter, Reconstructing a Future, lifts the book towards brilliance.
Hamilton argues that disruptive global warming can no longer be halted – disastrous climate feedbacks are already programmed into the global climate system, and as a species we will not muster the collective wisdom and courage to cut emissions in time. Thus our children will suffer huge pain and loss. Humanity must pass through an extended grieving process, from despair to acceptance to resolute ethics-based democratic action; even though the cause is probably already lost. Hamilton predicts that out of this extended traumatic transition to a harsher world will re-emerge a sustainable ethic of man’s integral relationship with nature.
He digs deep into climate-change denialism, seeing it as a maladaptive coping strategy against the evident failure of the Enlightenment myth of eternal human technical progress fuelled by inexhaustible planetary resources. The more our world experiences climate change, the more desperate and dangerous this angry grief reaction will be. Hamilton’s stoic, elegaic analysis helps us to better recognise the enemy; sadly, he is within us.
Both books belong in any serious library of writing on the global climate crisis. Hansen’s book (his first) crashes through customary scientific reticence, vigorously joining the political debate on what must be done. His target is the uncommitted mainstream reader. Full marks for his advocacy skills.
Hamilton’s book is not for beginners: its merits may be best appreciated by readers already committed to the policy struggle against man-made global warming. His coolly reflective analysis refines our understanding of the powerful economic, social and psychological forces those who wish to protect our children’s futures must confront.
Even if one does not fully share Hamilton’s deep pessimism – I do not – his analysis is politically important. It might help embolden more Australians to oppose government and corporate greenwash, and proliferating climate-change denialism, with more courage, unity and strategic direction than is now in evidence.
Former diplomat Tony Kevin’s most recent book, ‘Crunch Time’ (Scribe), argues for Keynesian-inspired counter-global-warming public policies.
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