Books

Tim Flannery
Atmosphere of Hope

Ten years after The Weather Makers, Tim Flannery recalibrates the message on climate change. The goals and deadlines keep getting pushed back, while the predicted magnitude of global warming keeps climbing. A worldwide temperature rise this century of 2 degrees over pre-industrial levels – hitherto posited as the hellfire from which emissions limitation would save us – now looks unavoidable. Climate scientists talk of a 4-degree increase as likely, with unimaginably catastrophic consequences. Helping us to imagine not just consequences but solutions is Flannery’s mission here.

Atmosphere of Hope doesn’t shy away from grim facts and projections about the hole humanity continues to dig for itself. But, characteristically, Flannery has not just hope but potential solutions to offer. Ahead of the UN’s crucial Paris climate conference, he reiterates that meaningful emissions reduction targets are still our best means of swerving from utter catastrophe, but he also brings news of promising developments in the field of carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas removal.

Flannery is among the judges of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge, with a $25 million prize, to find “third-way” technologies with the potential to draw from the atmosphere at least one gigatonne of carbon a year. Scalability will be critical, as, by 2050, the removal of close to five gigatonnes annually will be needed to curb atmospheric carbon. The book outlines some leading contenders, including biochar production, carbon-negative cement and plastics, cultivating seaweed to cover 9 per cent of the world’s oceans, and storing CO2 in deep-sea sediments. 

But Flannery’s food for hope amounts to a thin gruel. Given the record of inaction (and worse) on climate change to date, and given what he must know, can he really be hopeful of a turnaround any time soon, the kind of turnaround that would invest countless billions of dollars in speculative solutions to a crisis that – still! – hinges on belief? The book’s mirrored cover suggests he is apparently still confident that we, “the people”, can drive the search for a solution to the climate crisis. Sure enough, the closing words of The Weather Makers – “Now it’s over to you” – are reprised, turbocharged, on the last page of Atmosphere of Hope:

It really is over to you. Every one of you. We can now see the finishing line. Whether we win the race for a better future is your choice. 

That’s the kind of talk that got us into this mess.  FL

Text, 272pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2015 as "Tim Flannery, Atmosphere of Hope". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL

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