Book Review

The Weather Makers, (2005, New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press).
Written by: Tim Flannery

Reviewed by: Arie Jongejan, December 2007

Mr. Flannery guides his reader through the science and evidence behind global warming and climate change in his cohesive, easy to read, albeit highly depressing and emotional book, The Weather Makers.  Mr. Flannery has gathered a vast amount of seemingly unrelated complex information and presented it in a organized, readable story that continually conveys one main message; Make major changes towards carbon reduction NOW or perish.  After presenting an easy to understand scientific foundation that humans are directly responsible for global warming, he further shocks his reader by laying the empirical and anecdotal evidence that industry, government and economic heavy weights are using every trick in the book and beyond to manipulate and discredit the science, build a regulatory framework  and present misleading economic analysis to ensure we continue on our course of “business as usual,” a course Mr. Flannery is certain is the fastest way to sooner rather than later doomsday.  After reading The Weather Makers, you will scream in disgust of the way we rape the planet, you will chomp at the bit to do something about it, and you will be armed with the science and empirical evidence to validate not only your disgust, but also your credibility to do something about it.  Anyone who has ever mentioned the phrase “global warming” or “climate change” has an obligation to have some scientific understanding of what they are talking about.  A careful read of this highly fluid and flowing book will give you this necessary “understanding.”
Summary of the Book:
The Weather Makers opens with an introduction of Gaia, the name of James Lovelock’s 1979 book.  Lovelock argues that “Earth is a single, planet-sized organism, which he names Gaia after an ancient Greek earth goddess.” The atmosphere, Lovelock concluded is “Gaia’s great organ of inter-connection and temperature regulation.”  Mr. Flannery accepts Gaia and builds his entire book around the premise that everything on earth is interconnected in some way to each other.  Flannery  argues in line with Hans Jonas that no action can be looked at in isolation.  This narrow, shallow view of looking at actions in isolation has put us in our current climate change predicament contends Flannery.
After introducing Gaia, Flannery dives deeper into our atmosphere.  He borrows the term from Alfred Russell Wallace, a leading evolutionary thinker of the 19th century, and refers to the atmosphere as the “Great Aerial Ocean.”  Here Flannery discusses the four major parts of the atmosphere and their associated boundaries.  He explains the size and composition of each part.  Here we are introduced to ozone and greenhouse gases.  He largely explains the function of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and explains the concept of the greenhouse effect.  He mainly discusses CO₂, but also explains the significance of water vapor, methane and other greenhouse gases.  He goes through some historical changes in the atmosphere and presents the famous Keeling curve that shows concentrations of CO₂ levels in the atmosphere from Mt. Mauna Loa in Hawaii between the late 50s and 2000.
The first part of the book explains in detail how greenhouse gases can be added to the atmosphere and their respective lives and ability to trap heat.  He then discusses the main carbon sinks, their relative capacity and the impact even slight changes to these sinks can have.  The idea of positive feedback, a response in the system in the same direction as the impact of the cause of the change in the system, recurs throughout the entire first part of the book.
We are then introduced to important historical climate change scientists like Jean Baptiste Fourier, who first established what determines the average temperature of Earth’s surface, Svante Arrhenius, who “speculated on how CO₂ levels might influence the earth in the future,” and Milutin Milanovich, who “identified three principal cycles that drive Earth’s climatic variability,” et al.  The reader is also taught how fossil fuels are formed, their chemical composition, how burning fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases, the lives of different greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and their respective ability to trap heat and impact temperatures and how scientists can take ice samples from the Antarctic Ice Cap to determine greenhouse gas levels up to 1,000,000 years ago.  When discussing various climate changes in history, Mr. Flannery continuously compares the substantially longer time scales during which historical changes took place in comparison to today.
In the second part of the book, Mr. Flannery discusses our “unraveling world” and the major ecological players that impact life on earth.  He edetails the El Nino – La Nina cycle and the role and function of the gulf-stream.  He says that “since 1976, the El Nino – La Nina (a two – eight year cycle) cycles have been exceptionally long, something that Is expected only once every thousands of years and there is an imbalance between phases with five El Ninos and two La Ninas.” He then discusses the causes of these El Ninos and the global impacts of flooding in some places and droughts in others and the impact El Ninos have on the gulf stream.  He concludes El Ninos are no longer a cycle and that humans have caused a permanent El Nino like condition that will only get more extreme.
He talks at length about ice, the role it plays, where it is located and what is happening to it.  Here, the reader learns about the impact of melting land ice on sea levels and the gulf stream and the impact rising sea – levels can have on “the 2 of ever 3 people on this planet that live within 50 miles of the sea”.  The reader also learns about albedo, the extent of which an object reflects light, and the corresponding impacts of the change in albedo when sea ice and land ice melt.  Flannery transitions from ice caps to snow packs and the impact global warming has on intensity and timing of rainfalls, size and timing snowpack melt and the related impact on global freshwater supplies.
Mr. Flannery dedicates a full two chapters to coral reefs and soils.  He discusses the role coral reefs play as carbon sinks and ecosystem balance and diversity and the devastating impact, both directly as well as indirectly, global warming has on our coral reefs.  He discusses how soils act as a carbon sink and lays out the scientific case that increased CO₂ levels, deforestation, wild fires, overgrazing and irresponsible agricultural practices will turn soils into a carbon emitter and the potentially devastating impacts this can have on climate change.
The third part of the book is titled “The Science of Prediction” as discusses the history of scientist’s attempts to “model the world” and what past and current models look like and can do.  Here, Mr. Flannery discusses specific species like the Golden Toad that have gone extinct and scientist’s predictions of what to expect in the future.  This section of the book is a lot of scenario planning based on parts per million of CO₂ levels  in the atmosphere.  This section of the book is the most depressing.  Here, all the science of cause and effect that from the first half of the book is played out by modeling what the future may look like.  Mr. Flannery shares predictions from the most conservative studies to the most dramatic.  In short, the entire spectrum looks bleak with loss and change across almost all countries, habitats, species, etc.  Mr. Flannery contends that by 2050, with “business as usual,” there will be no more “acts of God;”  all weather related disasters will be “manmade.”
He further offers scenarios from studies that show what the future may look like with certain percentage decreases in CO₂ emissions levels.  He summarizes that to stabilize climate at between “450 ppm and 550 ppm” we must reduce global CO₂ emissions by 50 – 70%  of 1990 levels.”  He concludes that “ it is too late to avoid changing our world, but with good policy, we can avert disaster.”  Concluding the third part of book, Mr. Flannery presents the science and the impact from what he describes as “three main tipping points for Earth’s climate: 1. Slowing or Collapse of the Gulf Stream 2. Collapse of Amazon Rain Forests 3. Methane Release from the Sea Floor.”
The fourth part of the book begins with some history about the invention of CFCs by DuPont and the impact their use had on ozone molecules and how scientists discovered this impact and how the world, via the Montreal Protocol, went about successfully averting major disaster and basically resolving the problem.  Mr. Flannery then transitions to the “road to Kyoto” and details the attempt to resolve our climate issues and introduces us to the players and strategies used by those standing in the way of progress.  In these sections, he begins to scratch the surface of economic costs of global warming, national security implications and global health implications and resource and water wars.  Particularly interesting economic data by economist Eban Goodstein was a study he did that looked at “past projections of regulatory costs as they relate to a variety of industries.  In every case, estimates compared to actual costs paid were grossly over inflated.  All but one were more than double while some cases were far more. “
Flannery dedicates an entire chapter in a somber, depressing exposure of people, their motives and the methods they employ to discredit or “confuse” the climate change science, embark on  propaganda campaigns, create “green” organizations like the Climate Change Coalition that are in fact coal or other industry funded manipulation machines and myriad other well funded, creative techniques to pursue their agenda and confuse the public.  He concludes the fourth part of the book with various “engineering solutions” to that may be employed to address “doomsday scenarios.”  He discusses the pros and cons of each.
The fifth and final section of the book is titled “The Solution.”  Here , Mr. Flannery discusses short term, mid-term, and long-term solutions.  In the short term, he discusses international treaties and political frameworks.  He discusses various solar related technologies.  He discusses nuclear technologies and storage and security concerns.  He discusses demand side changes and major infrastructure changes.  He discusses major changes in the transportation sector and is most strongly against moving towards a “hydrogen economy.”  In the mid to long term, he presents some scenarios involving countries suing other countries over climate change impacts and a discusses a theoretical large international body called the “carbon dictatorship” who regulates and enforces strict carbon laws.  He concludes by agreeing with Thomas Friedman’s recent sentiment that “the largest positive impact an individual can have on climate change is to vote.”
Pros of the Book:
–    Excellent job organizing a plethora of academic science and presenting it in a cohesive, well-organized, easy to understand and readable book.
–    If you had one book to read to get “versed” in global warming and climate change science, The Weather Makers is a good choice.
–    The book appears very thoroughly researched
–    Flannery does an excellent job in cohesively presenting cause and effects.
–    Flannery presents a few central themes that he continually returns to in his successful attempt to connect the dots of the many interactions between Earth’s sytems.
–    The overall feeling of the book is general depression.  But he presents sufficient pragmatic solutions, at the right times, to leave the reader feeling scared and depressed, but hopeful that they can and should do something towards  a solution.
–    Flannery does a good job presenting criticisms of climate change history and science and an even better job using empirical data and the most substantive, reputable studies to dispute the criticisms.
–    He paints a realistic picture, albeit depressing, of man-made impact on climate change and the bleak future we have to look forward too.
–    He writes about an issue that everyone faces and he writes it in a manner than the general public can read, understand and maybe begin to speak intelligently about.
–    Excellent foundational book.
–    Flannery does a good job using easy to understand and personal analogies to help explain otherwise complex science.
Cons of the Book:
–    The Weather Makers is an easy to read scientific walk through climate changes’ past present, and future.  Mr. Flannery is a mammologist and palaeontologist by training.  He clearly has impeccable science credentials and they come across in his research and writing.  Towards the end of the book, he ventures into solutions, economics, politics, etc.  I don’t doubt he is versed in these issues, but he takes a risk of losing credibility by addressing these issues from only a high level after writing a detailed science book up until this point.  All his other works are scientific looks into specific flora or fauna of certain regions furthering taking away from any expertise in economics and politics.
–    When discussing the “naysayers” methodologies and approaches to stop any progress towards positive climate change solutions, he doesn’t mention anything about environmental groups manipulating data to achieve their objectives.
–    He is detailed in his conviction that all climate change progress is impeded by manipulative, dishonest industry and governmental officials and lobbyists.  He may be right, but some insight into betters ways to approach the climate change issue rather than just blame would be interesting and beneficial.
–    If a politician or economist reads his political and economic assertions, at the minimum he / she could argue Mr. Flannery is vague and selective in the data he provides.  Possibly, he / she could dismiss his political and economic contentions because they are so high level and perhaps unreasonable.  By entering the political and economic realm, Mr. Flannery has opened the door of valid contention in what otherwise appears as a carefully researched, strong scientific product.
–    He is an Australian and although the average reader, statistically speaking, is not Australian, he may draw to many of his studies, anecdotes, and analogies from Australia.
–    The first 75% of the book is compelling and powerful, a lighter to spark the fuse to get someone educated and active.  This is the past, present, and future or our planet, from a science perspective.  The remaining 25% is weak, because it is vague and too high level.
As I mentioned earlier, anyone who has ever said the phrase “global warming” or “climate change” should read this book.  It is a basic, fundamental foundation and easy to read story that takes the reader through the science of why our globe warms and why our climate changes.  I am willing to go out on a limb and say 99% of the public has heard about “global warming” and “climate change,” but 99% of that 99% don’t understand the basic science behind these two phrases.  For me personally, the more I understand the science and the interconnectedness of everything, the more bleak our future seems.  After having read this book, I am embarrassed how little of the science I knew only three weeks ago.
Global Warming and Climate Change are two issues that truly affect, either directly or indirectly every person on earth.  I believe every literate person on earth should read this book.  At the bare, bare minimum, everyone in the Erb Seminar should read this book so you can speak intelligently, in public, about why you study what you study and why you plan to embark on the career you choose.  As Erb Seminar students, we have a moral obligation to educate our friends and family on the greatest risk they and their future offspring face.  The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery is the shortest, easiest to understand (besides maybe Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth) medium I have come across that organizes in a cohesive manner and communicates concisely and clearly the past, present, and future of an all encompassing, highly complex issue.  A careful read of this book will give you this necessary foundation to understand and therefore become part of the solution instead of the problem.


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