Watch The Planet Die: A Review of Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees

Published online 28 November 2007.

This is a much-overdue review of Mark Lynas’ book Six Degrees, which suggests a series of warnings as to how the future climate will be changed by abrupt climate change.

Book review: Lynas, Mark.  Six Degrees.  London: Fourth
Estate, 2007.

It’s amazing what little coverage this book has gotten.  It’s received a couple of mentions in previous diaries: Asinus Asinum Fricat gives it an oh-so-short review in the midst of a discussion of a G8 summit; Dotcommodity thinks it worth mention in light of Barack Obama’s position on coal-to-oil conversion.  So IMHO this book deserves a full review here.

At any rate, it’s not the easiest book in the world to find.  I ordered it from Amazon.com six months ago, and received a few excuses from them before it canceled my order.  Just recently I remembered this book and re-ordered it from Amazon.ca, the Canadian version of Amazon.com.  It came in the mail rather promptly.  If you want this book right away, order it from Amazon.ca.  It will make an excellent gift for a reader who is ready for the discussions it offers.

Mark Lynas is a British author with a fairly well-decorated blog.  I wrote a diary on his ethnography of global warming, High Tide, back in January.  Six Degrees has been out for some time already: the published reviews of it have largely concentrated upon Lynas’ illustrations of a rather copious research record (which he sat in the library devouring); one of the best of these reviews was the one published by The Times (London).

In Six Degrees Lynas offers us a graphic picture of the progressive ruination of the planet due to abrupt climate change.  This picture is illustrated with the results of scientific computer-generated models, observations as to what is going on now, and paleoclimatological discussions of what has happened in the past.  There are six chapters, one for each degree of warming, and a conclusion with recommendations for things to do.

The sum of Six Degrees’ warnings is encapsulated in a passage from the “four degrees” chapter:

All of the civilizational collapses mentioned above took place as a result of comparatively small changes in climate, changes which will be dwarfed by the massive shifts we can expect to see in the centuries ahead.  If just a few tenths of a degree did for the Maya and the Harappans, imagine what ten times that might do for our fragile and interconnected world today.  In some ways the situation is even worse because this time our ecological crisis is truly global; when the Mayans had deforested their local area and exhausted their food supplies, the ragged survivors of the resulting wars and chaos at least had somewhere else to flee.  Migration is the traditional human adaptation to crisis, but this time there will be nowhere to hide.  Civilizational collapse, like the blast wave of a neutron bomb, will sweep around the globe.  (188)

So everything is at stake here.  Got children?  Don’t want them to experience this?  Keep reading.

The six chapters portray an escalating threat, with the discussion narrowing into a sort of abyss in much the way that the narrative of Dante’s Inferno went down, down, down.  Moreover, each of the degrees of change (as they are portrayed in the book) contains with it a slippery slope – factors with one degree of change contribute to the possibility of two degrees of change, with two to three, and so on.  The slide downward is greased, and if that weren’t enough, Lynas reminds us that the climatic depredations he depicts do not take into account some of the other ways in which human beings destroy the natural environment.

With one degree, Lynas tells us we can worry about:

    • a “dust bowl” effect in the Great Plains
    • no snow on Kilimanjaro
    • the Amazon pushed to the brink of collapse as fire danger escalates
    • polar icecaps get ready to melt
    • biodiversity havens disappear worldwide
    • hurricane danger in the South Atlantic (heretofore unknown) increases.

With two degrees, we’ll see:

    • drought in China
    • Acidic oceans wiping out coral reefs
    • regular occurrence of 2003-like summers in Europe
    • the destruction of Greenland’s ice sheet
    • the extinction of the polar bears
    • the drying-up of Peru’s water supply
    • the western US turning into a tinderbox

With three degrees, we can look forward to:

    • the death of the Kalahari desert
    • the regularization of the “El Nino” effect
    • the final death of the Amazon
    • the drying-up of the Indus and Colorado Rivers
    • the underwater descent of New York City

With four degrees:

  • ocean waters rise significantly, drowning Alexandria (Egypt) and Bangladesh
  • famine spreads as deserts expand

With five degrees, civilization-wide collapse will ensue, and with six degrees you get massive death on the level of the great dieoff of 251.4 million years ago, of the Permian-Triassic boundary.  The “six degrees” chapter employs an interesting device – to allow readers to imagine what a “six degrees” abrupt climate change would be like, Lynas employs a geological description of what happened to cause the Permian-Triassic boundary.  The Permian-Triassic boundary was an event, triggered by a rather warm period in Earth’s natural history 251.4 million years ago, and amplified by massive volcanic eruption, which wiped out 94% of all then living species: the Great Dieoff.  The Age of Dinosaurs occurred significantly afterwards.  Lynas’ vivid, compelling description of it is meant to illustrate what the worst-case scenario of human-caused climate change could bring.

Lynas’ narrative of climate change is, of course, extrapolative, but he enlivens it with a great deal of skilful writing.  The author is a fount of stories to flesh out in detail the extent to which things could go radically, horribly wrong, without excessive sentimentality and with descriptive flair.  An example from the “two degrees” chapter:

One rather unamusing irony of global warming is that the retreat of the northern polar ice cap is sparking a new petroleum gold rush, bringing further fossil fuels onto world markets which – when burned – will inevitably make the climate change problem worse.  According to some estimates, a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves lie under the Arctic Ocean, in areas which have historically been seen as undrillable because of thick drifting ice floes.  Massive investments are already being made to tap into this economically valuable resource: the Norwegian government is spending billions of dollars building a liquefied natural gas terminal of Hammerfest, whilst a massive gas find in Russian Arctic waters – estimated to contain double Canada’s entire reserves – has sparked an unseemly scramble among oil majors to partner with Russia’s giant Gazprom corporation to exploit it. (79-80)

One of these climate changes will, probably, we are told, be the result of human burning of Earth’s trapped fossil-carbon endowment.  As the temperatures get hotter, the oceanic icecaps are replaced by open, heat-receptive ocean space, the forests dry out and burn down, the permafrost releases its carbon dioxide, and eventually (and most horrifyingly), the methane hydrates are released from the ocean floor in great explosive bursts:

The methane air clouds produced by oceanic eruptions would dwarf even the most severe modern battlefield explosive blast weapons, and explosions in the largest clouds could generate explosive blast waves able to travel faster than the speed of sound.  With a supersonic blast, it is the pressure from the shockwave itself which ignites the mixture, pushing out an explosive front at speeds of 2 kilometres per second and vaporizing everything in its path.  (250)

This is the secret behind the idea of “runaway global warming,” such as that which filled the atmosphere of Venus with carbon dioxide 800 million years ago, making its average temperature 500 degrees Celsius, day and night, even though the length of its day spans 243 Earth days.

The last chapter, “Choosing Our Future,” is the weakest, yet Lynas is a bit more sanguine than Al Gore in telling us the facts about humanity’s situation.  As with his previous book High Tide, Lynas endorses the “Contraction and Convergence” plan – a sort of global “carbon” rationing would grant the world equal rights to fossil-fuel burning, while mandating a vast contraction in carbon burning:

In order to make the system flexible and efficient, however, it is crucial that an international market in emissions permits is established – allowing poor countries to sell allocations to the rich, generating significant revenue in the process.  This earning from a global carbon trade could help tackle poverty as well as ensuring that poorer countries have the option of pursuing a low-carbon development path.  (277)

As is often the case with the students of climate science, there is little comprehension of the role of imperialism in the creation of the present-day world economy.  “Poor” countries are “poor” because they’ve been used as resource sinks by the “rich” countries,” and some extra “carbon credits” for them to trade would do them little when they are trapped on IMF/ World Bank debt treadmills.  A better solution would be to go off of the capitalist standard altogether, and to put an end to the business interest that rewards the grasping urge to dominate the world, militarily or economically.  An intermediate step would be to allow the “poorer” (read: less powerful) nations more economic as well as political sovereignty over their own affairs: see M. Shahid Alam’s Poverty from the Wealth of Nations for a historical description of the beneficial effects of the economic sovereignty of nations.

At any rate, ultimately a universal, democratic interest in human survival must be granted a paramount position of power.  Here Lynas suggests:

Ultimately, however, this is a political decision, and one in which all the world’s people must be able to participate in an informed, democratic way if the decision is to be observed and supported by everyone.  (273)

Of course, and here Lynas is not specific, the problem with “democracy” as such is that economic decisions are generally not made democratically, but by an oligarchy of corporate asset-managers.

The “mandatory” discussion of alternative energy sources is here, along with a “realistic” pronouncement that “the reality is that only a combination of serious energy efficiency and a wide variety of new technologies offer any hope of a way out of the (coming energy) crisis.” (292)  The fact of the matter is that if “alternative energy” is to matter at all, there must be a binding agreement to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, something nobody, not even Mark Lynas, is even discussing.  (Note to activist Kosers: TELL YOUR CANDIDATES that statements proclaiming “alternative energy” as the solution to climate change are FATUOUS and that they must do better.)  The problem is ultimately not one of controlling fossil-energy consumption, but of controlling fossil-energy production: oil follows Say’s Law, in which what is produced is always consumed.  Conversely, if it isn’t produced, it can’t be consumed.

Little attention is paid in this book to nuclear energy, to the possibility of massive tree-planting programs to create a compensatory “carbon sink” for carbon dioxide emissions, to carbon sequestration.  Perhaps in the forthcoming second edition Lynas will discuss these things in further depth.

There is a graph toward the end of this book (274-275), according to which the world will reach a degree of global warming by doing a certain amount of fossil-fuel burning.  If global emissions peak by 2015, we will be at the two-degrees stage; if global emissions peak by 2030, we will be at the three-degrees stage, and so on.  Lynas states the dilemma in actually trying to achieve the strictest of these stages as follows:

Many other groups are caught on the horns of the same dilemma: that only by advocating ‘politically unrealistic’ CO2 concentrations can runaway global warming be avoided.  But then what is politically realistic for humans is wholly unrelated to what is physically realistic for the planet.  (276)

Thus my diary on “realism” achieves its particular focus.  Political “realism” is by its nature a capitulation to established power, and as Lynas recognizes, it isn’t quietism but radicalism which needs our support today.  We need to concentrate our efforts on making “unrealism” possible, for therein lies the best chance at survival.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s