Books: tipping into exaggeration

Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species is more pessimistic than most writing on climate change. It’s too soon for doom-mongering and drastic conclusions, argues Tan Copsey, though it is time to act.

Requiem for a Species
Clive Hamilton
Earthscan, 2010

In Requiem for a Species, the Australian author Clive Hamilton outlines a story that will be familiar to readers of chinadialogue: climate scientists keep telling us that things are getting worse, but emissions of greenhouse gases keep growing. Scientific urgency is met only with political sluggishness. Dangerous climate “tipping points”, where things get a lot worse very quickly, may be just around the corner, with horrifying consequences for humanity.

What marks Requiem for a Species out from many other similar books about climate change is its pessimism. Hamilton believes that dangerous climate change is essentially inevitable. No matter how many wind farms we build, we’re in for a very rough ride.

As an author and a founder of the Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, Hamilton has tracked the development of climate-change science, policy and politics for the past two decades, with a particular focus on his native Australia. His 2001 work Running from the Storm shone a light on the murky world of climate-change politics and policy under the government of former Australian prime minister John Howard, revealing corruption, conflicts of interest and embarrassing mistakes in assessing the economic impact of climate-change policy.

In 2007’s Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change, he went further, claiming that Australia, along with the United States had been “actively working to destroy the Kyoto Protocol” and prevent international action on climate change. In Requiem for a Species, Hamilton has changed tack somewhat. Though the climate villains who undermine political action are not spared, Hamilton is now more interested in recent, alarming developments in climate science and their potential ramifications for human life.

Hamilton’s examination of recent scientific progress in the field focuses largely on recent advances in the study of “tipping points” – where small increases in temperature trigger much larger, abrupt shifts in the earth’s temperature. He cites the work of a leading climate scientist and evangelist for radical action to halt emissions – NASA’s James Hansen.

Hamilton goes on to suggest that if key tipping points like the melting of the Siberian permafrost are triggered, things will become “worse than the worst case” envisaged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international scientific body on climate change. Melting permafrost would likely release more methane into the atmosphere, which would, in turn, lead to a faster increase in temperatures and very abrupt climate change.

Here a problem arises. Hamilton’s description of the science is not particularly satisfying. He moves almost immediately to address the bogus concerns of so-called climate sceptics, rather than taking us deeper into the nuances of scientific debate. His analysis is stronger as he moves into more familiar territory — how humanity is failing to address climate change. Hamilton addresses and attacks familiar targets, including excess consumption, “growth fetishism” and “mad” economists.

Solutions both serious – international attempts to negotiate coordinated policy responses – and faddish – schemes to geo-engineer the planet to minimise the averse affects of climate change – are then expertly inspected, dissected and found wanting.

But if traditional approaches to addressing climate change are all but useless, what should we do instead? Hamilton implores us to
“Despair, Accept, Act”. To confront the fact that humanity is in serious trouble. He suggests that we can’t move forward in any meaningful way as a species unless we come to terms with how bad things really are. This includes facing up to the real possibility of human extinction.

Is he right? Should we really despair now? The most recent report of the IPCC outlined the seriousness of the challenge we face. But it didn’t suggest that it was insurmountable. In making the claim that it is too late, Hamilton relies on very recent work by climate scientists. Much of this work, including that on tipping points, is subject to vigorous, ongoing debate within the scientific community. That is not to say Hamilton is necessarily wrong, rather that it probably is too soon to draw such drastic conclusions.

These conclusions also rest on the assumption that humanity will not make significant cuts to emissions of greenhouse gases in the very near future. Here, unfortunately, Hamilton is almost certainly right. Attempts to agree a far-reaching international treaty on climate change have essentially failed and the issue still is not taken seriously in major emitting nations such as the United States. Hamilton’s thinking also will have been shaped by recent events in Australia, where — despite record temperatures, drought and unprecedented bushfires — successive governments have failed to reduce emissions.

Requiem for a Species
is an ambitiouswork. Hamilton attempts to lay claim to a place among other landmark environmental texts, including Silent Spring and The Limits to Growth, by trying to challenge “the most deeply held assumptions of western civilisation”. But the conclusions reached by his predecessors Rachel Carson and the Club of Rome seem relatively restrained in comparison to those made in Requiem for a Species.

This may be a problem. Hamilton has previously been accused of favouring the polemic over a more prosaic approach to presenting the facts. Requiem for a Species is a polemic and though these issues are urgent, his argument loses some of its impact because he is willing to overstate his case.

This is not to say that some of his pessimism isn’t warranted. An examination of the dangers of technological optimism is particularly sobering. Politicians who champion the cause of carbon capture and storage (CCS) and “clean coal” are given particularly short shrift. Relying on coal-fired power plants that are “capture ready” means that we better be “Rapture ready”, says Hamilton. The acceleration in warming that the plants are likely to cause may mean “the End of Days”.

Requiem for a Species
ends up making an extremely awkward contribution to the climate-change debate. For a politician or environmentalist to speak as Hamilton does would be politically suicidal. “Doom mongering” undermines the case for taking decisions that are politically and personally difficult. Despite increasingly alarming scientific evidence, it may not be time to despair just yet. But it’s certainly time to act. Hopefully Hamilton can stop despairing and do the same.

Tan Copsey is operations and development manager at chinadialogue.