on January 30, 2008
By 2100 earth will warm between 1.4° and 5.8° C (2.52° to 10.44° F) according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Although this sounds like a sunny and pleasant upside to vacation weather forecasts, as "Six Degrees Our Future on a Hotter Planet" by Mark Lynas soberly notes, the consequences range from the inconvenient to the inconceivable as massive rockslides reshape the Alps, atoll nations across the Pacific are inundated, species extinction accelerates, and entire ecosystems collapse. The web of life - humanity's safety net - will disappear, stranding us on an essentially alien planet.
Denialism invites devastation on a scale last seen during the Permian-Triassic (P-Tr) extinction event, and business or politics as usual will impose surrogate suicide on our children and grandchildren. Degree by degree "Six Degrees" explains the mechanisms behind global warming and the direct consequences of our actions (or inactions). From sophisticated and increasingly refined computer models, to the latest geological and paleontological evidence, Lynas compellingly argues that anthropomorphic climate change is a new and unprecedented challenge verging on calamity, not a routine and recurrent phenomenon due to cyclical natural causes.
From bleached and dying tropical coral reefs to polar bears that will melt into history along with the glaciers and ice flows they called home, the future is dire unless immediate, but achievable steps are taken. Some species may survive by migrating, but most will have nowhere to migrate to. Small changes result in sizeable impacts - a mere 3° C increase will turn the American Midwest, the world's breadbasket, and the Amazon Basin which supplies 20% of earth's fresh water, into arid wasteland.
Deluge or desertification will erase entire countries from the map and displace massive populations, as former citizens become stateless refugees. New York, London, Bombay, and Shanghai could be lost to the sea. Unless we redesign our energy extravagant carbon culture in less than a decade, reversion to pre-industrial civilization, or even a second stone age, may be our inevitable legacy.
At 1° C the American West, from California to the Great Plains could suffer a mega-drought lasting decades or centuries - devastating agriculture and evicting inhabitants on a scale far larger then the 1930s dustbowl. Overexploited aquifers will fail as powerful dust and sandstorms engulf entire states. Although more southerly parts of the United States are expected to get wetter as the North American monsoon intensifies, residents may not welcome an influx of several million eco-refugees. Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia will face similar challenges.
Plus 2° C will bring thirst to parched cities across China. Facing a chronic shortage of water, China won't struggle to develop a more affluent lifestyle; it will fight to feed itself. Warmer seas will continue - less efficiency - to absorb additional greenhouse gas emissions, radically altering the interlocking and exquisitely balanced ecosystems that cover 70 % of the globe. At least half the carbon dioxide released by airliners, air conditioners, or anything else ends up in the sea - a naturally alkaline environment that allows diverse and vital organisms to build calcium carbonate shells.
Human activities have already reduced oceanic alkalinity by 0.1 pH units. In less than 100 years the pH of the oceans could drop by half a unit from its natural 8.2 to about 7.7 - a change that will severely impact plankton - the foundation of coastal or deep water food chains. Although individually tiny (only a few thousandths of a millimeter across), photosynthesizing plankton like coccolithopores are arguably the most important plant resource on earth. They comprise at least half the biosphere's entire primary production - equivalent to all land plants combined. When scientists simulated anticipated future pH levels by pumping dissolved carbon dioxide into a Norwegian fjord, they watched in dismay as coccolithopore structures corroded and then disintegrated altogether.
Gourmets will morn the loss of mussels, scallops and oysters, shellfish vitally important as economic resources and constituents of coastal ecosystems worldwide, as they loose their ability to build strong shells by the century's end - and will dissolve altogether if atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reach 1,800 ppm. Gastric distress of a different sort will follow as fisheries collapse and dependent populations face famine. Walk on a coral reef in 2090 and it could crumble beneath your feet. The haphazard experiment we are conducting on the world's oceans is insanely irresponsible.
Europe will experience temperatures endemic to North Africa today by 2040 and the consequent death toll during searing summer heat waves may reach into the hundreds of thousands. Mediterranean sunburn will take on an entirely new connotation in a 2° C world.
Adding 3° C will see a return to Pliocene norms (5.3 to 1.8 MYA) - when the Transantarctic Mountains were covered with beech trees, admittedly stunted by harsh conditions, but thriving. Pine trees will return to regions hundreds of miles north of today's artic tree line, and global sea levels will rise 25 meters (27.34 yards). Other harbingers include a persistent super El Nino, desiccation of the Amazon and Australia, hyper-hurricanes (Houston, we have a problem), an ice-free arctic, dry Indus and Colorado rivers, and the inundation of New York City.
Growing food in this hotspot habitat will prove increasingly problematic since rice, wheat, and maize yields decline by 10% for every 1° C temperature increase over 30° C. Over 40° C yields are reduced to zero. Starvation will replace obesity as an epidemic, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will be our only alternative.
An additional 4° C will see the end of the Nile and Egyptian civilization; although Alexandria will be flooded as Antarctic ice melts raise global sea levels by 50 meters (164.1 feet). If both major Antarctic ice sheets destabilize sea levels could rise by a meter or so every 20 years - far outside humanity's adaptive capacity. Global warming of this magnitude would eventually denude the entire planet of ice for the first time in nearly 40 million years.
With 5° C of global warming a new planet, unrecognizable and indifferent to the needs of humanity arrives. Rain forests have burned up and rapidly rising sea levels, after inundating coastal cities, are beginning to penetrate far inland into continental interiors. Humanity will be confined to precarious habitability zones delineated by the twin scourges of drought and flood. At the highest latitudes Siberian, Canadian, and Alaskan rivers will experience dramatically increased flows due to torrential rain. A resurgent East Asian monsoon will dump nearly a third more water in the Yangtze, nearly 20% more in the Huang He (Yellow River), and the United Kingdom will experience severe winter flooding as reset Atlantic weather patterns lash Britain, Scotland and Ireland with Noachian (for lack of a better term) ferocity.
Globally, our planet will reprise conditions last experienced during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). Nearly every academic PETM study published in recent years notes that this epoch presages what anthropogenic global warming might have in store. Although the total carbon dioxide input into the atmosphere 55 MYA exceeded our best efforts to date - with carbon dioxide levels of more than 1,000 ppm persisting into the early Eocene - the rate of greenhouse gas addition is actually faster in the early Anthropocene (today) than during the PETM event.
Disruption on this scale could unleash massive amounts of methane hydrates (methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide), resulting in runaway global warming. Humans would watch powerlessly as their planet began to emulate Venus. How likely is this scenario? A recent study by methane hydrate experts, Bruce Buffet and David Archer, suggests that the store of hydrates on the ocean floor would decrease by 85% in response to just three degrees of warming - although they don't say how long this shift might take. Is that shiny new SUV or humongous Hummer really worth the risk to your children and grandchildren?
In some ways, a return to Eocene norms seems Edenic. Lush forests grew at the poles, temperate zones became subtropical, and fascinating species spread across the globe - but the PETM took place over approximately 10,000 years, giving plants and animals time to migrate and adapt to new circumstances. We don't have 100 centuries - only decades - a pace of warming far too rapid for meaningful adaptation by natural ecosystems or human civilization. Humanity will become an endangered species.
Channeling Dante as our guide to a 6° C increase is warranted as earth descends into the Sixth Circle of Hell. Welcome to 'Cretaceous Park' (144 - 65 MYA) without the tourist attractions as a best-case scenario, or the Permian-Triassic (P-Tr) extinction event (251 MYA, also known as the Great Dying) - when life itself nearly died - as the worst-case outcome. Peter Ward's superb Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future (reviewed separately, an excellent companion book) documents how rampant greenhouse warming triggered anoxic oceans to release massive amounts of poisonous hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg gas) into the atmosphere. Oxygen levels plunged to 15% (contemporary levels are 21%) and many organisms (terrestrial and oceanic) literally suffocated.
Lynas points out that we can still choose our future - but unless we act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within just a few years our destiny will be chosen, and earthly inferno will become inevitable as carbon cycle feedbacks and climate forcings kick in one after another. We have the technology, but do we have the collective will?
"Six Degrees" is a tour de force that deserves to be widely read and acted upon. Until politicians act, take action. Lynas has also published The Carbon Calculator, which outlines easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint, before we become just another failed species marked by fossilized tracks on the margins of a long evaporated lake.
Other excellent books on global warming include Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming by Chris Mooney, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change by Fred Pearce, and Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert.
on November 24, 2007
Using a solid, conservative methodology, the author paints a frightening picture of the climatic changes that lie before us as Earth grows hotter from greenhouse-gas emissions.
I was torn between assigning this book four stars or five. While there's nothing about this book I don't like, I didn't want to be influenced by my own conviction of the overriding importance of this topic for all of us, and have tried to grade the book purely on the basis of my reaction to it as a book.
But the topic is urgent and important, and Mark Lynas has treated it effectively and with authority. His approach was to review all the published scientific literature he could find on climate modeling and paleoclimatology. His sources therefore consist exclusively of peer-reviewed scientific papers: no pop-science books, interviews, or mass-market magazine articles. He created a database of articles and organized them into categories according to the amount of warming they discussed: 1 degree Celsius, 2 degrees Celsius, and so on up to 6 degrees.
The book builds up a picture of the heating Earth, each chapter notching the average temperature one degree higher. At 1 degree, for example, Lynas discusses the likely desertification of the American West. The great plains ranging east of the Rockies north to Saskatchewan are actually an ancient dune-field covered with a thin layer of soil held in place by plants. Climate models show its likely reversion to a more drought-stricken regime that has also existed in the ancient past. The result will be the death of the plants, and blowing away of the topsoil--just as happened with the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma in the 1930s. This new Dust Bowl will be much larger and more enduring--and where will all the people go?
That's only one heading in the 1-degree chapter; there are nine more, including the slowing or stopping of the Gulf Stream, the melting of the Arctic icecap, and the die-off of coral reefs. Then it's on to chapter 2, with 11 headings of its own. The effects he looks at are diverse, sometimes smaller, such as the extinctions of individual species, but mostly much larger, such as the severe droughts and mass migrations we can expect when the world's mountain glaciers--source of much of our drinking-water--finally disappear, as they are rapidly doing right now.
By the time we get to 6 degrees, the point is abundantly clear: we must not let this happen. At that point our planet will be ice-free, largely desert, and whipped by "hypercanes" vastly more powerful than today's strongest storms. In Lynas's personal opinion, the human species will likely survive, but it will be a small remnant, and one of only a few survivors of this great extinction event.
Still relatively buried in the scientific literature are discussions of positive-feedback loops that may--indeed likely will--lie ahead: mechanisms that will accelerate warming beyond our ability to stop or control it. One such is the melting of tundra permafrost, which will likely release methane in large quantities, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2. Another is the awesome storehouse of methane as hydrates on the continental shelves, which may be released as the oceans warm.
Based on his survey, Lynas finds that our window of opportunity to head off the worst of it is very small indeed. We have almost certainly already crossed the threshold of 2 degrees of global warming, so the first two chapters are a snapshot of how our world will look just a few years from now. Indeed, the current droughts in Atlanta, California, Portugal, Australia, and elsewhere are themselves the manifestation of the process unfolding.
Lynas sums up with a discussion of what's stopping us from acting more vigorously, as well a look at the magnitude of the task. It makes for mighty sobering reading.
His prose is vigorous, vivid, and confident. Lynas has studied the climate for years, and visited remote spots of the globe. To be sure, I found the message depressing. It's all the scarier because it's not hysterical--it's lifted right out of peer-reviewed papers. But it has woken me from my own torpor of denial. Whatever decisions we each make, we should be informed. And this book provides an especially crucial kind of information.
British journalist Mark Lynas approaches climate change here through the method of describing the negative effects on our planet of six degrees of temperature rise. Each new chapter is a rise of one degree. By the time you reach six degrees, well, it makes Al Gore look like a crazy optimist.
The disappearance of arctic summer ice, the eventual flooding of coastal communities from sea level rise, the prospects of widespread droughts including the western USA, are all exptremely disturbing ideas held by a majority of climatologists.
This is a good summary of where we are with climate science right now, as Lynas bases his book on up to date searching of the science literature. The only outdated thing I could find was his failure to mention the political defeat of the Howard government in Australia partly due to public concern there about drought caused by climate change. Climate science has advanced greatly in the past few years, so do not base your views on something five years old!
My only criticism of this book is that the structure Lynas imposes is barely able to handle the massive amount of material. But I still rate it a firm four stars because of the timeliness and breadth of coverage. Too many of us are ill informed on this topic in an election year that may determine our approach to the problem for the next eight years. Too many of us fail to accept the basic concept explored by Lynas- that climate change is cumulative. Too many of us murmur smugly that we are not going to devote any energy or money to a problem that will kick in mostly after we die of old age.
Do you plan to have grandkids? I do. Read this.
on February 10, 2008
[This is a review of the English edition (June 2007). The American edition (2008) was edited by Lynas to be a bit more optimistic.]
The IPCC says that in the 21st century global warming could bring temperatures anywhere from 1 to 6 degrees hotter. Lynas uses peer-reviewed scientific literature to show what these temperature rises could mean. In 6 chapters he outlines 6 degrees. Once temps get past 2 or 3 degrees, like a wild fire burning out of control, the planet could continue to heat up no matter we do because nature starts releasing massive stores of CO2 from burning forests, melting tundra, warming oceans etc..
This is the first comprehensive attempt I have seen that outlines what a warmer world could be like, relying entirely on the most recent peer reviewed scientific literature. No one can predict the future with 100% accuracy, these are not things that will happen exactly as describes, but they have already happened in the past when temperatures reached this high, therefore there is a percentage-possibility of them happening again in similar ways - not something to be discounted - in the same way we buy fire insurance or flood insurance, even if the chance of a fire or flood is very small, we know from history they do happen.
Lynas' book is one part in the learning curve of global warming, it could be read in conjunction with a couple other books out of England recently, such as George Monbiot's Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, which offers practical solutions to keep temps below 2 or 3 degrees, and With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change, which discusses the nature of runaway tipping points and why a rise above 2 or 3 degrees is so potentially dangerous.
See also the National Geographic documentary of the same name based on the book.
on February 13, 2008
Most of Six Degrees is based on peer-reviewed scientific articles: this is in stark contrast to politician-reviewed or pundit-reviewed hokum that we see too often nowadays. There are two primary approaches that this book takes. First, facts. Retreating glaciers, shrinking snow on Kilimanjaro, shrinking polar ice fields, average world temperatures, etc, can be measured. There is no speculation needed here. Second, computer modelling. The problem with this, as far as the public is concerned, is that the public doesn't understand the idea, and consequently does not put much faith in it, and models can disagree.
Most of the public likes things in black and white: short sound/video bites are preferred to longer articles with whys and wherefores and maybes. "An Inconvenient Truth", as Al Gore called it. The book talks about a large number of models: some of these contradict each other in some of the details, but most seem to agree on the basics. The book makes the point that fixes to global warming will be painful, and too much of the public would rather believe one of the small minority of scientists or perhaps a large majority of politicians who say that there is not sufficient evidence and we need to study things longer. All of this reminds me of my younger days in the late 1950s when scientists started warning about smoking and cancer. The tobacco industry trotted out scientists of their own and planted news stories deriding the notion. Some of these news articles said "The evidence is only statistical", and we're hearing that same argument nowadays. When the book shows how a glacier melting has caused a rise in ocean levels of 3 millimeters, we should worry--but we don't.
You'll read a lot about "feedback" in the book--polar ice, for example, reflects sunlight, but as the ice melts, the open ocean absorbs that same sunlight and warms even further. There are tipping points, and they may be irreversible. You'll read a lot about the effect of climate changes on various parts of the world--flora, fauna, food crops, etc. There's a lot to ponder on. One problem I began to have is that I would have liked to see maps: areas of the world that would be much drier, much wetter, etc. We see seasonal predictions by the US Weather Bureau: for spring 2008 the Southeast will be warmer and drier than normal, the Northeast will be..etc. Maps showing changing coastlines for, say, a 1 meter rise in the ocean level would be welcome. At times it felt like I was reading about a litany of impending disasters--there will be such things, but a different approach might have helped avoid the litany or doom-and-gloom sense. Finally, what I didn't like, and which I think hurts the book, is social speculation: the rise of fascist regimes, the US invading Canada, and the like. These detract from the scientific emphasis of the book. This is a fine book, but it's also depressing, since you get the sense that the public is not going to take the painful steps that need to be taken.
on November 9, 2014
This is a critical read for anybody planning to survive the 21st century. Mr. Lynas has exhaustively collected the research data and scientific reports on global climate change and pre historical events we know have actually happened, and fashioned this examination of the most probable results to our climate as we sustain each of six degrees celsius global temperature rise. While our planetary policies seem to accept the inevitable 2 degree celsius rise by 2050 because of the environmental damage we have already caused, he demonstrates this seemingly small change is only the best possible scenario and it includes some very worrisome changes. Because very little action has been taken to limit temperature and CO2 rise so far, it is clear that this goal will almost certainly be overshot in the coming century, leading to some rather catastrophic climate changes for humans to try and survive. While many good people continue to work on this knotty problem, It would seem that until our policy makers abruptly change their focus from research and rhetoric to more forceful global action against further environmental destruction, our future looks bleak indeed.
on March 4, 2012
Even though this book came out in 2008, it remains the best "go to" book on climate change. I've read most of the books in the genre, from McKibben to Gilding; this book lays the problem out clearly and understandably. It connects the dots and uses a simple, ingenious format to describe just what will happen for every one degree of temperature rise Celsius.
Given that I live in the U. S. of A., I have a hard time with the conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit. I wish he would have continued to put the Fahrenheit temperature in parenthesis next to the Celsius temperature through out the entire book. And I must say that I do prefer the Fahrenheit formula. I'm old school.
on March 1, 2008
This is the best, most comprehensive piece I've seen yet on what the world will experience as the globe warms, detailing a wide range of scientific studies on the subject rather than just the usual general references to the IPCC. Chapters are ordered by degrees: here's what to expect in a one-degree warmer world; here's what to expect in a two-degree warmer world, and so on. By the time Lynas reaches four degrees, things are looking dire; at five degrees, it's horrifying. Now consider the book's title and imagine how you'll feel after reading this.
Still, you'll probably find the historical data fascinating. For instance, who knew that the Earth experienced a nearly identical warming 55 million years ago, when the oceans belched forth methane for reasons still under study? That period provides numerous clues about what our descendants will see. And who knew that the human race nearly vanished 70,000 years back when Tambora shrouded the globe in ash? Not me.
Lynas doesn't exagerate...much. The data is firm. Still, he fails to focus on the most likely consequences of climate disaster, choosing instead to present all troubling possibilities as equals. For example, he gives equal status to Lovelock's predictions that drought and famine could someday drive the nuclear-armed Chinese to invade newly-verdant Siberia, which is plausible, with the possibility that the US might invade Canada for the same reasons, which is looney (as it were). This makes Lynas seem to be just another worst-case scenario hyperventilator, when he is actually much more credible than that.
In addition, Lynas doesn't venture far into solutions. He simply trots out an enormous amount of corroborating data to prove global warming and to describe the consequences of it.
However, this book is a solid, important call to action, making it much easier to understand what we are bringing upon ourselves. I forgive Lynas his occasional lapses into Chicken-Littlisms...but many naysayers in love with their carbon guzzling will not.
on July 13, 2014
This book is well written and easy to read. The accounts of paleontological discoveries are what I found interesting, but the speculative predictions of human misery become a bit tiresome. If you like reading about earth science and the destructive potential of global warming, this book is for you.
on October 29, 2013
Books on climate change and global warming can be a little dry. Not this book. It's easy to read...more of a conversational style. You'll turn off your lights and monitor, unplug your chargers, and drive less from now on after reading this book.