18 January 2009

Review: The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery

Several months ago one of the grocery stores near me had a discount bin of books for 84 cents each. Most of the books weren't worth even 84 cents to me, but I picked up three or four just to try them out. One was a book by Bill Bryson, which turned out pretty good if not fantastic, but which I read during my year long off-period when I didn't read much and didn't write anything about any of it. Another was The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery, which is a non-fiction book about climate change and global warming. It's not a subject that I know a lot about, so I thought this would be a good (and cheap!) introduction. It was.

Opening Paragraph:
Until a black mood takes her and she rages about our heads, most of us are unaware of our atmosphere. The 'atmosphere': what a dull name for such a wondrous thing. And it's hardly specific. I remember, as child, my great-aunt sitting with my mother at our kitchen table, a cup of tea in hand, saying meaningfully, 'You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.' If we took the same linguistic approach to things maritime we would use the catch-all word 'water' to replace 'sea' and 'ocean', leaving us with no way to indicate whether we meant a glassful or a half a planet's worth of hydrogen oxide, as H20 is properly know.
Not a really interesting opening paragraph, I'm afraid. It also needs to be said, it was an awfully depressing book to open the year.

This book is a pretty large overview of how the world's climate has gotten from where it was in pre-industrial times (and much further back) to what it is now to what it may become in the next fifty or hundred years. Flannery focuses quite a lot on the future, not just how we've gotten to this point (both the human forces at work, primarily through CO2, and the earth's forces as well), but what it'll mean to go on as we already are or if we make small changes or if we make sweeping changes.

I felt a little bit swamped, really, by the masses of information covered in this book, mainly because my understanding of science is often shaky at best. It wasn't that Flannery didn't explain the science, but I read the book spread out over several weeks and I'd often forget things by the time they were mentioned again or else I would understand the words but not really grasp how it worked.

What really stuck with me wasn't the science of how we've done it, but the anecdotes of how we've already changed the world – extinctions of various species, the break up of the Larsen B ice-shelf, the greater number of stronger weather events, and so on. I found, for me anyway, that the strongest parts of the book were those parts where he was giving evidence of change. I suppose that's maybe because even if I don't understand (or remember the meaning of) albedo or global dimming, I can and do understand what it means to say that golden frogs or gastric brooding frogs no longer exist. I can look at a picture of the polar ice cap and see how much smaller it has become and understand how that affects the plants and animals that live and hunt there.

I said before that I found this a depressing start to my year's reading. And it was because I was really left with this overwhelming sense that the politicians, businesses, people of the world won't get their heads out of their asses until it's too late to fix things. Flannery does talk about various ways to fight climate change on a personal level, but many of them are not practical for me (I don't make decisions on whether or not to purchase solar panels for electricity, since I rent) and others I'm already doing (like taking transit, rather than driving). But I do wonder how much change any one person can make, and that's what's depressing to me. I live in a province so heavily dependant on oil that I can't see things getting any better here, not for a long time. Anyway, a worthwhile read, even if it did leave me in a bit of despair about the state of things.

Tim Flannery has written a handful of other books including The Future Eaters and The Eternal Frontier (both ecological histories, the former of Australia and the latter of North America). You can read more about the book, including a much longer (and more interesting) excerpt from The Weather Makers' Introduction at The Weather Makers website.

Flannery, Tim. The Weather Makers: How we are changing the climate and what it means for life on earth. Toronto: Harper Collins, 2006.
Finished: 13 January 2009
Rating: 4 of 5* gastric brooding frogs
This was my 1st book in January, and thus my 1st in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

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