- The Carbon Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong – and How to Fix It by Dieter Helm
Yale, 273 pp, £20.00, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 300 18659 8
- Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering by Clive Hamilton
Yale, 247 pp, £20.00, February, ISBN 978 0 300 18667 3
- The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live by Brian Stone
Cambridge, 187 pp, £19.99, July 2012, ISBN 978 1 107 60258 8
On a damp, chill, blustery August afternoon in Whitby a few years ago I overheard a disgruntled holidaymaker declaiming – to his family, to anyone who would listen, to the wind – that ‘global warming is a load of codswallop.’ One of his children, a boy of around ten, was valiantly trying to explain to him the difference between climate and weather. But he wasn’t paying attention, or couldn’t hear over the gale and the sound of his own voice. ‘Global warming,’ he insisted again, ‘is a load of codswallop.’ This year’s April snows provoked similar sentiments in many quarters. ‘After such a long spell of cold, wet weather,’ Channel 4 News asked, ‘should scientists admit that the drastic temperature rises they predicted have failed to materialise?’ A few days later, Nature Geoscience published a paper showing summer melting on the Antarctic Peninsula at a level ‘unprecedented over the past thousand years’.
The codswallop brigade say that even if the climate is changing, it isn’t our fault. ‘We human beings,’ Boris Johnson wrote in the Telegraph in January, ‘have become so blind with conceit and self-love that we genuinely believe that the fate of the planet is in our hands.’ On the one hand, then, the modest mayor of London. On the other, a former head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (as paraphrased by Brian Stone): ‘Only Newton’s laws of motion may enjoy a wider scientific consensus than a human-enhanced greenhouse effect.’ There isn’t consensus, however, either scientific or political, about the best ways to respond to the problem; in part because so many possible avenues of research are being explored, and it’s still too early to say which, if any, have a reasonable chance of leading us out of the woods (or rather the desert, or the floodplain).
The facts, rehearsed so often, for so long and to so little effect, nonetheless bear repeating. The greenhouse effect was first hypothesised in 1824 by Joseph Fourier – though his analogy was the bell jar rather than the greenhouse – and proved experimentally by John Tyndall in 1859. In the 19th century it could be seen as unambiguously a good thing: if carbon dioxide and other trace gases didn’t trap heat in the atmosphere, the earth wouldn’t be warm enough to support life as we know it. But there is now far more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there has been at any point in the last 800,000 years (we know this because researchers have analysed air bubbles trapped in the ice in Greenland and Antarctica: the deeper you go, the older the bubbles). The concentration has increased from nearly 320 parts per million (high, but not unprecedented) in 1960 to more than 390 ppm today, 30 per cent higher than any previous peak, largely as a result of human activity. Not even the most fervent climate change denier can argue with the fact that burning carbon produces carbon dioxide: before the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were 280 ppm. Since 1850, more than 360 billion tonnes of fossil fuels have gone up in smoke. Average global temperatures have risen accordingly, for the last quarter century pretty much in line with the predictions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its first assessment report (1990). Almost every year since 1988, when the IPCC was established, has been the hottest ever recorded. The most optimistic projection, which governments are nominally committed to (that’s to say, the signatories of the Copenhagen Accord in 2009 agreed it would be nice), is that the average global temperature will rise no more than 2ºC by the end of the century. Sea level has risen 6 cm since 1990. The IPCC’s fourth assessment report (2007) projected that it would rise between 18 and 59 cm by 2100. According to a more recent study, it could be anything from 33 to 132 cm.
The question of how to prevent climate change – we’re way past that point now – has morphed into the question of how to slow it down. There’s no shortage of theoretical answers about the best way to pump fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or suck more of them out, or lower the temperature by other means. (Another week, another book about climate change: the mood optative, the structure evangelical; threats of doom followed by promises of salvation, punctuated by warnings against false prophets.) And yet carbon emissions, temperatures, sea level and the frequency of extreme weather events just keep on going up. Which leads to another, perhaps even more urgent question: if climate change is not only inevitable but already underway, how are we to live with it? The shift in emphasis towards adaptation will be reflected in the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, due next year.
The aim of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, negotiated at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, was to ‘stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’. So much for that. Twenty years on, after many more rounds of inconclusive talks, declarations of good intentions and accusations of bad faith, the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol has expired, with next to nothing to show for it, despite its excessively modest demands. Of the world’s eight biggest national emitters of carbon dioxide, which between them account for more than 66 per cent of global emissions, only Germany (2.4 per cent) has agreed to legally binding reductions in the second commitment period (2013-20). Canada (1.7 per cent) has withdrawn from the protocol; the United States (16 per cent) never ratified it; China (29 per cent), India (5.9 per cent), Russia (5.4 per cent), Japan (3.7 per cent) and South Korea (1.8 per cent) are still signatories but don’t have binding targets. Even the apparent successes of the first commitment period turn out to be not only modest but illusory: as Dieter Helm points out in The Carbon Crunch, Western Europe’s 10 per cent reduction in emissions since 1990 is largely attributable to a decline in manufacturing. A lot of the energy generated in China’s coal-fired power stations, which burn nearly as much of the black stuff as the rest of the world put together, is used to manufacture things for export to the West. We haven’t really cut our emissions; we’ve just outsourced them.
China is now pumping four times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as it was thirty years ago. There is a widely held view that if only China would stop burning coal, everything would be more or less OK (it’s almost the only thing Helm and Clive Hamilton agree on). The government in Beijing said in February that China’s coal burning will peak in the next two years. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Nicholas Stern, who wrote a report on the economics of climate change for the British government in 2007, reckons the world would do well to take China at its word. ‘Smart investors can already see that most fossil fuel reserves are essentially unburnable,’ he wrote in the foreword to a recent report by the Carbon Tracker initiative and the LSE’s Grantham Institute, if we are ‘to avoid global warming of more than 2°C’. The report imagines that emissions targets will somehow be met, which means that up to 80 per cent of the vast quantities of fossil fuel reserves held as assets by publicly listed companies will lose all their value, and the huge sums currently being expended on finding new reserves will all be wasted: result, financial meltdown (again). It isn’t hard, however, to turn the argument on its head: there’s too much money at stake for those reserves not to be burned, so global warming of only 2°C is a pipedream. Either way, Beijing is apparently pouring money into renewable energy (hydroelectric, solar, wind, geothermal), as well as setting up an emissions trading scheme like the one the EU introduced in 2005.
The idea behind an ETS is that power stations and factories are allocated a greenhouse gas emissions quota. If they emit less than their quota, they can sell the difference to a factory or power station that wants to emit more. A report in Nature Climate Change last autumn cautiously concluded that ‘armed with powerful state machinery, China may be able to avoid some of the earlier failures of the EU ETS.’ The European failures include handing out too many permits and giving them away rather than making companies pay for them. In April, the European Parliament voted against temporarily reducing the allowances (a reduction might have stimulated the flagging market): the economic slump means there’s been very little demand for excess pollution rights. After the vote the carbon price fell even further. ‘Some environmentalists,’ the Economist said, ‘fear that the whole edifice of European climate policy could start to crumble.’ Others are hoping it will, so that something that works may be put in its place.
Helm, an economist and British government adviser (he’s the chair of the Defra Natural Capital Committee and a member of the Economics Advisory Group to the secretary of state for energy and climate change), has a three-part proposal: switch from coal to gas; introduce a carbon tax to replace the ETS and apply it to imports to encourage other nations to get out of coal too; and invest in research into renewable energy. He almost makes it sound simple. Current renewables, he argues, simply aren’t up to the task: he especially has it in for wind, quoting the dismaying statistic from David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air that a four-kilometre-wide belt of offshore windfarms all the way round the coast of Britain would provide less than an eighth of Britons’ average daily energy consumption (according to official, conservative figures, which don’t take imports into account). And nuclear power stations are just too slow to build, too unpopular and too expensive.
So natural gas, which is half as polluting as coal, is the best – indeed the only realistic – ‘transitionary option’, Helm says, until a carbon-neutral alternative capable of meeting the world’s growing energy demands is developed. He acknowledges some of the problems with gas, especially shale gas: leakages (methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, though it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere for nearly so long, ten years rather than hundreds); water pollution at fracking sites; the abundance, cheapness and greener-than-coal reputation of gas reducing or delaying incentives to develop genuinely green alternatives. But he shrugs them off, as lenient on them as he is unforgiving of the supposedly insurmountable difficulties with wind power. Other commentators (Bill McKibben is one) are less sanguine. And it is convenient, not to say suspicious, that Helm should be pushing gas as a solution to climate change, however ‘transitionary’, just as, in Barack Obama’s words, ‘we’re producing more natural gas than ever before.’ Helm doesn’t make clear why current renewables, however imperfect, should be seen as an obstacle to the development of better alternatives and not as a ‘transitionary’ step in the right direction. It seems a bit like saying: ‘No thank you, Mr Stephenson, you can keep your slow and inefficient steam locomotive; I’m waiting for the bullet train.’
As for the form the bullet train could take, Helm won’t hazard a guess. ‘It is impossible to pick the winners in this technology race,’ he says, noting po-faced that his ‘email inbox is full of excited reports of the latest “breakthrough”’. ‘The best we can do is identify classes of technologies that look like good prospects’: including next generation solar (using, for example, carbon rather than silicon in photovoltaic cells), biotechnologies, nuclear and geothermal heat.
The nuclear possibilities still include fusion, though Helm doesn’t mention it. The amazing thing about fusion is that it doesn’t produce radioactive waste or greenhouse gases, only helium, and it doesn’t require nuclear fuel, only deuterium (a hydrogen isotope readily extractable from seawater) and a relatively small amount of lithium (already mined in large quantities for use in batteries). The really big problem is how to set up a fusion reaction that produces more energy than it consumes. That’s what happens in stars, but creating the conditions for productive fusion on earth is far from easy. Three years ago, at Cadarache in south-east France, work started on the €13 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor: a joint venture by China, the EU, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the US. The hope, when it eventually goes online (in 2020, supposedly), is that it will be able to generate ten times as much power as goes into it: 500 megawatts from 50. In order to do this it will have to reach temperatures of 150,000,000°C, ten times hotter than the middle of the sun. ‘The goal of the ITER fusion programme,’ its website says, ‘is to produce a net gain of energy and set the stage for the demonstration fusion power plant to come.’ Even if everything goes according to plan, large-scale electricity generation from nuclear fusion is a very long way off. Researchers at Lockheed Martin are working on a nippier approach that could, they say, ‘be ready with a power plant in ten years’ that ‘would enable us to meet global electricity demands by around 2050, in time to have a significant impact on our climate.’ But no one else seems to be holding their breath.
As for biotechnologies, Helm mentions using algae to produce biodiesel. But that’s the least of it. The Bioenergy Systems Research Institute at the University of Georgia announced in March that they’d found a way to ‘remove plants as the middleman … We can take carbon dioxide directly °from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products like fuels and chemicals without having to go through the inefficient process of growing plants and extracting sugars from biomass.’ Pyrococcus furiosus (‘rushing fireball’), discovered in the Aeolian Islands in 1986, is a micro-organism that thrives at high temperatures (around 100°C) near underwater geothermal vents. Organisms able to live in conditions that would kill most things – under extremes of temperature, pressure, acidity, radiation – are known as extremophiles. Bacteria known as snottites (the etymology is bluntly Anglo-Saxon) live in caves deep underground where they feed on hydrogen sulphide. Among the largest extremophiles are half-millimetre-long eight-legged animals called tardigrades. Johann Goeze, who first described the phylum in 1773, called it kleiner Wasserbär (‘little water bear’); they’re also known as moss piglets. More than a thousand species have since been identified, found everywhere from the seabed to the peaks of the Himalayas. The oldest tardigrade fossils date from 530 million years ago. They can survive for several minutes at 150°C or near absolute zero (and for several days at −200°C); endure both a vacuum and 6000 atmospheres of pressure; and tolerate levels of radiation a thousand times higher than would kill a human being. They’ve been taken up on space shuttles, exposed to open space for ten days and survived. According to a paper by a team of German researchers published in Bioinformatics and Biology Insights last year, the ‘specific molecular pathways for stress adaptations’ in tardigrades ‘are partly conserved in other animals and their manipulation could boost stress adaptation even in human cells.’
The mere existence of extremophiles (though ‘mere’ is hardly the word) is, in its way, bleakly comforting: evidence that life in some form seems bound to continue, whatever destruction humanity may wreak. But they offer more immediate grounds for hope. The researchers at UGA genetically modified P. furiosus to feed on carbon dioxide at much lower temperatures and, with the addition of some hydrogen, to produce 3-hydroxypropionic acid, a useful industrial chemical. Tinker with its genes in other ways and, in theory, you could have a micro-organism that would more or less guzzle CO2 and piss petrol. But not just yet.
Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University, Canberra, is suspicious of ‘the lure of the technofix’. In Earthmasters, between the handwringing (‘for those who value civilised society and who are not willing to turn their faces away from the poorest and most vulnerable people of the world, the reasons to fret are numberless’) and the awkward imagery (‘I will suggest that climate engineering is the last battle in a titanic struggle between Prometheans and Soterians,’ Soteria being ‘the goddess of safety, preservation and deliverance from harm’), Hamilton gives a fairly thorough survey of schemes to counteract global warming through large-scale manipulation of the stratosphere or the oceans.
As we’re doing such a hopeless job of pumping less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, how about trying harder to suck some of it out? In the budget in March, George Osborne announced that the government intended to take ‘two major carbon capture and storage projects to the next stage of development’. One of them, in the words of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, ‘involves capturing around 90 per cent of the carbon dioxide from part’ – how large a part it doesn’t say – ‘of the existing gas-fired power station at Peterhead before transporting it and storing it in a depleted gas field beneath the North Sea’. The other scheme ‘involves capturing 90 per cent of the carbon dioxide from a new super-efficient coal-fired power station at the Drax site in North Yorkshire, before transporting and storing it in a saline aquifer beneath the southern North Sea’. The cynical view is that such projects – these two ‘involve’ private companies including Shell and BOC – are (skimpy) fig leaves for the fossil fuel industry. Two other projects are being held in reserve. ‘A final investment decision will be taken by the government in early 2015 on the construction of up to two projects.’ ‘Up to two’ could mean one. Or it could mean none. Whichever, it won’t be nearly enough to have a discernible effect on Britain’s emissions, let alone global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
Other, more ambitious carbon sequestration schemes are based on the idea that, given a little chemical encouragement, other species could do the capture and storage for us. Twenty-five years ago, one of the 11-year-olds in my science class asked our teacher why ‘they’ didn’t invent machines to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. ‘They have,’ Mr Cooney replied. ‘They’re called trees.’ But trees are slow growing, and vulnerable to fire and chainsaws, and when they rot or burn the carbon they’ve captured and stored is released back into the atmosphere. Half the oxygen in the atmosphere is produced by photosynthesis not in trees but in phytoplankton. They reproduce incredibly fast and, when they die, some of the carbon they’ve taken from the air eventually sinks to the ocean floor (passing through the bodies of a series of larger creatures along the way), where it will remain for possibly thousands of years.
Phytoplankton blooms can be encouraged by fertilising the seas with iron (they can’t photosynthesise without it). This happens naturally when high winds blow iron-rich dust from the land out to sea. Or it can be done artificially by spraying a few thousand litres of iron sulphate solution off the back of a boat. Several experiments have been carried out to determine how effective this is as a way of taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for the long term: probably not very, because far less carbon than was hoped actually tends to sink to the seabed, though it depends where the experiment is carried out (phytoplankton with shells, which can only grow if there’s silicon in the water to make their shells from, sink better than those without). And iron fertilisation has any number of unintended and unpredictable consequences for marine ecosystems. But none of that stopped Russ George – a Californian businessman variously described as a ‘geo-vigilante’, ‘rogue geoengineer’ or ‘climate hacker’; he calls himself ‘a translator of science into application’ – from discharging a hundred tonnes of iron sulphate, far more than any previous experiment had used, into the Pacific last summer. It produced a phytoplankton bloom over 4000 square miles of ocean. Beyond that, the effects are as yet unknown.
Another possibility, instead of taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, is to turn down the heat, using what’s known as ‘solar radiation management’. The term was coined by Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institute, who told Hamilton he came up with it while organising a workshop with Nasa in 2006 and wanted a ‘boring sounding name’ that wouldn’t scare bureaucrats who were ‘queasy’ about ‘geoengineering’. Worried about the negative connotations of the word ‘radiation’, Caldeira later suggested that the acronym SRM stood for ‘sunlight reflection methods’. The more visible sunlight that is reflected back into space, the less there is to be absorbed by the earth and re-emitted as lower frequency infrared radiation, which is what’s absorbed and re-emitted into the atmosphere by greenhouse gases. One of the many reasons the melting of ice sheets, ice-caps and glaciers is such bad news is that ice and snow are highly reflective – it’s the reason they look white to us – and rocks are not: less ice means less reflected sunlight means more warming.
Proposed artificial sunlight reflection methods include launching giant mirrors into space, making clouds brighter by spraying seawater into the air (clouds are formed when water vapour condenses on tiny particles of dust, say, or soot, or sea salt; more salt in the air means denser clouds; denser clouds reflect more light), and spraying sulphates into the stratosphere. Large volcanic eruptions – Mount Laki in 1783, Mount Tabora in 1815 (1816 was ‘the year without a summer’), Mount Pinatubo in 1991 – can send enough ash into the stratosphere to bring the average temperature down significantly: by 0.5°C during the year after Mount Pinatubo. Rather than waiting for the next volcano, we could spray sulphates into the stratosphere using planes, or even a giant hose. ‘Stratospheric aerosol spraying is the archetypal geoengineering technique,’ Hamilton writes. ‘It would be easy, effective and cheap, and have the most far-reaching implications for life on earth.’
The two big problems with geoengineering are, first, that interfering with vast, complex and poorly understood systems may well have unforeseen and potentially disastrous consequences, though that has to be weighed against the fact that simply carrying on as we are has consequences that are largely foreseeable and certainly disastrous; and, second, moral hazard: if the symptoms of global warming can be relieved by geoengineering, there’s even less incentive for greenhouse gas emitters to do anything about the cause. Hamilton quotes a study that models what would happen if carbon emissions continued to rise at their present rate, but solar radiation management were used to offset the global warming between 2020 and 2059 and then for whatever reason abruptly stopped: temperatures would soar, and we – and other species – would have to (or in many cases fail to) adapt to the surge over ten years rather than fifty. Hamilton hazily worries that geoengineering crosses some kind of line in humanity’s relationship with ‘nature’, though you could just as well argue that our ancestors crossed that line when they first struck flint to pyrite over tinder tens of thousands of years ago.
‘There is something deeply perverse,’ Hamilton writes, ‘in the demand that we construct an immense industrial infrastructure in order to deal with the carbon emissions from another immense industrial infrastructure, when we could just stop burning fossil fuels.’ But, actually, we couldn’t. Not because it would be too expensive, and not only because billions of people would promptly die – from starvation, disease, cold, heat – but also, as Hamilton observes elsewhere in Earthmasters, because one immediate effect would be a sharp rise in global temperature. One of the effects of burning fossil fuels is the maintenance of a thick haze of sulphate aerosols in the atmosphere, which keeps the sunlight out and the temperature down. Sulphates last only weeks in the atmosphere; carbon dioxide endures for centuries. We are in a multiple bind. Both emissions and atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases need to be severely reduced. Cutting one without the other would be either fruitless in the long term or dangerous in the short term. We may well need to find other ways to keep the temperature down without fooling ourselves into believing we’ve made the problem go away. And we need to do all these things at the same time.
But who are ‘we’? Who will – who can – do what is required? Neither the ‘international community’ nor such enterprising individuals as Russ George are in a position to save the planet (not that ‘the planet’ per se is in any need of saving, not even from the people who want to cool it down by shifting its orbit further from the sun using nuclear missiles and asteroids; just some of the lifeforms clinging to or scurrying around on its surface). The problem is so vast that it seems beyond anyone’s individual or collective power to do anything about it. The theme of Earth Day 2013 on 22 April was ‘The Face of Climate Change’, an attempt to ‘personalise the massive challenge climate change presents’.
Another way of putting it would be to say that everybody needs to start looking at climate change as a local as well as a global problem. This may or may not have been what the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meant when she said earlier this month at the end of a ‘very productive week’ of talks in Bonn that ‘there is a growing realisation that this cannot be done exclusively by governments.’ Carbon dioxide, wherever it may be emitted, is evenly distributed around the globe. But warming isn’t. (Britain’s recent cold winters don’t disprove anything: they may well be caused by melting Arctic sea ice.) Brian Stone points out in The City and the Coming Climate that cities are getting hotter faster than anywhere else – so much so that they’re often excluded from calculations of average global warming as statistical outliers. But more than half the people in the world now live in cities, and the proportion is set to increase to 70 per cent by 2050. The infrastructure that cities depend on is far more fragile than we care to think about. In August 2003, a short circuit on a power line in rural Ohio left 55 million people in the north-eastern United States without electricity. Stone begins his book with a riveting account of the devastating heatwave that swept over Europe ten years ago, when a temperature of 100ºF was recorded for the first time ever in the UK:
In all, the EU estimated that more than 70,000 citizens of 12 countries died from heat-induced illnesses over a four-month period in the summer of 2003. This number represents more fatalities than have resulted from any EU or American conflict since World War Two or any natural disaster (e.g., hurricanes, earthquakes and floods) to have ever struck a developed nation. It dwarfs the 1800 deaths attributed to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and effectively renders trivial the 900 lives lost during the highly publicised Sars epidemic that struck in the same year as the heatwave … Americans would need to experience more than 20 terrorist attacks equivalent in destruction to 9/11 before such a death toll would be approached. Yet the global response to this climate event, an event that reveals more about the profoundly changing environment in which we now live than any other yet endured, has largely been one of indifference.
The reasons for the indifference aren’t unobvious: the slow burn of a heatwave is less dramatic than a hurricane, an earthquake, a flood or a terrorist attack; most of the victims were old and many of them unidentified, buried in unmarked graves; the death toll is calculated by counting excess deaths, comparing the number of people who died during the heatwave with the number in previous years, so it’s possible to say how many were killed, but not who they were. Heatwaves resist personalisation.
‘Cities do not cause heatwaves,’ Stone writes, ‘they amplify them.’ At the peak of a heatwave in July 1999, Chicago was more than 6ºF warmer than rural Illinois. The urban heat island effect was first documented in 1818, when Luke Howard, an amateur meteorologist, took a series of temperature measurements in and around London which showed that the city was on average 4°F warmer than the surrounding countryside. It’s partly down to human activity (from driving to cooking to air-conditioning to breathing), partly because cities tend to be built from materials that are really bad at reflecting sunlight (tarmac’s especially terrible), and partly because of the lack of trees.
It takes a certain amount of energy to turn a liquid into a gas. When water evaporates, its molecules absorb heat from the surroundings: that’s why sweating cools you down. The heat is then ‘locked up’, as Stone puts it, in the water vapour. Plants don’t sweat, they transpire; but the principle, as far as water’s concerned, is the same. So trees mitigate global warming not only by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but also by cooling the earth down.
Yet the emphasis on greenhouse gases in UN legislation means that planting or preserving trees gets you negligible points under the Kyoto Protocol, because of the uncertainty as to how long the carbon they take out of the atmosphere will be sequestered for. Even though, in Stone’s words, ‘a cessation of rainforest destruction in just two countries, Brazil and Indonesia, would by itself bring the world four-fifths of the way to meeting the cumulative targets of the Kyoto Protocol.’ The difference trees make is demonstrated by a 2003 study that modelled the effects of reforesting the Sahara (there were trees there five thousand years ago). ‘In theory,’ Stone says, ‘a Saharan subtropical forest could absorb enough CO2 each year to cease altogether greenhouse-driven climate change, and it could do so without the decommissioning of a single power plant.’ Though it would require a logistically daunting and tremendously expensive network of desalination plants and irrigation pipes across a dozen of the world’s politically less stable countries.
More modestly, Stone recommends changes in global policy to focus on land-use management as well as carbon emissions (on turning the heat down under the saucepan as well as taking the lid off, to use one of his analogies), and a shift in urban planning towards densely populated cities with plenty of trees and good public transport systems, surrounded by forests rather than suburban sprawl. What’s not to like? Local improvements in urban planning also have the advantage that they stand a realistic chance of being implemented, certainly compared to the prospect of united global action. The smothering pollution in Chinese cities is one of the major incentives for the government in Beijing to set about reducing carbon emissions. One of the 20th century’s more effective pieces of environmental legislation was the 1956 Clean Air Act, a response to the great smog of 1952 that killed as many as 12,000 Londoners. Atlanta (Stone teaches at Georgia Tech) introduced a ‘no net tree loss’ policy a few years ago, but it’s still a work in progress: 15,000 trees are cut down in the city each year; only 3000 are planted to replace them.
Stone urges the adoption of ‘mitigation strategies that yield concurrent adaptive benefits’. Examples of the opposite – adaptation without mitigation – are easier to come by. In 2004, Tim Flannery said that ‘there is a fair chance Perth will be the 21st century’s first ghost metropolis’ because of the threat to its freshwater supply. The capital of Western Australia has since then opened one desalination plant, powered by wind turbines, and is in the process of setting up a second, much larger one, driven by coal. ‘The benefits to Perth are direct and immediate (new water) and the harms are diffuse and intergenerational,’ Robert Glennon wrote in National Geographic last year. ‘That’s what makes climate change such an intractable problem.’
There’s no immediate need for desalination in Britain. But ahead of the UK National Adaptation Programme that will be published later this year, Defra last year released the first of its new five-yearly Climate Change Risk Assessments. It outlines the ‘priorities for adaptation’ under five ‘themes’ (Agriculture & Forestry; Business and Services; Health & Wellbeing; Buildings & Infrastructure; Natural Environment) and considers not only the risks associated with climate change – flooding, drought, supply chain disruption, flooding, disease, higher energy demand, flooding and more flooding – but possible opportunities, too: under the business theme, for example, there is hope for a ‘possible increase in market opportunities such as tourism and leisure industry’ (presumably this means luring the codswallopers back to a warmer, sunnier Whitby, even if most of the beach will have disappeared under the North Sea). Now there’s a reason to look on the bright side.
There are more detailed ideas in the Environment Agency’s action plan for the Thames Estuary. The ‘assets and people at risk in the tidal Thames floodplain’ include 135 square miles of land, 1.25 million residents, 500,000 homes and 40,000 businesses with a combined property value of £200 billion, 400 schools, 16 hospitals, eight power stations, more than a thousand electricity substations, four World Heritage Sites, 35 Tube stations, 51 railway stations, more than a hundred miles of railway and 200 miles of road. In its first decade of operation, between 1982 and 1992, the Thames Barrier was closed 11 times. Between 1999 and 2009, it was closed 81 times. The current worst-case scenario is a rise in maximum water levels by 2100 of 2.7 metres (revised down from a previous estimate of 4.2 metres; it may yet be revised up again), which means that the Thames Barrier and ‘associated defences’ will need ‘significant improvements’ from 2035: not least, embankments and flood defences will have to be made higher. ‘Major changes to the structure of the system will not be needed until much later in the century – under the government’s current climate change guidance new arrangements must be in place by 2070.’ Those new arrangements will have to be settled on by 2050. Under current plans they will include either replacing the current barrier at Woolwich or building a new one at Long Reach or Tilbury.
The outlook may not be so bad for American and British cities. But the news that there are ways for the global North and West to adapt to and tolerate global warming is hardly reassuring for, say, the 12 million residents of Dhaka, which faces a much greater risk of flooding and has far less money to spend on defences. A paper published in Natural Hazards last year comparing the vulnerability to flooding of nine cities found – unsurprisingly, but it’s useful to have it quantified – that Shanghai, Dhaka and Calcutta were far more vulnerable than Rotterdam, Marseille and Osaka. The director of the Research Institute of Global Climate and Ecology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, according to Hamilton, has said that ‘it would be cheaper to resettle Bangladeshis threatened by sea-level rise’ than to adhere to the Kyoto Protocol – and cheaper still to do neither.
A recent Unicef briefing reiterated the obvious but important point that the world’s poorest children are the most vulnerable to climate change. The report’s recommendations include ‘providing crops that are more drought resistant to smallholder families in areas that are increasingly prone to drought.’ Unicef doesn’t spell it out, but drought-resistant crops probably means genetically modified crops. One way to make crops hardier is using genes from tougher organisms like Pyrococcus furiosus. The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines recently announced that it had developed a new kind of ‘super salt-tolerant’ rice by crossing two very different strains, one of them a wild species that ‘is extremely difficult to cross with cultivated rice varieties’. If last year is anything to go by, British farmers are going to need new varieties of winter wheat that are more tolerant of cold and flooding.
But last year may not be anything to go by. One of the difficulties with trying to adapt to climate change is that while the long-term average global effects seem to be fairly predictable, local and temporary effects are not. Depending on how you tweak the models, rainfall in Kansas, for example, could increase or decrease by more than 40 per cent by 2060, or stay roughly the same as it is now. That’s quite a range of possibilities. Britain in the last ten years has seen severe heatwaves and extremely cold winters, periods of drought and serious flooding. It’s hard to say which are the greatest long-term threats locally, which is a reason people talk about ‘adaptive capacity’: in other words, we need to prepare to be prepared. Policymakers aren’t entirely to blame for the frustrating vagueness of their proposals, which often seem to consist of no more than a commitment to look at the situation again in a few years’ time. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that somehow – using some of the technologies and policies I’ve discussed here, and some of the many I’ve overlooked – we’ll muddle through. But only if we slow climate change to a rate that we, like other organisms that evolved when the world was mild, can adapt to. If we don’t, we may indeed be doomed. And Pyrococcus furiosus, which needs us a lot less than we may need it, will inherit the earth.
This review was first published by The London Review of Books and is reprinted here with their kind permission.
 This also, incidentally, points up a major flaw in the logic of the climate change deniers who believe that anthropogenic global warming is cooked up by a conspiracy of unscrupulous scientists and pork barrel environmentalists to screw subsidies out of taxpayers: there is far, far, far more money to be made in fossil fuel extraction and burning than there is in any form of climate change mitigation. If there weren’t, there wouldn’t be a problem.
 MacKay’s ‘straight-talking book about the numbers’ came out in 2008. It’s online at www.withouthotair.com.