Book Review: The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth-Tim Flannery. Reviewed By: Thomas Riggins (4/7)Read Now
The most dramatic first results of global warming are to be seen at the poles. More specifically at the edges of the Arctic and Antarctic regions where most life is found. In southern Alaska, Flannery reports that since the 1970s the winters have become 4 to 5 degrees F warmer. This can result in more than the dramatic pictures of retreating glaciers that we see.
There is a small insect named "the spruce bark beetle." The temperature increase has allowed more of its eggs to hatch and its grubs to mature and they are spreading and have now "killed some 40 million trees in southern Alaska, more than any other insect in North America's recorded history."
The Arctic proper is already treeless as it is a vast tundra. On this vast tundra lives Dicrostonyx hudsonius. A tough little rodent better known as the lemming. It makes a meager living, but the tundra is its home. The tundra is also the nesting place of hundreds of millions of migrating birds.
Flannery says the ARCTIC CLIMATE IMPACT ASSESSMENT (2004, published jointly by the countries bordering the region) reports the higher temperatures are likely to result in a loss of 50% of bird nesting areas due to the destruction of the tundra by the invasion of forests that can now spread to the region. As for the lemming: "the species will be extinct before the end of this century."
The lives of the Inuit (Alaska, Canada, Greenland) and of the Saami people of Finland [Laplanders] will also be affected. They depend on caribou (reindeer) as part of their domestic economy. As the temperature rises it appears that "the Arctic will no longer be a suitable habitat for caribou."
We already know the polar bear is facing extinction. But so are the many other species that depend on the bear. The bear kills a seal for food but leaves a mess behind. That mess feeds the arctic fox, several species of gull and the raven, among others. Bears are not getting enough food to build up their fat supplies for hibernation. This is because less sea ice means less opportunity to find and catch a seal. Nevertheless they hibernate and simply die instead of waking up. The loss of the polar bear "may mark the beginning of the collapse of the entire Arctic ecosystem." And what is true for the polar bear is also true for the walrus and the narwhal.
After the poles, other areas of the world that show damage from greenhouse gases are ocean reefs. The reefs are actually getting a double whammy-- climate change and ocean pollution. Flannery quotes Alfred Russel Wallace (1857) on the coral reef he saw while sailing into Ambon Harbour, Indonesia. He saw one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen-- a great coral reef covered with life: a forest of animals: "It was a sight to gaze at for hours, and no description can do justice to its surpassing beauty and interest."
Flannery went there in the 1990s but saw no beautiful forest of animals or beautiful corals. "Instead , the opaque water stank and was thick with effluent and garbage. As I neared the town , it got worse, until I was greeted with rafts of feces, plastic bags, and the intestines of butchered goats." So much for the wonders of nature.
Climate change is raising the temperature of the oceans. Coral is sensitive to warmer H2O and after a few months, if the temperature does not go down, the coral dies and we have a "bleached" reef-- a big dead spot. Prior to the 1930s bleaching was little known, and was so up to the 1970s when it began to be more noticeable. After 1998 a global coral dying was "triggered."
Let’s just look at the Great Barrier Reef as an example. In 1998 42% of it bleached. It recovered a bit but 18% was dead for good. In 2002 60% of the reef was affected by bleaching. A study the next year showed that 50% of the reef’s living coral had been reduced to 10%. A big loss!. The reef is being killed by "spiraling CO2 emissions." [Update: In March 2022, another mass bleaching event has been confirmed, which raised further concerns about the future of this reef system, especially when considering the possible effects of El Niño weather phenomenon.-Wikipedia:’Great Barrier Reef’—tr]
Flannery points out that per capita Australia emits more CO2 than any other country. The government says it wants to save the reef-- one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. However, in 2004 its new energy policy "enshrined coal at the center of the nation's energy generation system." [Coal powered plants are the global enemy of life on Earth].
Note this was in 2004. Meanwhile, back in 2002 global scientists had warned in the magazine Science that "projected increases in CO2 and temperatures over the next fifty years exceed the conditions under which coral reefs have flourished over the past half-million years." So we are posed to wipe out in 50 years what it took nature 500,000 years to produce. Hello! Meanwhile we will see zillions of ads on TV from American coal companies about "clean coal" and how we can become energy independent with coal fired power plants. The coal industry is just like the cigarette industry. They know they are killing us but will testify that their product is harmless, etc. All capitalists act this way.
More good news coming up in Part Five.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.