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The sum of our fears: The literature of climate change

Illustration/Greg Downie.

“The carbon of a mother’s milk becomes the carbon of her child’s beating heart.” 

We hear a lot about carbon these days, and none of it is good. That’s the stuff warming the Earth, right?

A new book (Symphony in C, Harper Collins) gives us a deeper understanding of the fundamental role of carbon on earth, comparing it, unexpectedly, to music.  The author, American professor of earth sciences Robert M. Hazen, is a mineralogist and astrobiologist who has a mineral (hazenite) named after him.

A “distinguished” scientist (Hazen has enough national awards to qualify as one) is often, let’s be honest, a bit of a prose killer. But Hazen has written a writerly and even, at times, uplifting book, suffused with the joy he finds in his work. He doesn’t take prior knowledge for granted, and so can be read by those who never want to see a Bunsen burner again.

“The story of carbon,” he writes, “is the story of everything.” An absurdly grand claim – but one he illuminates with carbon’s billion-year-old history, properties and mysteries. He uses musical terms such as prelude, intermezzo and coda, which add a sense not only of the passage of time, but also of music’s soothing grandeur.

You may think of carbon as soot or pencil lead, but it is also diamond dust, adrift in space in great clouds. It is the second most abundant element in the human body, and the fourth most common in the universe by mass. An atomic element forged billions of years ago, it never dies – just cycles endlessly, through forms the professor finds most wondrous. We have heard, for example, of reducing “our carbon footprint”. But as every Star Trek fan knows, humans are “carbon-based lifeforms”, and our feet are made up of carbon-rich biomolecules. Carbon, the “sum of our fears” as the prof calls it, is also quite literally the sum of us.

Some things about carbon are still unknown, says Hazen – but others are not in dispute. This chapter is ingeniously titled “Arioso, da capo – atmospheric change”. An arioso is a type of solo vocal piece – literally meaning airy. Subheading: Truth.

Carbon dioxide and methane (also made of carbon) are potent greenhouse gases, explains Hazen. Their molecules trap the sun’s radiation, reducing the heat lost into space. More carbon dioxide and methane means higher temperatures, as more solar energy is trapped.

Airborne oxygen is “exceptionally greedy for electrons”, and carbon contains electrons that are itching to bond with the electrons of other elements. By burning billions of tonnes of carbon-rich fuel every year, we throw these two lovebirds together, creating more carbon dioxide and upsetting an age-old balance.

Ancient air bubbles found trapped in mile-deep polar ice cores, says Hazen, show, irrefutably, that levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are rising. “For almost all of the past million years, carbon dioxide concentrations fluctuated between 200 and 280 parts per million (ppm), the lowest values corresponding to episodic ice ages. In the mid-20th century, the value surpassed 300ppm, perhaps for the first time in tens of millions of years. In 2015, CO2 topped 400ppm.”

Human activities are causing the Earth to heat up, he says. “This conclusion is not a matter of opinion or speculation. It is not driven by politics or economics. It is not a ploy for researchers to obtain more funding or environmentalists to revel in hyperbolic press coverage. Some things about Earth are true, and this is one of those things.”

Hazen’s chapter on climate change is his piercing solo – the arioso in his “symphony” of the ancient, elemental carbon cycle. But this scientist finds comfort in knowing Earth will survive us, and “life will persist”.

American journalist David Wallace-Wells.

American journalist David Wallace-Wells, on the other hand (The Uninhabitable Earth, Penguin Random House), couldn’t give a hoot about minerals, or even the survival of much beyond his own driveway. “I may be in the minority in feeling the world could lose much of what we think of as ‘nature’... so long as we could go on living as we have in the world left behind. The problem is, we can’t.”

Wallace-Well’s book does not spend much time considering the science of climate change. But it fills a void in climate-change literature, with its refusal to toe the peppy party line followed by many researchers and science writers: that an overly negative presentation of the climate facts (melting glaciers and soaring temperatures) and too many ghastly predictions will numb us all into apathy. Wallace-Wells wants to explain just what the new crop of “worst case scenarios” actually mean (they’re much worse than the old ones) – and to move beyond what he sees as a fixation on sea-level rise.

“In 2016, the Paris accords established two degrees as a global goal, and to read our newspapers, that level of warming remains something like the scariest scenario it is responsible to consider,” he writes. “Just a few years later, with no single industrial nation on track to meet its Paris commitments, two degrees looks like a best-case outcome, with an entire bell curve of more horrific possibilities extending beyond it and yet shrouded, delicately, from view.”

Wallace-Wells tears away this shroud, with the angry, fluent writing we might expect from a New York magazine writer. His book’s first line – “It is worse, much worse, than you think” – is now notorious. His anger is undisguised. “Global warming may seem like a distended morality tale playing out over several centuries and inflicting a kind of Old Testament retribution on the great-great grandchildren of those responsible, since it was carbon burning in 18th-century England that lit the fuse of everything that has followed. But that is a fable about historical villainy that acquits those of us alive today – and unfairly. The majority of the burning [of fossil fuels] has come about since the premiere of Seinfeld.”

Wallace-Wells isn’t stupid: in climate science, much is unknown and nothing is simple. But in 2019, with northern hemisphere heat records breaking the ones made last year, people are already dying.

So yes, we do need to understand what “2°C” or “4°C” or “8°C” of warming might do to the world, and Wallace-Well’s book makes as good a place as any to start. Sample paragraph:

“How much hotter will it get? The question may sound scientific, inviting expertise, but the answer is almost certainly human, which is to say political... Climatologists can, today, predict with uncanny accuracy where a hurricane will hit, and at what intensity, as much as a week out from landfall; this is not just because the models are good but because all the inputs are known. When it comes to global warming, the models are just as good, but the key input is a mystery: What will we do?”

Somewhere between Hazen’s cool objectivity and Wallace-Wells’ focused outrage comes Amanda Little’s upbeat and comprehensive reporting from the frontlines of the innovation promising to save us from looming food shortages. The Fate of Food (Bloomsbury) carries the optimistic subhead: “What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”

Although the tone is relentlessly positive, a babyfood-like product called Soylent (vegan, extremely low-carbon, nutritious, cheaper than a McDonald’s combo meal plus zero waste) defeats her tastebuds, despite it being the closest to her goal of a “sustainable, equitable food”. Soylent is “souless stuff”, she admits, but, in terms of practicality, it outclasses funkier but less ruthlessly efficient innovations such as inner-city “farmscrapers”, meatless burgers, robocrops, laser-cleaned salmon, edible bugs and 3D-printed food.

Something has to give. Modern food production and distribution, she points out, burn enormous quantities of fossil fuels. “The single biggest blowback of the Green Revolution is climate change. Absurdly, the greenhouse gases that now threaten the future of the world’s farms are also largely produced by the farms themselves, especially the big mechanised ones. Most of us generate more planet-warming emissions from eating than we do from driving or flying.”

Tellingly, while the American farmers she met still think climate science is “bunk”, the biggest companies they trade with are under no such illusions. “Monsanto and Syngenta to Cargill and John Deere [major US ag companies] have been building research divisions and product portfolios specifically addressing the impacts of climate change.”

Best be prepared. Because as Hazen, the carbon aficionado, writes: “Humans are conducting a geo-engineering experiment without parallel and without a safety net: and the unintended consequences have already begun to appear.”

Classic climate-change reading

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Picador USA, 2014).

The Earth has endured five mass extinctions, each of which slashed biodiversity. We are now in the middle of the sixth – and this time we have the starring role. Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert writes vividly, engrossingly and evocatively about both the thrill of what is being learned about life on our planet and also “the horror of it”. This book won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (Bloomsbury, 2010).

The explosive promise of the subtitle – How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming – is fulfilled in sizzling, damningly meticulous detail. The authors show that a tiny group of Cold War ideologues – three of them physicists – “played a disproportionate role in debates about controversial questions” from smoking to climate change, despite cosy industry links and a lack of relevant research on the issues. Their aim? Deliberate obfuscation. Because as a tobacco executive once noted, “Doubt is our product.” The book was made into a 2014 documentary of the same name.

The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery (Text, 2005).

Tim Flannery is an Australian scientist and explorer, and a wonderfully readable explainer of climate change. Sample quote: “Climate change is difficult for people to evaluate dispassionately because it entails deep political and industrial implications, and because it arises from the core processes of our civilisation’s success.”

Follow Jenny Nicholls on Twitter @jmnicholls

This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of North & South.

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