It’s the End of the World As We Know It

Danielle Lanzet

Imagine massive ivory glacial solid bodies melting into the raw, polar expanse of the Antarctic. Author Tim Flannery proves to be a “Socratic midwife” in depicting such imagery in his book, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing The Climate And What It Means For Life On Earth, which graced the New York Times bestseller list. Personally, I was ecstatic to learn that the first-year summer reading was on climate change and global warming. However, my enthusiasm was short-lived as I slowly and drowsily staggered to page 30. I believe myself to be well read in the subject matter and wondered from what angle Flannery would present the material.

His approach remains less of a straight line and more of a circle going off into a tangent that happens to be dense and dry. While logical and authoritative, Flannery often trails away from his somewhat polished prose by using a profuseness of statistical data that remains akin to cottonmouth. Detached and disconnected, I felt as if Flannery does not appeal to his demographic (the concerned citizen who doesn’t care for too much scientific jargon).

However, he must be applauded for his input and commentary on deforestation and the effectiveness of absorption. Flannery also impressed me when he name drops Svante August Arrhenius, a notorious Swedish scientist, who too often goes unmentioned in the study of climate change. Arrhenius predicted that the considerable amount of fossil fuels used to power the Industrial Revolution could ultimately increase the temperature of the planet by nine degrees.

Diverse in his research material, Flannery addresses the first world, the third world, and everything in between. On the other hand, considering how the sizes of automobiles have increased — specifically in the first world — and thus often requires more gasoline, I was not sure why Flannery does not address downsizing the average vehicle. Slightly disappointed in Flannery, I collected data on transportation I thought to be relevant to share whether the reader has read or has not read The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing The Climate And What It Means For Life On Earth.

The 1956 Highway Act was the most permanent legacy of the Eisenhower years, as the amount of concrete poured in the assembly of 42,000 miles of interstate highway could build six sidewalks to the moon. Every second the United States’s 200 million automobiles travel 60,000 miles using 3,000 gallons of petroleum products to add 60,000 pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere. Roughly two-thirds of the nation’s CO2 emissions emanate from automobiles. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle in December 1996, traffic engineers at Texas A&M discovered that 600 million gallons of gas were wasted in New York City and Los Angeles alone just by sitting in traffic. As the SUV dominates American society, America must transfer from the backseat to the driver’s seat in order to contain the excessive amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Likewise across the pond, the number of cars has doubled in Dublin in the last decade and a half; moreover, public transportation — particularly the train — does not extend to the new suburbs where hundreds of thousands of Dubliners now live. Since 1990, emissions from transportation in Ireland have heightened about 140 percent — the most in Europe. Not only has car ownership doubled since 1990 but car engines have grown progressively larger as well. Which ultimately will supercede the other in importance — the auto-industry promoting smaller, hybrid vehicles or the government focusing on more developed public transportation? Ideally, I hope both will possess some sort-of equal significance in the near future. I was hoping Flannery would make such a bold statement and address the said issue about the American and global auto industry. Instead, he merely suggested switching to a hybrid vehicle.

Flannery opened the Pandora’s Box of global warming in confronting the anthropogenic impact — rather than natural biological cause — on global climate. Nonetheless, he still left me feeling unsatisfied. Flannery asserted that by 1995 humans were using an average of 24 billion barrels of oil per year, but an average of only 9.6 billion barrels were discovered. I wanted to say to Flannery in response: How does one ask the general American population to decrease their ecological footprint in reference to oil usage without making the people feel deprived? Wouldn’t a switch to natural gas possibly help extend the petroleum supply until about 2200?

Flannery affirms that research into alternative energy technologies by both government and industry has been declining, but he does not probe too much farther. I see the challenge of limiting carbon dioxide emissions will be immeasurable, as the population will likely increase — in countries like China and India — by about 2.5 billion by mid-century. The annual federal spending for all energy research and development in the United States remains half of what the budget was a quarter-century ago. Flannery would have won me over with the following quote by a scientist from my hometown in New Jersey. Thomas Edison, in a conversation with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone in 1931, declared, “‘I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.'”

While solar energy needs a geographic location with constant sunlight, the issue here seems to be the fiscal matter, not the environmental crisis. I continue to wonder, how does one convince the government to pursue energy research in a fashion akin to pork barrel spending? Flannery may not have answers for everything I was looking for, but I remain grateful that he utilized a mainstream medium and used a writing style that was frequently relatable and easily accessible. Moreover, I hope that Flannery ultimately affirms for everyone the seriousness of global warming and the uncertain timetable ahead.