Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change
By Clive Hamilton
Allen and Unwin (2010)
Most of Requiem for a Species is a detailed analysis of the sociological and psychological factors that lead all of us (including climate activists) to deny the grim reality of the massive climate disruption that faces us. Australian author Clive Hamilton begins by confronting readers with the most likely climate scenario over coming decades. I have always had difficulty getting my head around climate science and found these the most valuable chapters.
Predicting the Behavior of Politicians
For the last two decades politicians have been giving lip service to limiting global warming to a “safe” increase of 2 degrees centigrade. According to Hamilton, most climate scientists recognized this was no longer possible when the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference failed to agree on a treaty to replace the Kyoto Accord. Most climate models agree that the only way to limit global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade would require for global emissions to peak in 2015 (this year) and decrease by 20-40% by 2020. This translates into a 6-7% per year reduction in rich countries – it assumes that developing countries (including China, India and Brazil) will continue business as usual until 2030, before reducing their emission by 3% a year. Hamilton believes there’s no way developing countries will agree to sacrifice economic growth (and bringing their populations out of poverty) before then.
Already in 2010, Hamilton was predicting that rich countries wouldn’t start cutting their emissions by 6-7% annually in 2015. He reckons 3% per annum is the highest emissions reduction compatible with continued economic growth. Cuts above 5% would likely translate into unspeakable human misery, witness the immense human cost in Russia when the Soviet economy collapsed in 1989 (which caused a 5.6% reduction in carbon emissions).
He feels politicians are very unlikely to agree to start cutting in emissions in 2020, either. At present most OECD countries have committed to reducing carbon emissions by 60-80% by 2050. Such a distant target is worse than useless. If politicians fail to act before 2030-2040, most of the earth’s ice cover will have melted and will remain that way for thousands of years. If politicians continue business as usual (and do nothing), global temperatures will increase by 3.1 degrees C by 2100 and 5-6 degrees C by 2200.
Hamilton believes the best we can hope for is that both rich and developing countries will begin cutting emissions by 3% per year in 2030.* In the absolute best case scenario, this translates into an increased average global temperature of 2.6 degrees C by 2100 and 3.5 degrees C by 2200.
What 4 Degrees Warming Looks Like
Because Hamilton considers a 4 degree C increase a likely scenario, he provides a detailed description of what that looks like. With 4 degrees C of average global warming, there will be no Arctic sea ice in summer, and Greenland, the west continental shelf of Antarctica and the Himalayan glaciers will melt. If all the earth’s ice cover melts sea levels will rise by 70 meters.
More than a billion of Earth’s inhabitants will have no access to water, especially in the India, Pakistan and China which rely on the Himalayan glaciers for drinking water. Fifteen percent of current arable land will be unsuitable for cultivation due to drought (in India, Pakistan, China, Australia, southern Europe, the central and southern US, North Africa and the Amazon). In northern climates like Canada and Siberia, there will be a 20% increase in arable land.
It’s impossible for climate scientists to predict exactly how many people will die from starvation, dehydration and extreme weather events. Some predict a reduction in the global population to one billion or less. All we know for sure is the die-off will be most severe in poor developing countries.
The Climate Denial Industry.
There’s also an excellent chapter on the climate denial movement, which profiles climate scientists (most were also strong advocates of Reagan’s Strategic Defense initiative and nuclear power) who colluded with fossil fuel industry, right wing think tanks and the public relations firm APCO (which master minded the campaign to deny the health risks of tobacco) to create an extremely slick climate denial campaign. I found it especially intriguing to learn of the role of the Revolutionary Communist Party (who produced the 2007 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle) and other far left groups in the climate denial movement.
There’s also an excellent chapter on the gungho technofixers who believe catastrophic climate change can be prevented through pie-in-the-sky technofixes, such as carbon capture, geoengineering and wide scale adoption of nuclear power. Hamilton explores each of these technologies in considerable detail. Each of them costs far more than improving energy efficiency and switching to renewable energy. All of these approaches would take at least ten to twenty years to implement. And as Hamilton points out, waiting another 20 years to begin cutting emissions will have catastrophic consequences.
Hamilton also makes the prediction that the global recession might temporarily reduce emissions before the economy rebounds again. He was correct:
• In 2009, global emissions fell by 1.2% after increasing by an average of 2.5% a year between 1990 and 2009.
• In 2010 global emissions increased by 5.9%
• In 2011 global emissions increased by 3.2%
• In 2012 global emissions increased by 1.4%
• In 2013 global emissions increased by 2.1%
*Hamilton was overly pessimistic here. In November, Obama and Xi Jinping made a bilateral agreement in which Obama committed the US to cutting its carbon emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025. China committed to start cutting emissions in 2030 and make “best efforts” to peak emissions before 2030.
**The Revolutionary Communist Party was always regarded skeptically (as heavily infiltrated) by other progressive groups when I lived in Seattle. For a grassroots leftist group, they seemed to have virtually unlimited funds and repeatedly tried to instigate violence during peaceful protests. An RCP member was linked to the suspicious death of a one of my African American patients who exposed the DEA’s role in laundering cocaine profits in the professional race car circuit.