Requiem for a Species by Clive Hamilton. Book review

Frank Fenner is quoted in a recent article in the Australian said "We're going to become extinct, whatever we do now is too late."

“The Aborigines showed that without science and the production of carbon dioxide and global warming, they could survive for 40,000 or 50,000 years. But the world can't. The human species is likely to go the same way as many of the species that we've seen disappear. Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years, a lot of other animals will, too. It's an irreversible situation. I think it's too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off. Mitigation would slow things down a bit, but there are too many people here already."

Requiem for a Species analyses in detail the science of climate change and explains why it is too late. In my view Clive Hamilton is one of Australia’s most notable public intellectuals, his work is careful and balanced, he presents the facts as they are and has written a book which is uncomfortable for all. Uncomfortable even for those who receive and read the increasing flow of  scientific papers indicating a likelihood of a climate system passing significant tipping points beyond which the warming process is reinforced by positive feedback mechanisms. “With each advance in climate science, the news keeps getting worse.”

The deliberations of the IPCC assumed a dose response relationship between the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere and the resultant global warming. But there is increasing evidence that this no longer applies, tipping points are moving the Earth’s climate into “into a new trajectory driven by natural processes that will take millenniums to work themselves out.”

The dose response relationship has perhaps given governments the impression that slow processes such as climate change pose small risks, on the basis of the assumption that a choice can always be made to quickly reduce emissions and thereby reverse any harm within a few years or decades. This assumption is incorrect. Once a threshold is past, for example once the melting of Greenland commences, no reduction in anthropogenic emissions will be able to stop it.

To summarise and simplify the figures:-

For sometime there has been an acceptance of 2 degrees Centigrade, equivalent to 450 ppm CO2, being the limit for dangerous warming, although Hansen believes that the goal of keeping warming to 2 degrees C. is a recipe for global disaster. There is now no chance of holding to less that 450ppm and so 2 degrees will be exceeded. In fact the IPCC worst case scenario if we do nothing (which is virtually the case today) is a 2.4 to 4.6 degrees rise.

A word of explanation about these figures;- Hamilton uses carbon dioxide equivalents ( CO2-e which include other green house gases) Thus 350ppm CO2 = 450ppm CO2-e will produce an expected warming of 2 degrees C.

Hamilton points out that global temperatures above 2 degrees C are dangerous but the chances of stopping warming at 2 degrees C are virtually zero because we cannot now keep concentrations below 450 ppm. “The task now is for global emissions to peak within 5 to 10 years then decline rapidly until the entire world’s energy systems are all but decarbonised.”

However, Hamilton then asks “If global emissions do peak in 2020 then decline by 3% each year, with energy emissions in rich countries falling by 6 to 7%, could we head off the worst effects of climate change, or even keep it to ‘safe’ levels? This task seems impossible given present governmental abdication yet it is not enough. An extra 3,000 billion tonnes of greenhouse gasses would be emitted this century, which would not see atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses stabilise at the ‘safe’ level of 450ppm.  Nor would they stabilise at the very dangerous level of 550ppm. They would in fact rise to 650ppm!”

The resultant temperature rises are likely to be of the order of 4 degrees with huge physical and ecological impacts; 85% of the Amazon rainforest would be lost and the Greenland ice sheet melt would have raised sea level by 7 meters.

The increasing debate on climate engineering is occurring because many climate scientists believe that cutting emissions will not be enough to avoid the worst. There is deep anxiety in the scientific community verging on despair in some cases.

In presenting the facts, the superficial among us will call this assessment doom and gloom, but society must be told its prognosis. The prognosis is terrible in liver secondaries but the patient has a right to know and there are rare spontaneous remissions; never give up hope

These being the likely warming scenarios, we have to classify our elected representative as superficial in their understanding of the science. They are presiding nonchalantly over the demise of humanity. If they cannot grasp the scientific facts, what hope is there that they can grapple with the underlying problem that capitalism in its present form cannot continue for it is in conflict with ecological resources; the system is unstable without continued growth; consumerism in its present form has to stop. This is too much for the elected representative to contemplate as they recite the daily mantra of economic growth. Clive Hamilton has made many important contributions in the literature on these topics and they are amplified in this book. So is the topic of denial which is one of the best expositions of the topic I have read

The final chapter in the book is on reconstructing the future. One gets the impression that the author in working through the diseased entrails has himself reached the stage of despair. As always we are left with the knowledge that those who need to read this book will not do so and perhaps Clive Hamilton by standing for the Greens gave them an additional reason not to do so.

Please read this important text, but don’t despair, come out fighting!

David Shearman
The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of DEA