Atmosphere of Hope: The Search for Solutions to the Climate Crisis
By Tim Flannery. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 245 pp, hardcover
Runaway climate change has some of the characteristics of a disaster movie.
Under the worst-case scenarios, rising sea levels will eventually swallow up coastal cities and island nations. Monstrous storms will transform parts of the North American heartland to rubble. And human beings will congregate closer to the poles to escape blistering heat waves and an onslaught of hellish wildfires farther south.
It has all the earmarks of Armageddon if humanity doesn't take far more aggressive actions to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. Political leaders will come together to try to address the issue at the UN's upcoming COP21 climate conference later this year in Paris.
But climate change is also a problem of arithmetic and the best efforts to educate the public about this don't shy away from the numbers.
Such is the case with Australian scientist Tim Flannery's remarkable new book, Atmosphere of Hope.
Much of the talk around climate change revolves around keeping the average global temperature from increasing by 2°C since the dawn of the industrial revolution.
This would alleviate the likelihood of more catastrophic climate havoc caused by melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events. (Even an increase of that amount is predicted to be destructive.)
Flannery, on the other hand, focuses much of his book on gigatonnes of carbon dioxide—a gigatonne being a billion tonnes. Last year, human beings were responsible for the release of 40 gigatonnes.
Then Flannery, winner of the SFU's 2015/16 Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue, sets about explaining in clear language what's required to achieve substantial reductions.
"We should be focusing on reducing emissions by the gigatonne," he writes. "Frustratingly, the objective of the political negotiations is expressed in degrees Celsius rather than gigatonnes of carbon."
A mere 10 percent reduction, Flannery explains, would require converting all of the world's agriculture and forestry waste—plus biomass from 100,000 square kilometres of sugar cane—into biochar. It's a mineralized form of carbon that can be buried or placed in mines. In some instances, biochar can help agricultural production when mixed with soil.
Biochar is one of several options he puts forth in the book. Another promising approach is the cultivation of carbon-dioxide-consuming seaweed. He cites research by University of South Pacific researchers led by Antoine De Ramon N'Yeurt, who noted that seaweed farms "could be used to absorb CO2 very efficiently, and at a large scale".
"Their analysis shows that growing seaweed could produce 12 gigatonnes of methane [a heat-trapping greenhouse gas with a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide], while storing 19 gigatonnes of CO2 that result from methane production," Flannery writes. "A further 34 gigatonnes per year of CO2 could be captured if the methane is burned to generate electricity."
Flannery's two previous books, The Weather Makers and Here on Earth, put him in the top echelon of climate-change educators.
Atmosphere of Hope offers more concrete solutions than the previous two titles, in part because of all the technological advances taking place. But he doesn't sugar-coat the magnitude of the problem. In fact, it becomes starker when reduced to the language of gigatonnes.
For instance, the book reveals how a roofing company called Derbigum has created a product with a layer of olivine, which is a mineral from deep within the Earth. It "reacts with rainwater to remove and permanently store atmospheric CO2", Flannery reports.
Unfortunately, massive amounts of olivine are needed to sequester a gigatonne of carbon. But Flannery notes that there are many other ways to make use of olivine to help tackle the climate crisis.
"It's even been proposed that olivine-based carbon-capture devices be installed on ships," he writes. "Located in the exhaust of the ship's engines, they would capture the CO2 emitted and turn it into a carbonate that, if released into the ocean, could lead to the sequestration of additional amounts of CO2 from seawater."
Limestone can also absorb carbon, but Flannery points out that this comes at a high price: US$79-$159 per tonne. This is why he argues for government incentives for those who want to do this, not to mention the need for more research and development to lower the cost.
Atmosphere of Hope also includes some enlightening information about the storage of carbon dioxide. Enormous sums of money have been spent investigating land-based carbon-capture technology, but perhaps the greatest potential lies in the ocean crust.
Flannery emphasizes that if carbon dioxide is stored below 3,000 metres of water, it is converted into stable hydrates. This results in it being permanently locked into the rock.
But steep topography must be avoided, he cautions, because of the risk of underwater landslides, which could cause tsunamis.
"Although not all regions of the oceans deeper than 3,000 metres are suitable for the storage of CO2, the potential scale of this approach is large," he writes.
The book also reports on the growing use of solar energy, the challenges posed by nuclear power, and how citizens concerned about climate change are putting politicians on the defensive. Even though some of the information is highly technical, Flannery conveys it in a readable form that's hard to put down.
There are even a couple of nuggets about B.C. included within Atmosphere of Hope. One section explores how the Haida First Nation tried fertilizing the ocean with iron to stimulate the growth of plankton to revive failing salmon stocks.
Flannery acknowledges that this violated the Convention on Biological Diversity while still offering a nuanced view of the experiment.
He also reveals in his book that then B.C. premier Gordon Campbell told him that the provincial carbon tax was introduced after Campbell had read Flannery's The Weather Makers.
It remains to be seen whether Atmosphere of Hope will have a similar impact on the current premier, Christy Clark. Judging by her government's eagerness to promote the fracking of natural gas, we shouldn't be holding our breath in anticipation of any miracles.