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Climate Lessons from Professor Flannery

September 5, 2008

One of the more interesting books I’ve read lately is The Weather Makers, by the scientist and environmentalist Tim Flannery. The title refers to the ability of human beings to influence the climate by changing the composition of the atmosphere, and the book’s central message is that we are now weather makers.

The most profound consequence of human influence, of course, is likely to be an increase in average global temperatures owing to emissions of carbon dioxide. Flannery does a good job of presenting the evidence for anthropogenic global warming, and the book contains sufficient ammunition to blast gaping holes in the standard “skeptical” arguments. However, Flannery is at his most interesting when he discusses the probable consequences of global warming.

Two points struck me as particularly relevant for Canadians. First, the effects of climate change will be extremely uneven. Flannery is concerned about his own country, Australia, which is already experiencing droughts that are partly a result of global warming. Canada faces disruption to the Arctic ecosystem, but melting ice may also make Arctic resources and sea routes more accessible. Furthermore, agriculture in both Canada and Russia may actually benefit from warmer conditions. This is not to say we should welcome climate change – many of the effects on Canada will be deleterious, and after all, I like Australia. But we Canadians need to prepare realistically for the specific changes in our local climate that are likely to occur.

The second point that I found particularly thought-provoking was the role of climate change in driving conflict. The Sudan, like Australia, is already getting noticeably drier, to the detriment of local farmers and herders. This is how Flannery links the changing conditions to the fighting in Darfur:

Camel-herding nomads have been forced to drive their herds onto agricultural lands, where they have come into conflict with farmers. Although the herders are characterized as Arabs, and the farmers as Africans, with the exception of their lifestyles they are culturally and physically indistinguishable.

I might want a second opinion from an anthropologist about the differences between the two groups. However, I have no trouble believing that desperation caused by lack of rainfall is part of the problem in Darfur. Situations like this are almost guaranteed to become more common, in many parts of the world, as changing weather disrupts the agricultural activities on which all societies ultimately depend. Canada should be ready.


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4 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    September 8, 2008 7:18 pm

    Renee–Growing more food locally would certainly help with climate change, since transport produces emissions, but I wouldn’t say that a direct link exists in the case of workers’ rights. (Organic farming I’m really not sure about – does it typically lead to less emissions than “normal” farming? Or do its environmental benefits have little to do with climate change per se?)

    I agree that it’s important to treat workers fairly, of course, but I think this is a social rather than an environmental issue. Theoretically, one could run a farm using abject slaves kidnapped from destitute villages and still adhere to the highest environmental standards (enforced with a regime of draconian punishments, of course). Alternatively, one could pay the workers lavishly, practically wait on them hand and foot, and also waste energy and spew greenhouse gases left, right and centre.

    Or am I missing something?

  2. September 7, 2008 8:33 pm

    When discussing climate change with “different communities” a neglected group seems to be farm workers, in addition to farmers; the latter group, in North America, are very often no longer heroic/tragic lone toilers out on the land, but sophisticated business people, often very concerned with important food security issues such as growing organically and locally. The latter two issues are vitally linked to battling climate change. So are human rights.

    Advocates and researchers who urge us to get informed about the dangers of climate change should also broaden their scope so that the traditional erasing from “green discourses” – of workers/tenant/migrant rights and working conditions, is re/added back into the mix.

    Flannery’s compelling book and the unsettling, The World Without Us (Alan Weisman), both point to the need for “mainstream” climate advocates to keep the human condition “on the ground” at the forefront, not invisible.

    Thank you, again, for an excellent post.

  3. corsullivan permalink*
    September 6, 2008 7:33 pm

    From the point of view of engaging the public, I actually think that talking about the unevenness of climate change can be a bit of a double-edged sword. It does make the issue much less abstract, as you pointed out. But the unavoidable downside is that considering unevenness also makes for a complicated, messy picture. I’m not entirely surprised that people often find the intricacies hard to understand, or even begin to suspect that the scientific community is playing fast and loose with the evidence. However, it’s necessary to talk about local effects because they’re real, and they matter.

    On the issue of discussing climate change with different communities, I would definitely encourage the experts to spend time talking to farmers, for example, about how climate change will affect them and – just as importantly – what they might do both to reduce their own emissions and to adapt to the new climate. The farmers would probably have some good ideas of their own on these points, so it should be very much a two-way discussion about the nature of the situation and how best to respond. However, I also think dialogue among different “communities”, bringing together concerned and intelligent people with different kinds of expertise, is at least as important as dialogue within communities. Ultimately we’re all in this together.

  4. September 5, 2008 9:07 pm

    I’m with you on these points, particularly the unevenness of climate change effects in Canada and around the world. One of my concerns about the way in which climate change is discussed in Canada has to do with the relative abstractness of the phenomenon (mean annual increase in temperature) and how uninspired most people are by this level of discourse. If we can engage people on manifestations of climate change such as drought in southern Alberta, floods in Quebec, Mountain Pine Beetle in BC, I think we might get more traction in the public sphere.

    On the issue of conflict, scholars like Thomas Homer Dixon have been making the link between environmental change and violence for some decades now, and yes we are likely to see more of this violence in the ccontext of extreme weather events — witness recent weather events and the situation in Haiti.

    Many of us share these concerns but I wonder how we can move the discussion about climate change impacts into various communities. What forms of dialogue on climate change make sense within an agricultural community or a forest community, or an arts community for that matter. Does it make sense to identify optimal conditions for public deliberation on climate change at this level? If so, how could we move this agenda forward?

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