Read an Excerpt
From the Prologue
Tim Flannery was barefoot the evening I met him, pants rolled up to below his knees. It was dusk and we had found each other in the unlikely town of Whyalla, South Australia, where, it is said, the outback meets the sea.
Our meeting was sheer serendipity. The two of us had happened to fly into this remote town of 22,000 on the same plane the night before and he had been at meetings all day with the town’s steelmaker, continuing his international tour de force of explaining global climate change to the public, business leaders and politicians.
His book The Weather Makers: How We Are Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, Al Gore’s book and movie An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It, and the report by Sir
Nicholas Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank, on the financial consequences of ignoring climate change have been the one-two-three punch that has convinced the public that global climate change is more than, well, hot air.
Their combined effect–in concert with Hurricane Katrina’s devastating tear through New Orleans in August 2005–has been remarkable. As I researched this book across five continents and over two and a half years, everyone I spoke with could pinpoint the moment that the public discourse changed from whether or not global climate change was real to what humanity needed to do about it: the third quarter of 2006, after the cumulative effect of Katrina, Flannery, Stern and Gore.
[. . .]
When we met he was longing to walk on the beach, so out we went to the sandy shore of the Spencer Gulf that runs in front of the Foreshore Motor Inn, Whyalla’s finest accommodation, where the steel company had put him up.
I talked and talked, telling him about this book, the stories of my travels around the world, the scientists I had met, the questions I still had, and, above all, why it matters so much to me that all the things I have found out become part of this new, informed public discourse for which he helped lay the groundwork.
I told him of my worries.
The global ocean makes up 99 per cent of the living space on the planet, thanks to its immense depth. If you add up all the land surface and the narrow band of the atmosphere that supports creatures who breathe air, the total represents just 1 per cent of the areas where life can survive on the planet. The rest is in the ocean, covering more than seven-tenths of the earth’s surface.
Even more significant than the ocean’s breadth and width is its depth, or third dimension. That total volume, with its immense biological importance, is what I came to think of as the deeps, both the source of life and the future of life on the planet.
The issue is that all over the world ocean scientists, in groups of specialists who rarely put their information together, are finding that global climate change and other human actions are beginning to have a measurable effect on the ocean. The vital signs of this critical medium of life are showing clear signs of distress.
That’s because roughly a third of the carbon dioxide that humans are putting into the atmosphere has entered the ocean. In addition, about 80 per cent of the extra heat being created by climate change has been absorbed by the ocean.
These two phenomena–carbon dioxide and heat–are changing the ocean’s acidity, patterns of saltiness, temperature, volume, ice cover, function within the planet’s carbon and oxygen cycles, and possibly the physical structure of the currents as well. And these are just the ones we happen to know a bit about.
This change is happening all over the world. And this is having a profound effect on many of the creatures that live in the ocean. At the same time, our search for food from the sea has resulted in the removal of massive quantities of creatures from the global ocean. In itself, that’s a problem. And it’s exacerbated by the changes we’re also causing through carbon dioxide and heat, because life in the sea helps regulate the sea’s physical and chemical properties. When we remove so much life, we’re also removing one of the ways in which the ocean can keep its systems stable.
This is so important–and so different from the way that most of us see the issue–that some scientists I have met argue that instead of calling this the age of ‘global climate change’, we should call it the era of ‘global ocean change’ or ‘marine climate change’. These terms are both much more accurate and more worrisome.
The ocean is built to withstand change. It has layers of safeguards that the atmosphere and the land systems do not, and yet even these are being breached. It is a larger and more serious problem than atmospheric change.
However, we are not hearing much about it, or about the implications for life on the planet–not just human life and civilisation, but life in general. We hear from time to time about overfishing, or about the cities that would flood if the sea level rose, or about coral bleaching, but rarely everything put together.
[. . .]
One of my greatest shocks as I researched this book was that as I travelled from country to country, topic to topic, research boat to research boat, and told each new group of scientists what I had been finding, each group was surprised. In other words–and with some notable exceptions–even some of the planet’s top research scientists didn’t have the full picture of what’s going on. Each has a specialty, isolated from the larger context for the most part, without a systemic understanding of how the pieces fit together. [. . .]
About 250 million years ago, during the time known as the Great Dying at the end of the Permian period–the biggest mass extinction the world has yet known–the ocean’s oxygen ran out. There are a couple of theories about why this happened, but a leading candidate is that the surface layer warmed up enough and became salty enough to disturb the currents. Currents feed oxygen from the atmosphere into the ocean and move nutrients around. When the oxygen vanished, most life on land and in the sea–more than 90 per cent of the species then alive–died.
The point of the story, [Flannery] said, is that it is clear that the ocean contains the switch of life. Not land, nor the atmosphere. The ocean. And that switch can be flipped off.
We know it’s happened in the past, he told me. We just don’t know the trigger.