Global warming now a moral debate, author says

KALAHEO — Kaua‘i was the last stop on scientist and conservationist Tim Flannery’s two-month lecture tour to promote his latest book, “The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change,” and raise awareness on what he called the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change.

Flannery, director of the South Australia Museum and a professor at the University of Adelaide, is considered a leading expert on climate change, and “The Weather Makers” has been heralded as an environmental and social breakthrough by the likes of talk radio host Robert Kennedy Jr. and international best-selling travel writer Bill Bryson.

Over the course of an hour and a half, Flannery elicited a range of emotions, from shocking gasps to knowing moans, as he touched upon some of the most unsettling facts from his book, such as the drastic rise in temperatures in recent years.

Flannery said nine out of the 10 warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 1990, and the rate of global warming now is 30 times faster than at the end of the last ice age.

“A warmer atmosphere is a more active atmosphere,” he said. “It holds more water vapor, which leads to extreme weather.”

Flannery pointed to recent extended hurricane seasons and more powerful storms.

“Between 1970 and 2005, there has been a 60-percent increase in hurricane energy,” he said. “Water vapor is hurricane fuel.”

While Flannery’s talk included the familiar warnings, such as no more polar ice caps in the summer by 2050, his reasoning behind the danger went beyond fear-mongering.

“Snow and ice reflects 90 percent of the sun’s energy (back into space),” he said. “It is the earth’s refrigerator. If you replace ice with ocean, we’ll be absorbing 90 percent of the sun’s energy.”

While the poles are important because, with glacial runoff and ice-shelf collapses, they illustrate the extremes of climate change, he said they are most likely a lost cause.

“There’s nothing we can do about that now,” he said. “There’s too much inertia.”

What people can do, Flannery said, is make changes on the individual level.

“If we’re going to stabilize the globe’s ecology, we need to cut (fossil-fuel) emissions by 70 percent in three decades,” he said, something each person can do in a day by trading in their sport-utility vehicle for a hybrid-fuel car.

Flannery named his book, which he calls a “manual on the use of earth’s thermostat,” for its target audience, humans, whom he said are the true weather makers now that environmental change extends beyond science and into social, political and consumer behavior.

“This is no longer a scientific debate,” he said. “It’s a profound moral debate.”

Like most environmentalists, Flannery stressed the need for immediate change, as current emissions can linger in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

“Cars (in America) have an average life span of 13 years,” he said. “Power plants last 50. You’ve got some big lag times there.”

While much of the world’s outrage is directed at the United States for not only contributing the lion’s share of earth’s carbon emissions, Flannery pointed out that his native Australia emits more carbon dioxide per capita than anywhere else on earth.

He also said the Kyoto Protocol paper advising ways to end or reverse global warming is a “messy” proposal, and not the answer.

Instead, he would like to see businesses taxed based on the amount of their carbon emissions, on a sliding scale over 30 years.

That, he said, coupled with an accompanying income-tax break, would “unleash a tidal wave of innovation” towards alternate, renewable-energy resources.

“It’s a good, free-market solution to the problem,” he said.

Flannery likens global warming to the crisis television-, print- and radio-news outlets faced with the mass acceptance of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s.

“Like the Internet brought (previously-independent) media companies into competition, we need that type of free market with the energy companies,” he said.

Flannery said no one person or government has the answers and, because of that, private business is reluctant to invest in one alternative, like wind power, for example, when biomass conversion could turn out to be the wave of the future.

And while “The Weather Makers” finds faults in each proposed alternative-energy idea, Flannery said all alternative forms, even hydroelectric and nuclear, are better than coal.

China, which will have built almost half the world’s new coal-fueled power plants between 1999 and 2009, earned high marks from Flannery for “damming every river,” committing to nuclear power, and also constructing the world’s largest wind farm.

And even though “China’s got enough coal to cook the planet a couple times over,” he said that when it comes to alternative energy, China “may leap-frog us.”

He compared China’s advances to the erosion of the American automobile market by Japanese manufacturers.

“We get bigger, they get more efficient,” he said.

Prompted by a few audience questions, Flannery also dispelled some popular theories floating around the lecture circuit today.

He dismissed Michael Crichton’s recent bestseller, “State of Fear,” which debunked global warming as another means to maintain order through fear, because he said Crichton had not studied any of the major findings of the last five years, during which major breakthroughs in understanding climate change have occurred.

Flannery said he was once in the same boat.

“Five or six years ago, I was skeptical about this stuff,” he said.

It was not until the Australian government asked him to research climate change that he stumbled upon several facts and trends that he had previously missed.

Flannery also said that solar-panel efficiency is “not an issue yet,” because not enough power is drawn from them to create a need for a better conversion rate.

Most solar energy is converted at only an 11-percent-to-13-percent rate, he said, though Boeing recently developed panels that operate at 40-percent efficiency.

Another popular myth is that the sun is dimming, Flannery said.

“Pollution is reflecting sunlight, and cooling (the earth) to some extent,” he said.

Scientists realized the magnitude of the pollution-induced cooling in the four days following Sept. 11, 2001, when the entire American jet fleet was grounded and average temperatures rose by two degrees Fahrenheit, Flannery said.

In that respect, a drastic reduction in fossil-fuel emissions might cause a rise in the earth’s temperatures before a decline.

In the end, climate change for Flannery comes down to two basic questions.

“Is the earth warming, and is it because of us?” he said. “The answer to both is ‘yes.’”

Flannery urged attendees to be champions of the cause, to take what they heard to their church groups, sports leagues and business associates.

“I wouldn’t wait for government assistance to solve this problem for us,” he said.

Ford Gunter, staff writer, may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 2551) or fgunter@kauaipubco.com.

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