This is our future — famous cities are submerged, a third of the world is desert, the rest struggling for food and fresh water. Richard Girling investigates the reality behind the science of climate change
Mark Lynas rummages through his filing cabinet like a badger raking out his bedstraw, much of the stuff so crumpled that he might have been sleeping on it for years. Eventually he finds what he is looking for — four sheets of printed paper, stapled with a page of notes.
It is an article, dated November 2000, which he has clipped from the scientific journal Nature: “Acceleration of global warming due to carbon-cycle feedbacks in a coupled climate model” [Webmaster note: See below]. Even when they are mapping a short cut to Armageddon, scientists do not go in for red-top words like “crisis.” If you speak the language, however, you get the message — and the message, delivered by the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Change, was cataclysmic.
“There should have been panic on the streets,” says Lynas in his new book, Six Degrees, “people shouting from the rooftops, statements to parliament and 24-hour news coverage.”
In layman’s language, Hadley’s message was that newly discovered “positive feedbacks” would make nonsense of accepted global-warming estimates. It would not be a gradual, linear increase with nature slowly succumbing to human attrition. Nature itself was about to turn nasty. Instead of absorbing and retaining greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the figures suggested, it would suddenly spew them out again — billions of years’ worth of carbon and methane, incontinently released in blazing surges that would drown or incinerate whole cities. Ice would melt in torrents, and the Earth’s essential green lung, the Amazon rainforest, could be moribund as early as 2050. A vicious spiral would have begun which would threaten not just our way of life but the very existence of our own and every other species on Earth. Lynas’s notes, still fixed to the report, have the dour humour of the gallows: “The end of the world is nigh, and it’s already been published in Nature.”
Next day’s newspapers ignored the rescheduling of Armageddon – the headlines were all about faulty counts in the US presidential election, Gordon Brown’s fiddling with National Insurance and Lord Falconer’s refusal to resign over “the Dome fiasco”. Lynas, however, was energised like the hero of a ?disaster movie. Inconveniently, he had a book to write, but as soon as he’d finished it he pedalled from his Oxford home to the nearby Radcliffe Science Library. He did it every working day for a year: arriving at 10am and sitting till five in the afternoon, being served sheaves of paper by librarians who — even though professionally attuned to world-class standards of eccentricity — must have wondered at the power of the man’s obsession.
On Lynas’s laptop were six spreadsheets — one for each degree of warming from one to six. As he worked, he would slot each paper into the appropriate file. Many of them included predictions from climate models, but there was more: “Some of the most interesting came from palaeoclimate studies — investigations of how variations in temperature, calculated by analysis of soil strata and ancient ice-cores, affected the planet in prehistory.” It was these that would give some of the most terrifying insights into what the future might be like. Which parts of the globe would be abandoned first? What was the precise mechanism that, eventually, would wipe us out?
The spreadsheets became the six core chapters of Lynas’s book — a detailed, carefully annotated, degree-by-degree guide not just to our grandchildren’s futures but to our own.
If global warming continues at the current rate, we could be facing extinction. So what exactly is going to happen as the Earth heats up? Here is a degree-by-degree guide
Ice-free sea absorbs more heat and accelerates global warming; fresh water lost from a third of the world’s surface; low-lying coastlines flooded
Europeans dying of heatstroke; forests ravaged by fire; stressed plants beginning to emit carbon rather than absorbing it; a third of all species face extinction
Carbon release from vegetation and soils ?speeds global warming; death of the Amazon rainforest; super-hurricanes hit coastal cities; starvation in Africa
Runaway thaw of permafrost makes global warming unstoppable; much of Britain made uninhabitable by severe flooding; Mediterranean region abandoned
Methane from ocean floor accelerates global warming; ice gone from both poles; humans migrate in search of food and try vainly to live like animals off the land
Life on Earth ends with apocalyptic storms, flash floods, hydrogen sulphide gas and methane fireballs racing across the globe with the power of atomic bombs; only fungi survive
Chance of avoiding six degrees of global warming: zero if the rise passes five degrees, by which time all feedbacks will be running out of control
Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas, is published on March 19 by HarperCollins, price £12.99. It is available at the BooksFirst price of £11.69 including p&p. Tel: 0870 165 8585 or visit timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy
Source: Richard Girling, The Sunday Times (archive.org)