Books Australia

Hunting for bogeymen

20 April 2013

6:00 PM

20 April 2013

6:00 PM

Somewhere along the line, belief in climate change became something like a religion, complete with high priests and searches for heretics. Clive Hamilton, although a senior academic, appears to be mainly interested in the doctrinal aspects of the faith, and his favoured technique is to ridicule anyone who does not share his views.

He has, in previous writings, expressed the view that the threat of global warming is so great as to override little things like democracy, and the same attitude is prevalent in Earthmasters. Hamilton purports to identify a new danger: geoengineering, or the attempts to ameliorate global warming through large-scale intervention in the biosphere. Like the priests of an earlier age, Hamilton makes a point of fusing fact with faith, selecting some bits of evidence and ignoring others.

An interesting question, given the strength of Hamilton’s conviction, is what he would make of the recent statement by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that there has been a 17-year ‘pause’ in global warming, and that this is likely to continue for some time. That is, the IPCC’s fundamental theory of a straight-line connection between carbon emissions and atmospheric temperatures is, at best, somewhat shaky. Presumably, Earthmasters was completed before the IPCC statement, but it is hard to see that it would have shaken Hamilton’s faith. After all, he criticises the IPCC in the book for being insufficiently alarmist.

Certainly, there is some interest around the world in geoengineering solutions. The ideas range from the brightening of clouds by adding moisture (thus reflecting sunlight) to fertilising the ocean with iron (thereby increasing its capacity to absorb carbon), with a lot of things in between. Some make some theoretical sense, some seem rather wacky. From Hamilton’s tone, one would think that we are about to see a whirlwind of activity, either from panicky governments or go-it-alone entrepreneurs.

But further investigation, and tracking down some of Hamilton’s references, reveals that this is not the case. Many of these ideas are only at the research paper stage, discussed in theory at various conferences. A couple have progressed to the drawing-board stage, and there has been one (unsuccessful) small-scale test of ocean fertilisation. But there is no guarantee that any of these will proceed much further, and all things considered it looks a bit unlikely.

One can accept the point that any intervention in the climate involves a high degree of risk, and should be considered very carefully. Changing one aspect of a system is likely to change others: that is the nature of a system. But Hamilton mainly seems to want to use the risks of geoengineering to attack companies for funding research into possible solutions, while criticising them for not doing enough
about global warming.

Parts of this book make one wonder if Hamilton really knows what he is talking about, on the technical side. For example, he glances at geosequestration (which involves converting carbon emissions into liquid and storing them deep underground) and dismisses it as impractical and untested. This will be news in Norway, where the Sleipner plant has been stripping carbon from gas and storing it, currently at the rate of about a million tonnes a year, since 1996.

There are other geosequestration projects successfully operating around the world, but closer to home there is a pilot/test plant operating in the Otways, in Victoria. It’s hardly a secret: there are regular tours, and a newsletter about it.

Instead of investigating these projects, Hamilton refers to a natural disaster in Africa in 1986 when a volcano released a carbon dioxide stream, poisoning the area and killing 1,700 people. A tragedy, yes, but if Hamilton thinks that it has anything to do with geosequestration then one must ask whether he understands the technology. He is either extremely misinformed or deliberately seeking to mislead people. Or possibly both.

In fact, the bogeyman seems be a recurring character in the book. About halfway through, Hamilton stops talking about geoengineering in favour of his preferred ground of seeking out denialist conspiracies. He appears to hate an awful lot of people: the Murdoch media, the corporate sector, US Republicans, geologists, Queenslanders (described as ‘backward’), conservatives in general, and so on. It’s a long list. He seems to think that any link, however tenuous, between a researcher and a resource company — or, even worse, Gina Rinehart — is enough to discredit them. It’s a bit like the Spanish Inquisition: nobody expects them, but there they are, with boundless self-belief and an ever-widening circle of enemies. Hamilton hints that the only way to deal with both climate change and over-zealous geoengineers is to set up a powerful UN committee to make sure everyone does the right thing. Can’t trust governments, after all: they’re elected, you know.

This foolishness is a shame, because the broad subject of geoengineering, and its inherent risks, is an interesting one. Fortunately, there are other books that provide a better picture. Jeff Goodell’s How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate is a good take on it; Goodell accepts the theory of climate change but his book is thankfully without Hamilton’s hysterical tone.

In years to come, we will probably look back and wonder how it came to this, how the issue of global warming metamorphosed into a witch-hunt for unbelievers. Indeed, it is difficult to escape the feeling that people like Hamilton secretly like the idea of climate change, insofar as it offers the opportunity to remake society along eco-socialist lines. Perhaps it is a case of remembering but not learning, a concept which, like this book, is not much more than silly.

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