Sunday, January 28, 2007

Mark Lynas: Six Degrees of Climate Change

What happens as the Earth heats up?

British author and activist Mark Lynas set out to answer those questions in his new book "Six Degrees." Searching the science, putting it together, he describes the impacts with each degree of temperature rise. The book is due out this March in England, by Harper Collins. We got a sneak preview in this interview with Lynas from his home in the UK.

Sorry, but I don't have time to transcribe the whole thing for my blog. Here are the questions I asked Mark, with a few notes on his replies - but to really get it, you need to download the (free) audio file, by clicking the title above. It is 22 and a half minutes long, and as far as I know, the first audio interview on his new book. You heard it here first.

I began with this:

We're talking with Mark Lynas, an author, journalist and green activist perhaps better known in Europe, than North America. His previous big book was "High Tide: News from a Warming World" - a description of three years traveling the Earth in search of climate change. Mark, I'd like to talk to you about your new book, coming out this March, called "Six Degrees" - but first, I understand you've another new baby slipped out this month, a Collins Gem book called "Carbon Counter"

How do people use your Carbon Counter?

[At first, Mark wonders if I am talking about his real baby - his second child due in early February. He's been quite busy between two new books, a new baby, and other journalism.

Mark explains this Carbon Counter book is published in the UK, is intended to help people calculate (and reduce) their carbon imprint, and will not be as useful to North Americans as it uses European measurements and techniques.]

This leads to the larger picture, namely, what happens to the planet as the climate heats up, triggered by our inordinate use of fossil fuels. Why the title "Six Degrees"?


I've been to your blog, at, where you give a brief outline of changes for the first three degrees. I was alarmed at just one degree of climate change. A new dust bowl for the United States, and much colder weather for Britain and Europe due to changes in the Gulf Stream.

How fast is the temperature rising?

Regarding the Gulf Stream - last spring you told a group in Scotland that cool weather there was likely a sign of the Gulf Stream weakening. But this year, winter hardly came to Europe, so far. Wont' critics says this is a contradiction?

[Mark explains the "jury is still out" about the impact of melting arctic freshwater on the Atlantic Conveyor System. Although studies have shown an increase in the freshwater content, so far the ocean currents (and thus the weather) have not changed, and we don't know why - or when the warming waters might be impacted.]

At only two degrees change, you say the Earth could lose a third of the species, in "the worst mass extinction since the end of the dinosaurs." Most of the talk in governments, and even by concerned citizens, is about how humans will adapt. Have we lost sight of the rest of the Earth's citizens - all the other species?

[Mark says as an ecologist, he feels animals have an intrinsic right to exist, beyond the economic value. While he considers economic studies like the Stern report important, they do not add up to the real value of living eco-systems.]

Getting to three degrees, we lose the Amazon rainforest. We've already seen shocking pictures of rivers there drying up. Those rainforests are a huge reservoir of carbon. Once they dry up, and other positive feedbacks kick in, is it possible we could skip up the scale, and see a rapid increase, perhaps skipping from three to five degrees, without visiting anywhere in between?

[This is the definite worry. Once we get to three degrees rise, positive feed-back loops, such as melting of the permafrost in the Arctic, may take the temperature rise directly from 3 degrees to 4.5 degrees. A good explanation here in the audio interview.]

Have you seen the map that James Lovelock presented at his talk this November to the Institution of Chemical Engineers? Basically it shows the remaining life forms huddled around the Arctic Sea, and Patagonia in South America, while the wide belt of the tropics is desert-like. Even the tropical ocean may lose most of its life, he says. How can we even comprehend a planet so badly damaged?

[Lynas appreciates the fact that Lovelock doesn't try to dress up the real threat climate change poses.]

Everyone quotes the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But they do represent governments, which tend to be very conservative. I've heard various scientists say these estimate are far too low - they usually say it at the end of an interview, almost in a whisper, speaking unofficially. Are we getting a realistic picture about climate change?

[It seems to me that Lynas considers the IPCC results reliable - but you listen and be the judge.]

Will you give us your sneak peek preview of life on Earth if the climate advances by six degrees?

[Only in the audio interview]


We would need a whole other interview to talk about your solutions to save the planet. Can you give us a quick rundown of ideas that will work, and a couple that might make things worse? [e.g. carbon rationing & less flying; Frankenstein fuels, nuclear power]

[Mark starts out by denouncing "geo-engineering", such as putting up millions of tiny mirrors into space. Then he outlines several plans he thinks will be needed to minimize climate change, and perhaps more importantly, to slow it down. If things go too rapidly, the animals and plants will not heave enough time to adapt.]

You've said the goal of 550 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, set by Sir David King for the UK government, will be "nothing less than a death sentence for half the world's population." That sounds so extreme. How did you arrive at such a gloomy calculation?

[Lynas outlines the impacts that 550 parts per million would have, from the research done for his new book. He makes a convincing case.]


Due to the crazy carbon generated by globalization - shipping everything across the globe by freighter, or even by air, you have suggested relocalizing our production. How soon do you see the carbon costs of globalization becoming a real issue for business, and the public?

[answer in the interview]

There is a whole group of people who believe Peak Oil, our production high point, has already been reached, and so oil burning will decrease simply because those energy supplies are running out. Do you see this happening in time to save us from severe climate change?

[Mark doesn't think we are running out of fossil fuels, perhaps just using up the cleanest versions, such as natural gas and easily available oil. All that means is people will switch to things like the Canadian Tar Sands, which he finds very destructive, and coal, which is plentiful and absolutely disastrous from the carbon point of view. If fear of running out will convince people to use less carbon, good - but he doesn't count on the Peak Oil people to solve climate change.]


Obviously, this is the prime issue facing humanity today. Will you be coming to North America to promote your book?

[Lynas says he is torn about doing a book promotion in North America. The book will be published in N.A. (later) - but he worries about using air planes, which are such a growing part of the carbon emissions problem. He doesn't fly anywhere for holidays, and tries to use any air travel very judiciously. Not sure if he will come.]

How do people find your book, and your website?


From his home in England, we've been speaking with Mark Lynas, author and activist, about his new book Six Degrees. Mark, thanks for taking the time to talk with Radio Ecoshock.