Thursday, August 04, 2011

Henry Pollack - A World Without Ice

If you can ignore the somewhat sycophantic paeans to Al Gore that make up some of this book, and the all too demoralising hopes vested in the election of a Democratic government in the United States, then there is much to get out of this book.

The author is a distinguished scientist who has been part of those investigating climate change and its environmental impacts for many years. His speciality interest is ice, in all its forms. The thousands of glaciers, the millions of cubic metres that form the polar caps and those on Greenland and mountains around the globe.
The first section of this book is a history of the exploration of the poles. Pollack is astute enough to locate the era of polar exploration within the imperial expansion by the major powers. The poles were the last, unexplored and unknown territories and it was not until the 1950s that governments agreed that Antarctica was to be used for science rather than a mineral grab.
Much of the rest of the book is an exploration of the causes and impacts of climate change. As many others have done before Pollack explores the way that from the industrial revolution onwards capitalism has poured countless tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Pollack is a excellent populariser of scientific ideas and his explanation are easy to follow as well as illuminating. He doesn’t duck some of the more complex ideas and takes on the climate sceptics who seem prepared to let us all cook in a warming world, simply to bolster their own distorted social agendas.

Pollack tries to pitch the questions that arise from climate change through the impact on the world’s ice. Ice he argues, is a major ecological resource for billions of people. The agriculture, drinking water and sewage systems of millions of people in cities all around the globe depend on the melt water from mountain snow caps and glaciers. As the world warms, this is increasingly under threat, and the question remains unclear… what will happen to these people.

As the ice melts, millions more face floods and extreme weather. Pollack looks at the 108 million people who live on land less than three feet above sea level and worries about how the world will cope with them fleeing their farmlands.

Using analogies with environmental systems in the past, Pollack shows what might happen if we pass some of the tipping points that mark the transition from one stable situation to another. Again the prognosis is bleak for millions of people. Which brings Pollack to solutions. Sadly, this is the book’s weakest point. Pollack points out, rightly, the technology ease with which these problems could be solved. Governments need to urgently switch to low and zero carbon technologies, invest in public transport and so on. Pollack can only understand their hesitancy to do this due to lack of willing. He doesn’t see any structural problems within the political and economic system we have to this moving forward. Its why his mate Al Gore was unable to deliver real change during his vice-presidency and why emissions rose during the Clinton era. That he has hopes for Obama shows that he doesn’t understand the blame lies within a system geared to profit, rather than human needs.

That said, there is much here of interest. Pollack’s book is yet another stern warning in the face of growing environmental crisis. I disagree with some of his points - I think he puts over emphasis on the problems of population, and downplays the questions of big business. But his honest and straight manner deserves a wide readership, particularly in his home country. Strategies for taking the question forward and winning the change needed will have to be found elsewhere.
Related Reviews

Hooper - The Ferocious Summer; Palmer's penguins and the warming of Antarctica
Pearce - The Last Generation; How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change
Bellamy Foster - The Ecological Revolution
Monbiot - Heat; How to Stop the Planet Burning


Ryan MacKellar said...

Just came accross an intersting bbc article
Says that ice was 50% lower 5000 years ago, countering recent arguements that we are close to a tipping point where artic ice will not longer be sustainable. Still, increases in sea levels will be bad for everyone and I think we are just beginning to have a nuanced picture how the earth's climate changes.

Resolute Reader said...

Thanks for the comment Ryan. One of the things that most climate scientists would point out, and the author of this book would to, is that there are plenty of times in the past when there have been much larger and much less quantities of ice on planet Earth. Indeed and ice free Earth in the past is almost certain at various times. So an ice free world wouldn't lead automatically to a tipping point, but the point is that now there is vastly more GHG in the atmosphere that would make this more likely, and an ice free arctic would help accelerate the process.