Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Weather Makers

How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth

by Tim Flannery

“At last, here is a clear and readable account of one of the most important but controversial issues facing everyone in the world today. If you are not already addicted to Tim Flannery’s writing, discover him now: The Weather Makers is his best book yet.” –Jared Diamond, author of Collapse and Guns, Germs & Steel

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 384
  • Publication Date February 13, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4292-4
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

An international best seller embraced and endorsed by policy makers, scientists, writers, and energy industry executives from around the world, Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers helped bring the topic of global warming to national prominence. For the first time, a scientist provided an accessible and comprehensive account of the history, current status, and future impact of climate change, writing what has been acclaimed by reviewers everywhere as the definitive book on global warming.

With one out of every five living things on this planet committed to extinction by the levels of greenhouse gases that will accumulate in the next few decades, we are reaching a global climatic tipping point. The Weather Makers is both an urgent warning and a call to arms, outlining the history of climate change, how it will unfold over the next century, and what we can do to prevent a cataclysmic future. Originally somewhat of a global warming skeptic, Flannery spent several years researching the topic and offers a connect-the-dots approach for a reading public who has received patchy or misleading information on the subject. Pulling on his expertise as a scientist to discuss climate change from a historical perspective, Flannery also explains how climate change is interconnected across the planet.

Along with a riveting history of how climate change has shaped our planet’s evolution, Flannery offers specific suggestions for action for both lawmakers and individuals, from investing in renewable power sources like wind, solar, and geothermal energy, to offering an action plan with steps each and every one of us can take right now to reduce deadly CO2 emissions by as much as 70 percent.


“An authoritative, scientifically accurate book on global warming that sparkles with life, clarity, and intelligence… The secret…seems to be confident knowledge joined to a storyteller’s gifts and a writer’s determination to get it just right–a rare combination, and a powerful one.” –The Washington Post

“At last, here is a clear and readable account of one of the most important but controversial issues facing everyone in the world today. If you are not already addicted to Tim Flannery’s writing, discover him now: The Weather Makers is his best book yet.” –Jared Diamond, author of Collapse and Guns, Germs & Steel

“This highly engaging book makes recent findings and growing scientific understanding of climate change very accessible to non-scientists.” –America Magazine

“Not just a fine exposition of the science behind global warming and climate change, but a passionate call to arms for those who want to do something to prevent an environmental catastrophe.” –Independent (UK)

“Flannery…is without question an extraordinary scientist… A passionate explication of human influence on climate change and a call to action… Spellbinding… A tour de force.” –Bill Chameides, Science Magazine

“Climate change is perhaps the most challenging collective action problem the world has faced. Almost uniquely, The Weather Makers provides insights not only into the history, the science and politics of climate change, but also the actions people can take now that will make a difference. Only through understanding can problems be properly addressed and solved. All who read The Weather Makers will be left wiser and able to appreciate how fragile our climate is and how it is this generation who must act to protect it.” –Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

“The real message of The Weather Makers is not that global warming is real, although he does an outstanding job of explaining the science in a way that any of us can understand. The point that he drives home is that it is an issue that we must address today if we are going to avert cataclysmic changes that could affect us all by 2050. And as he points out in the introduction, 70 per cent of all people alive today will still be alive in 2050, so climate change affects almost every family on this planet. Energy CEO’s and Environmental Scientists are not likely to agree on all aspects of an issue as complex as climate change. But there is one view in which Tim and I are in total agreement–it is time to move from denial to action.” –Paul Anderson, Chairman and CEO, Duke Energy Corp. and Former Managing Director, BHP Billiton Ltd.

“He makes sure that you will never again look at an electric-light switch in quite the same way. . . . Gives his material . . . [an] impassioned, fiery tone . . . He builds a galvanizing, intentionally polarizing case for the urgency of altering our patterns of energy use. . . . Detail-packed to the point of terrible fascination.” –Janet Maslin, New York Times

“Flannery’s best-selling synopsis of the science of climate change and the impact of global warming on everything from coral reefs to polar bears to cities is driven by an act-now imperative.” –Booklist

“Skeptical environmentalists in search or proof of human-induced global warming need look no further… This is an eloquent, informative and compelling book on an extremely important topic. Highly recommended.” –Halvard Buhaug, The Journal of Peace Research

“In the wake of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and more dire global weather developments, [The Weather Makers] seems more urgent, even prescient… The Weather Makers makes frighteningly clear why Flannery changed his mind and came to believe that climate change will dwarf all other global problems, if it hasn’t already. The writer also possesses an extraordinary ability to explain even complicated scientific studies in graphic terms accessible to the lay reader. The Weather Makers remains the most cogent single volume on climate change, and its author is a renowned international expert on this crucial subject.” –John Marshall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Focuses on the big picture, writes in bold language and broad strokes, and makes the most passionate and ultimately convincing plea for action. . . . A tour de force . . . An authoritative, scientifically accurate book on global warming that sparkles with life, clarity and intelligence . . . The secret . . . seems to be confident knowledge joined to a storyteller’s gifts and a writer’s determination to get it just right–a rare combination, and a powerful one when brought to bear on such a monumental topic.” –Thomas Hayden, Washington Post

“Passionate, well-researched . . . Takes a long view, offering an account of the history of earth’s shifting climate.” –Carl Zimmer, New York Times Book Review

“Comprehensive and extremely well-written, The Weather Makers has perhaps the best chance of inspiring actual policy change since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. . . . The data he marshals is unequivocal. . . . Flannery takes full advantage of the state of alarm he creates. . . . Even the most skeptical reader will wonder why, exactly, we are sitting on our hands.” –John Freeman, Newsday

“One hell of a weather book . . . Writ[ten] with the urgency of a thriller novelist.”
–Mickey Rapkin, GQ

“Tim Flannery has written a book that will equip the common reader with an understanding of why global warming will become, as he puts it, “the only issue.” The Weather Makers provides a remarkably thorough survey of the subject of climate change, bringing this abstract and diffuse issue to life… Flannery manages to be both comprehensive and concise… This bleak yet hopeful book tells what may become the central story of our time, a story that we still have the power to ensure is one of disaster averted.” –Wesley Yang, Plenty Magazine

“Sober, detailed and alarming without being alarmist” Flannery is especially clear on the global science.” –Jerry Adler, Newsweek

“Puts needed emphasis on the effects of human-made climate change on other life on the plant… He writes for a general audience with passion and clarity… Shocking estimate of the potential for climate change to extinguish life.” –Jim Hansen, The New York Review

“An enthralling crash course in climate change that benefits from Flannery’s offhand interdisciplinary brilliance. A” –Entertainment Weekly

“A fist-pounding case for the full-throttled imminence of global climate change.” –Men’s Journal

“Honest and spirited writing that makes this book a compelling read, and one that could melt public ambivalence. Flannery . . . deftly brings the complex field of climate science and its components such as greenhouse gases and global warming within reach of the lay reader.”
–Lori Valigra, Christian Science Monitor

“Flannery excels in his careful efforts to explain–in lay-acessible terms and flowing prose–how climate change happens. His tone, however, is neither pushy nor preachy.” –Jesse Lichtenstein, Bookforum

“A compelling work, dynamic and engaging.” – Library Journal

“A fine writer . . . Translates and summarizes an enormous swath of climate research . . . Flannery throws in enough asides and anecdotes to keep the science lively, but doesn’t skimp on the meaty details. . . . Extremely knowledgeable–and sobering.” –Michelle Nijhuis, Grist Magazine

“Nobody spells out the science of global warming better.” –Outside

“Explanatory science writing at its best, taking the inaccessible language of scientific research and translating it into meaningful language for lay readers.” –Cathy Zollo, Sarasota Herald-Tribune 

“A persuasive portrait of a threatened planet”An impressively researched, broad-ranging survey of the scientific foundations of climate science”.Flannery is at his best when describing the complex web of ecological relationships that can be disrupted by rapidly changing climate”.Chock-full of interesting facts’Can be understood easily by the average reader, yet even most researchers in climate science will learn a lot.” –Ken Caldeira, American Scientist

“Vying to become “the next Silent Spring“… One of the great strengths of The Weather Makers is Flannery’s remarkable ability to buttress the case about the urgency of climate change with complex scientific evidence explained in clear language accessible to lay readers. Indeed, this author is a surprisingly engaging guide to material that could be dense and arcane in less talented hands’.Flannery’s hugely important book is both a convincing analysis of climate change and a signal call to urgent action.” –John Marshall, Seattle Post Intelligencer

“Flannery excels in his careful efforts to explain–in lay-accessible terms and flowing prose–how climate change happens’ His tone, however, is neither pushy nor preachy.” –Jesse Lichtenstein, Wired.com

“Well-informed and clearly written.” –Future Surve

“Gripping, well-written . . . Will scare you out of your wits . . . Flannery . . . tackles the subject not as a reportorial fly on the wall but as a concerned and deeply informed citizen of the world. . . . Fascinating.” –David Laskin, Seattle Times

“No book on global warming is ever going to be definitive- our understanding of the science is advancing too fast. But Flannery’s should have a longer shelf life than most, and deservedly so.” –George Black, On Earth Magazine

“A stunning achievement ” Flannery’s blend of skepticism and optimism, scientific theory and historical precedent, offer an incredibly compelling argument of what the civilizations of the world must do to maintain an earth in balance.” –Rafi Rom, Toward Freedom

“Carefully documented, rigorously researched and quietly objective analysis of the perilous situation in which we have put ourselves and the rest of the world”.The Weather Makers is all the more convincing for its personal tone and scientific approach”..Don’t take my word for it. Read The Weather Makers for yourself. It’s the most thorough, readable and meticulous account of the global climate issue that you will find. I try to avoid clich’s, but this may be the most important book you will ever read.” –Rick Sullivan, The Grand Rapids Press

“Clearly written, easy to understand and, quite frankly, frightening.” –Scott Shalaway, Charleston Gazette 

“An expert, entertaining guide to the science behind climate change. His science is so solid ass to compel readers to pay attention. Flannery loves this subject, and the reader can’t help but be drawn excitedly into each of his short, pithy chapters. His explanation of the carbon cycle, for example, is one of the best descriptions of this phenomenon found anywhere. This is fervent writing, but not political ranting. Whatever your perspective on global warming, Flannery’s The Weather Makers is perhaps the best introduction to the subject to come along in a decade. For the reader seeking to better understand the history and science of global warming, The Weather Makers has been worth the wait, and may have come just in time. Grade: A” –Steve Ruskin, Rocky Mountain News

“Could not possibly be more relevant in today’s climate, both environmental and political . . . Excellent . . . Readers who wish to understand the reality of global warming and climate change should read . . . Flannery.” –Carl M. Bender, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Conservationist Tim Flannery sets out to show that in the future we will no longer be able to use the expression “acts of God” at all, as floods, hurricanes, tsunamis and mass species extinction will be acts of Man alone. He creates a vast picture, synthesizing dozens of studies.” –Cassandra Neyenesch, Brooklyn Rail

“The best resource on climate in general and global warming”Flannery combines deep understanding of the science of climatology and the ability to write.”
–Gerry Rising, Buffalo News

“A methodical, historical account of his subject in a style any educated reader can digest.”
–Frank Reiss, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A compelling, far-flung tour through the history and science of the Earth’s climate. For all of its technical sophistication, Flannery’s book is a surprisingly passionate work, finely balanced between science and personal experience. A” complete and profound work.” –Business Week

The Weather Makers…has already garnered press for causing the Australian government to change its official stance on global warming.” –Rachel Deahl, Publishers Weekly

“Flannery has done his job well, presenting the climate story engagingly in clear language, short paragraphs and avoiding overwrought scaremongering.”
–Steve Heilig, San Francisco Chronicle

“Flannery pulls no punches… [His] powerful warning is a quick-start guide that will inspire readers to make a difference by changing their environmental behaviors. An essential purchase for both academic and public libraries.”
–Gloria Maxwell, Kansas City, MO, Library Journal (starred)

“Both an urgent warning and a call to arms . . . Riveting.” –Chuckanut Reader

“He [Flannery] marshals fact after fact and skillfully weaves them into a very readable book. Flannery also avoids much of the hyperbole that is an occupational hazard for ecology writers… Flannery makes it clear that what we choose to do about global warming is crucially important to us and future generations. As his title states, we are The Weather Makers, and tomorrow’s climate depends on what we do today.”
–Phillip Manning, The News & Observer

“An urgent warning as well as a call to arms, this informative book outlines the history of climate change, how it will unfold over the next century, and what we can do to prevent a cataclysmic future.” –Aptos Times

“[Flannery] commands the reader’s attention with quite plausible projections of rising sea levels, possible desertification resulting from changing rain patterns and increasing crop failures, insurance costs, and litigation. But at the same time, a deep optimism and strong common sense pervade the text… Morally focused and lets his personality shine through… Worth reading.” –Chris Wiegard, Richmond Times-Dispatch

“One of a new breed of planetary heroes… Flannery brings a glimmer of hope with examples of how climate change can be reversed with existing technology.” –Meg Lowman, Herald Tribune

“A sobering, disturbing, alarming history of global climate change that boldly suggests a necessary shift in personal and national priorities’.Flannery succinctly and masterfully explains how our actions contribute to this global emergency and gives our shoulders a good shake to awaken us to what we can do about it.” –Adventure NW Magazine

“Flannery’s emphasis on hard science, and the fact that he’s a scientist rather than a scientific reporter, renders this harsh analysis’sobering and incisive.” –James E. McWilliams, Austin American Statesmen

“Presents a call to arms to readers while telling the history of climate change.” –Dennis Lythgoe, Deseret Morning News

“Flannery argues from trenchant, disquieting, abundant scientific evidence, and his discussion is balanced and lucid. . . . No one with an open mind can come away from The Weather Makers without being profoundly affected.” –Roger Smith, Salem Press

“Detailed but easily accessible style.” –Randy Lee Loftis, The Dallas Morning News

“A highly readable account of Earth’s past and present climatological condition, a book at once grounded and reverent”.The underlying message of The Weather Makers is simple. We need to do something, and we need to do something now”.This is an important book for anyone interested in the future of this planet.” –Rebeca Chapa, San Antonio Express News

“Rare is the scientist who can make the complexities of research accessible. Rarer still is the writer who can infuse scientific prose with the wonder of discovery and the thrill of a story well-told. Tim Flannery is that rare scientist-storyteller, and his latest volume, The Weather Makers, is a riveting landmark.” –Ron Geatz, Nature Conservancy

“After disturbing his audience with predictions of the imminent disappearance of coral reefs and polar bears, Flannery verbally accosts the industries and politicians he believes are responsible. This work is distinctive in its marriage of science to an act-now attitude and should energize environmentally minded readers.” –Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

“Flannery’s book deserves special attention” [The Weather Makers] combines one of the broadest surveys of climate change research with some of the clearest explanations of the underlying science, in a beautifully clear, breezy style” At the pace of a thriller he carries us through about 300 million years of climatic variations and on to humanity’s struggles in the 21st century” It’s a pleasure to read, alive with Flannery’s wonder and delight in the natural world.” –Fiona Harvey, the Financial Times Magazine (UK)

“A serious, lucid and far from dry examination of everything involved in the climate change story . . . Inevitably, a deeply disturbing read . . . Admirably concise.” –Susan Elderkin, Sunday Telegraph (UK)

“Flannery’s epic book deals remorselessly with these familiar signs of acute planetary stress, but adds something quite special. . . . He sees a terrible unraveling of the links that have bound Earth’s fabulously rich biosphere together, and in his exquisite delineation of their history and imminent endangerment his book becomes a hymn to life. It’s destruction would, to him, be a kind of blasphemy.” –Richard Mabey, Times (London)

“If you read only one book on global warming, make it The Weather Makers“.A concise eminently readable overview of climate science while passionately and persuasively arguing for immediate action.” –Pat Joesph, Sierra Magazine

“It would be hard to imagine a better or more important book.” –Bill Bryson

“This is the book the world has been waiting for–and needing–for decades. At last, a book that sets out, for the general public, the irrefutable evidence that climate change is already happening, and we need to become very serious about it–fast.” –Professor Peter Singer, internationally renowned author and ethicist

“In his previous books, Tim Flannery took us on compelling journeys into the human and non-human past. Now he brings his wit, wisdom, and eloquence to bear on our future as a civilization, a future we have recklessly undermined but may still be able to secure. Thoroughly researched, closely reasoned, and eloquently written, The Weather Makers is a book of the utmost importance to everyone on Earth. It is essential reading for the halls of power, especially in Canberra, Texas, and Washington.” –Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress, broadcast as the Massey Lecture series 2004

“This is a magnificent book; exciting, poetic, passionate–and full of knowledge we all need and can act upon before it’s too late.” –Redmond O’Hanlon

“With his usual outstanding writing, Tim Flannery has introduced us to a whole interconnected world of climate change, one that has been much debated but little understood. It is difficult to misunderstand the convincing connections presented in this landmark book, which should be read by everyone concerned with the world’s future. Climate change is the single-most important driving force that will negatively affect the future of the human race unless we do something about it now. Tim Flannery makes it clear why this is so and provides a blueprint for getting ahead of the curve and creating a sustainable world for the future.” –Peter H. Raven, Director, Missouri Botanical Garden

“This concise and elegantly written book arms us with the facts we need to change our ways (and the calamitous ways of our handlers). Tremendously informative. Essential reading.”
–Joy Williams, author of Ill Nature

“With The Weather Makers, Tim Flannery, himself a creative scientist, adds a blend of poetical writing and historical perspective to an amazingly clear and comprehensive tour of the complex climate change world. He starts in early Earth history and brings us to the present predicament–and names names of who is primarily responsible–us, especially via careless management, crass consumerism, corporate greed, political corruption and media indifference. This is a beautifully written guide for anyone interested in the increasingly serious climate change problem to learn what is going on.” –Stephen H. Schneider, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and Co-Director of the Center for Environmental Science and Policy at the Stanford Institute for International Studies

“The finest account of the overwhelming science behind global warming. Flannery gives us a terrifying glimpse of the future.” –Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

“Finally, a book about a global crisis that people can understand. All of us who are dubious, or skeptical, or can’t make sense of the passionate warnings about climate change will find in this book a clear distillation of the salient facts and their meaning.” –Sharon Butala, author of Lilac Moon and The Perfection of the Morning(and one of Canada’s most popular nature and natural history authors)

“An overwhelming account of how climate change is affecting the world today. Presented with a vast array of information in a readable and convincing way, The Weather Makers shows clearly that decisive action is needed now.” –Chief Emeka Anyaoku, President, World Wildlife Fund International “Until The Weather Makers, nobody since Bill McKibben had told the tale of what this global warming beast will be like as it awakens. Super hurricanes are understood as omens as Flannery weaves the science, politics and the economics together in a tale as frightening as it must have been when Hitler was marching across Europe. When he writes, “there has been little reason for our blindness, except perhaps for an unwillingness to look such horror in the face and say, “You are my creation,”… I believe he will inspire us to destroy this creation before it destroys us.” –John Passacantando, Executive Director, Greenpeace USA “We have to shift the debate on global warming this year and this book is going to help make that happen.” –Laurie David, Environmental activist, founder of stopglobalwarming.org, and wife of Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Larry David

“Our ultimate folly could be reckless change of the climatic system on which life on earth and our civilization depend. The Weather Makers is a wonderfully lucid and compelling account of the climate change issue and how its solution is in our own hands. This is Tim Flannery’s best and most important book.” –Thomas E. Lovejoy, President, The Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment

“No current field of study is as diverse or as important to the planet’s future as global warming. Tim Flannery has assimilated a vast amount of really alarming information and turned it–beautifully–into a truly terrifying book. The Weather Makers should make us all sit up nights, taking notice.” –Wayne Grady, author of The Quiet Limit of the World: A Journey to the North Pole to Investigate Global Warming

“Flannery allows the reader to understand and explain why humans ought to alter the atmosphere with humility. We and other species already have experienced climate change, and humans have tipped the 10,000-year balance between carbon dioxide emissions and absorption. Through a combination of personal responsibility and international law, we must slow the pace of change to give the global community a chance to reflect and plan.” –Bill White, Mayor of Houston

“Flannery does a masterful job shaking us loose from our societal stupor regarding climate change. This is a thorough, yet accessible, review of all previous research regarding climate change; a common-person’s guide to how our planet’s systems operate; and a passionate, fact-based call to action. I can’t imagine reading this book and not being disturbed, alarmed, and ready to work for a shift in national priorities.” –Chris Morrow, Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Venter, VT, Book Sense quote

“This book makes for some scary reading. Unfortunately the author has all the credentials to be believable.” –Lilo Eder, Fort Ashby Books, Fort Ashby, WV

The Weather Makers is an intelligent, persuasive, and timely contribution to the subject, and one I believe readers will take to. . . . If our children and grandchildren are going to enjoy life on this planet, or have a life on it at all, we must get to work immediately. Flannery makes clear the doubt that big business and big government will solve the critical problem of global warming, which isn’t just an issue; it is the issue. Flannery comments that whatever “efforts of government and industry will come to naught unless the good citizen and consumer takes the initiative”.” –Richard Howorth, Mayor of Oxford, MS

“The customer who first bought The Weather Makers from my store came back the next day and bought 3 copies for friends. I have the same impulse, on a larger scale. As a bookseller, I feel I have a moral imperative to bring this landmark book to as many people as I can.” –Sarah McNally, McNally Robinson Booksellers

“I have found a book that everyone must read. . . . For the first time (dare I say “ever”) comes readable account of the past, present, and future of Earth’s climate. . . . For those of you who have been screaming apocalyptic nonsense for years, here is your theoretical bible with which to beat people over the head. . . . Try to refute this book.”
–Richard Pietsch, Kynd Music/Right Action

“The enormity of what Flannery projects is hard to imagine, but he writes in such clear prose and substantiates his theories so well that he leaves little doubt to any open-minded reader” –Nola Theiss, Kliatt


One of The Toronto Star’s Ten Most Influential Books of the Past Decade
Selected as an ALA Notable Book of the Year 2006
Selected as a 2006 Washington Post Book World Most Favorable Reviews title
A Book Sense Selection



There must be an intricate security system to ensure that exotic outlaw species do not evolve into rampantly criminal syndicates …

When a species … produces a poisonous substance, it may well kill itself. If, however, the poison is more deadly to its competitors it may manage to survive and in time both adapt to its own toxicity and produce even more lethal forms of pollutant.

–James Lovelock, Gaia

Until a black mood takes her and she rages about our heads, most of us are unaware of our atmosphere. The “atmosphere”: what a dull name for such a wondrous thing. And it’s hardly specific. I remember, when I was a child, my great-aunt sitting with my mother at our kitchen table, a cup of tea in hand, saying meaningfully, “You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.” If we took the same linguistic approach to things maritime, we would use the catchall word water to replace sea and ocean, leaving us with no way to indicate whether we meant a glassful or half a planet’s worth of hydrogen oxide, as H2O is properly known.

It was Alfred Russel Wallace, cofounder with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection, who came up with the phrase “the Great Aerial Ocean” to describe the atmosphere. It’s a far better name, because it conjures in the mind’s eye the currents, eddies, and layers that create the weather far above our heads, and that are all that stand between us and the vastness of space. Wallace’s phrase was born of a romantic era of scientific discovery when both amateurs and professionals were making significant contributions toward understanding why cyclones rage in certain regions of the globe, and how “carbonic acid,” as carbon dioxide was sometimes described, affects the distributions of plants and animals.

Reading such work, you get the sense that their discoveries caused as much excitement as did the dredging up of monsters from the deep or, more contemporarily, pictures sent from Mars. Staid scientists would write rapturously of atmospheric dust: What an astonishing thing it is, Wallace mused, that without dust, sunsets would be as dull as dishwater, our glorious blue sky would be as black and uniform as ink, and shadows would be so dark and razor edged as to be as impenetrable as concrete to our sight. 

Today the wonders of the atmosphere are often reduced to dry facts that, where they are known at all, are learned by rote by bored school-children. Despite having been forced to swallow them when at school, I still find the workings of the atmosphere fascinating. It connects everything with everything else and thus performs many services that we take for granted.

It is in our lungs that we connect to our Earth’s great aerial bloodstream, and in this way the atmosphere inspires us from our first breath to our last. The time-honored customs of slapping newborns on the bottom to elicit a drawing of breath, and the holding up of a mirror to the lips of the dying are bookmarks of our existence. And it is the atmosphere’s oxygen that sparks our inner fire, permitting us to move, eat, and reproduce–indeed to live. Clean, fresh air gulped straight from the great aerial ocean is not just an old-fashioned tonic for human health, it is life itself, and thirty pounds of it are required by every adult, every day of their lives.

The great aerial ocean, indivisible and omnipresent, has so regulated our planet’s temperature that for nearly 4 billion years Earth has remained the sole known cradle of life amid an infinity of dead gases, rock, and dust. Such a feat is as improbable as the development of life itself; but the two cannot be separated, for the great aerial ocean is the cumulative effusion of everything that has ever breathed, grown, and decayed. Perhaps it is the means by which life perpetuates the conditions necessary for its existence. If this is so, two profound questions naturally arise: How can the individual components that constitute life coordinate their efforts; and (more immediately relevant to ourselves) what can be said of species that threaten that equilibrium?

In 1979 the mathematician James Lovelock published a book, Gaia, that delved deeply into these questions.1 Lovelock argued that Earth was a single, planet-sized organism, which he named Gaia after an ancient Greek earth goddess. Anyone who has lived close to nature will recognize the thing Lovelock was describing, but because his arguments seemed mystical, they discomfited many scientists.

The atmosphere, Lovelock concluded, is Gaia’s great organ of interconnection and temperature regulation. He describes it as “not merely a biological product, but more probably a biological construction: not living, but like a cat’s fur, a bird’s feathers, or the paper nest of a wasp, an extension of a living system designed to maintain a chosen environment.”2 This notion was considered heretical by many, and until Carl Sagan accepted Lovelock’s manuscript for the journal Icarus, it faced the prospect of remaining unpublished. In truth, Lovelock had few examples to explain how life might act to regulate Earth’s temperature. About the best he could offer was the instance of some microorganisms that inhabit salt marshes where the salt crystals, by reflecting light back to space, keep them cool. These microorganisms turn black as winter approaches, thereby absorbing heat and warming Earth.

More important to his argument than such flimsy evidence was a profound paradox. The sun, like all stars, has become more intense as it has aged. Since life evolved, its rays have increased in intensity by 30 percent, yet the temperature of the surface of our planet has remained relatively constant. A drop of one tenth of 1 percent in the solar radiation reaching Earth can trigger an ice age; so Earth’s long-term climatic stability, Lovelock argued, could not have resulted from mere chance.

One reason biologists were so resistant to the concept of Gaia was that they could not imagine species cooperating globally to achieve such an outcome. Indeed, driven by Richard Dawkins’s selfish gene theory, most biology was going in the opposite direction–toward a concept of the world wherein even individual genes were at war with each other. The most devastating rebuttal of the Gaia hypothesis is that it is teleological. Lovelock asserted that the likelihood of Earth’s surface temperature resulting from chance was about the same as surviving a drive through peak-hour traffic blindfolded, to which the biologist W. Ford Doolittle replied:

I think he is right; the prolonged survival of life is an event of extraordinary low probability. It is however an event which is a prerequisite for the existence of Jim Lovelock and thus for the formation of the Gaia hypothesis… . Surely if a large enough number of blindfold drivers launched themselves into rush-hour traffic, one would survive, and surely he, unaware of the existence of his less fortunate colleagues, would suggest that something other than good luck was the cause.3
It’s a fair enough view, but before accepting it, let’s look at what evidence in favor of Lovelock has been produced since 1979.

The most compelling proof has to do with the idea that, as life has diversified, Gaia has become better at regulating Earth’s temperature. For nearly half of its existence–from 4 billion to around 2.2 billion years ago–Earth’s atmosphere would have been deadly to creatures such as us. Back then all life was microscopic–algae and bacteria–and its hold on our planet was tenuous. By around 600 million years ago oxygen levels had increased enough to permit the survival of larger creatures–ones whose fossils can be seen with the unaided eye. These early organisms lived during a period of momentous climate change, when four major ice ages gripped the planet, indicating that back then Earth’s thermoregulation was not as effective as it is today. Carbonate deposited in rocks (thus taking CO2 out of the atmosphere) indicates that there was something odd about the carbon cycle back then. Organic matter was being buried at an unprecedented rate. Maybe the breakup of the early continents opened troughs in the ocean floor that rapidly filled with organic-rich sediment, and this led to a runaway refrigeration of the planet. Whatever the case, with less CO2 in the atmosphere, Earth began to get very cold. Twice–around 710 million and again at 600 million years ago–Earth crossed a threshold that all but exterminated life, freezing our planet right to the equator.4
Whatever its ultimate cause, Earth’s deep freeze must have been aided by a powerful mechanism known as Earth’s albedo. Albedo is Latin for “whiteness,” and of course a snow-covered Earth is a lot whiter than one that isn’t. The importance of this can be seen from the fact that one third of all energy reaching Earth from the sun is reflected back to space by white surfaces. Fresh snow reflects the most light (80–90 percent), but all forms of ice and snow reflect far more sunlight than does water (5–10 percent). Once a certain proportion of the planet’s surface is bright ice and snow, enough sunlight is lost that a runaway cooling effect is created, which freezes the entire planet. That threshold is crossed when ice sheets reach around 30 degrees of latitude.
Around 540 million years ago living things began to build skeletons of carbonate, and to do this they absorbed CO2 from sea water. This affected CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and ever since then ice ages have been rare. Only twice–between 355 and 280 million years ago, and for the past 33 million years–have they prevailed. An ingenious theory to explain why this might be so has been put forward by Andy Ridgwell of the University of Riverside, California, and his colleagues.5 They argue that the evolution of tiny, shell-forming plankton more than 300 million years ago was a crucial step in stabilizing Gaia’s thermostat. Before that, if Earth’s temperature dropped for any reason, ice would form and the level of the ocean would fall, exposing the continental shelves. This in turn disrupted the carbon cycle, allowing the oceans to draw ever greater amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere, which drove temperatures ever lower. The planktonic calcifiers changed all that because they were not tied to the continental shelves. Instead, they floated in the open ocean, so the cycling of carbon through their bodies and into the ocean sediments was not as influenced by exposure of the continental shelves. As a result, the oceans were prevented from absorbing too much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby breaking the self-reinforcing cycle that hitherto had turned a slight chill into a full-blown ice age.
If there was ever a single great advance in the establishment of Gaia, the evolution of the planktonic calcifiers was certainly it; but at around the time they were proliferating, other changes were occurring that would also have a profound impact on Earth’s thermostat. This was during the Carboniferous Period, when forests first covered the land, and when most of the coal deposits that now feed our industry were laid down. All of the carbon in that coal was once tied up in CO2 floating in the atmosphere, so those primitive forests must have had an enormous influence on the carbon cycle.
Other evolutionary events are likely to have influenced the carbon cycle, but, because most have not been studied in detail, we cannot be sure about whether they refined Gaia’s thermostatic control. The evolution and spread of modern coral reefs around 55 million years ago drew unimaginable volumes of CO2 from the atmosphere, further altering Gaia; the evolution and spread of grasses around 6–8 million years ago may have changed things in a very different way. Computer simulations reveal that forests would be far more widespread were it not for grasses and the fire they engender. Forests contain much more carbon than does grass, and they also absorb more sunlight (having a different albedo) and produce more water vapor, which affects cloud formation. All of these things influence Gaia’s capacity to regulate temperature.6 Another likely influence on Gaia’s thermostat is the elephant, a great destroyer of forests. Like humans, its original homeland was Africa, and as it spread across the planet around 20 million years ago (only Australia escaped colonization), it too must have affected the carbon cycle.
Despite the growing sophistication of our understanding of how life works to affect Earth’s temperature and chemistry, there is still much debate about Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. Does it really matter whether Gaia exists or not? I think it does, for it influences the very way we see our place in nature. Someone who believes in Gaia sees everything on Earth as being intimately connected to everything else, just as are organs in a body. In such a system, pollutants cannot simply be shunted out of sight and forgotten, and every extinction is seen as an act of self-mutilation. As a result, a Gaian worldview predisposes its adherents to sustainable ways of living. In our modern world, however, the reductionist world-view is in the ascendant, and its adherents often see human actions in isolation. It is a reductionist worldview that has brought the present state of climate change upon us.
This is not to say that a Gaian philosophy inevitably makes for good environmental practice. I frequently hear people say that all will be okay with climate change because “Gaia will sort it out.” When Lovelock argued that “there must be an intricate security system to ensure that exotic outlaw species do not evolve into rampantly criminal syndicates’ that disrupt Gaia’s thermostat, he seems to agree. Yet notwithstanding the destruction of human civilization through the agency of climate change, it’s difficult to imagine just how Gaia would ‘sort it out.” And even if she does manage to rid herself of us, we would take so many other species with us that the repair job to Earth’s biodiversity would take tens of millions of years.
The eminent biologist John Maynard Smith said of the debate between Gaian adherents and the reductionists, “It would be as foolish to argue about which of these views is correct as it would be to argue whether algebra or geometry is the correct way to solve problems in science. It all depends on the problem you are trying to solve.”7 And this is the view I will take here, for the questions I wish to address are more amenable to a Gaian approach than to a reductionist one. So let’s use the term Gaia as shorthand for the complex system that makes life possible, while recognizing all the while that it may result from chance.

Reading Group Guide

1. “One of the biggest obstacles to making a start on climate change is that it has become a clich” before it has even been understood” (p. 8). What did you know about global warming and climate change before you read this book?

2. Discuss at least three reasons why climate change differs from other environmental issues.

3. Explain and compare Alfred Russel Wallace’s concept of “the Great Aerial Ocean” (p. 12) with James Lovelock’s idea of “Gaia” (p. 13). Which of the greenhouse gases are made by man and do not exist in nature? What effect do greenhouse gases have on the atmosphere?

4. Which of the four layers of the atmosphere contains breathable air? Trace gases, which include the greenhouse gases, are only one-twentieth of one percent of the breathable air, but ‘some of them are vital to life on this planet” (p. 21). Discuss the main greenhouse gases and the sources for each.

5. Explain the connection between greenhouse gases, global warming, and climate change.

6. Which greenhouse gas destroys the trace gas ozone? Why is the ozone layer in the stratosphere important?

7. What is the significance of the Montreal Protocol?

8. The most abundant greenhouse gas is CO2 and it “is very long lived in the atmosphere” (p. 28). Since the Industrial Revolution, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from 280 parts per million to 380 parts per million. What is the Keeling Curve? Why did the author ‘see that graph as the Silent Spring of climate change” (p. 26)?

9. What did James Hansen’s study, published in 2005, reveal about global warming?

10. Global warming of 1.1oF “has proved sufficient to inflict acute distress on large regions such as the Sahel, the Arctic, and subantarctic waters’ (p. 208). What was the cause of the Sahelian climate shift? What effect has climate change had on the Inuit of Canada? What caused the decline of the krill population in Antarctica?

11. What was the first documented victim of global warming? What caused it to become extinct?

12. “We need to reduce our CO2 emissions by 70 percent by 2050″ (p. 6). This requires decarbonization of the power grid. What are some fuels that produce less CO2 than coal? Discuss the pros and cons of other ways of producing energy that don’t involve burning fossil fuels.

13. What are carbon sinks? ‘some of these sinks are very large, but they are not infinite, nor is their size steady through time” (p. 32). What are some of the problems that develop with excess CO2 in the ocean? Discuss geosequestration of CO2.

14. “The Kyoto Protocol may be the most bitterly contested international treaty ever to be realized” (p. 222). Why? What are carbon credits? Does it go far enough in reducing CO2 production? Often the objections to making the changes necessary to reduce CO2 emissions are economic “[y]et the cost of compliance is only half of the equation, for to make a truly informed decision about Kyoto . . . we need to know the cost of doing nothing” (p. 235). Discuss the growing costs of natural disasters.

15. “The transition to a carbon-free economy is eminently achievable because we have all the technology we need to do so’ (p. 7). What is stopping this from happening? What is the Global Climate Coalition?

16. Discuss a particular fact or concept about global warming or climate change that surprised or alarmed you.

17. How is the rainforest affected by increased CO2 levels?

18. In 1986 our world population reached 5 billion and we were using all of the earth’s sustainable production. Since 1986 we have been running an environmental deficit budget. Each person today uses four times as much energy as people did one hundred years ago. How is this possible?

19. If serious damage to the ecosystem is not prevented the author envisions an “Earth Commission for Thermostatic Control” (p. 291). Explain what this would be. Do you think that this would ever happen?

20. How far into the book were you before you realized who the weather makers are?

21. What are some simple changes that the author suggests you can make to reduce household emissions? Can you add some other changes that are not in this book? Would you feel comfortable suggesting some of these simple changes to your friends, co-workers or employer?

22. What are some other changes requiring a larger financial commitment that you could make to reduce CO2 now?

23. Do you think that it is feasible to generate your own electricity by using solar panels?

24. Would your employer be open to the suggestion of an energy audit since it would most likely save energy and money?

25. Do you find it easy to conserve energy? Discuss some ways that you have changed your behavior directly or indirectly due to global warming.

26. Have you had personal experience of serious weather conditions that may be attributed to global warming?

27. ‘sometime this century, the day will arrive when the human influence on the climate will overwhelm all natural factors’ (p. 284). Explain why you agree or disagree with statement.

28. “[F]or we are now the weather makers, and the future of biodiversity and civilization hangs on our actions’ (p. 306). Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of our world? After reading this book are you sobered by the weight of the responsibility that each of us has for future generations?

Suggestions for further reading:

The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity by James Lovelock; Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Colbert; Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate by William Ruddiman