Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ian McEwan's Solar

I devour any new novel by Ian McEwan, so I couldn't wait to read the much anticipated Solar. Much anticipated because apparently it was 'a sort of comic treatment of climate change', and how could McEwan do this and pull it off? Comedy? After the ultra earnest On Chesil Beach? You have to be kidding!

Well, pull it off he does. Solar is superb. It's not a comedy - there are simply some very funny elements. And it's not about climate change - that is simply the intellectual setting, if you like.

This book is really an absorbing exploration of a very contemporary, post-modern obsession: fact v fiction; truth v narrative; the construction of an appealing, acceptable face to the world.

On the surface it's a simple story. Professor Michael Beard, Noble prize-winning physicist, spirals into total dissolution - physical, moral, social, intellectual. It's a long, slow suicide. But McEwan makes him entirely sympathetic. The man's passions, appetites and lusts can't hide a deep insecurity within, a longing for genuineness and integrity that constantly elude him.

There are some laugh out loud moments in the book that are more Ben Elton than Ian McEwan, but I predict Solar will be another very well-received novel for this eminently readable author. In some ways it out-McEwans McEwan. This master of the quotidian round, at home or at work - shattered as it always is by an event that fractures - outdoes himself here, propelling the story to its inevitable conclusion. Whether it has the sort of 'literary' merit always associated with this Booker prize-winning author, that will be endlessly debated.

In my view, Michael Beard is a wonderful creation, and he deserves to live forever!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Requiem for a Species: Clive Hamilton's new book.

Clive Hamilton's Requiem for a Species is an extremely well-written, passionate and angry treatise on humankind's seeming unwillingness to confront the alarming global warming that threatens our very survival. Hamilton is not so much an alarmist as a catastrophist. He reviews, lucidly, the latest climate change science, and questions what it is that is holding back dramatic and necessary political and economic action by virtually all governments around the world. He slams all sceptics, accusing them of only shameful political agendas.

This is a post-Copenhagen book. It takes for granted that CO2 emissions will continue apace, that resolute political action is now far too late and in any case will be insufficient and tokenistic, and that humankind is in for a very rough future as the 21st century unfolds. It's a clear-eyed, terribly depressing portrait, with only small glimmers of hope.

Robert Manne's lead article in this month's The Monthly magazine is similarly pessimistic. (

Both Hamilton and Manne, not being scientists themselves, clearly belong to the James Hansen climate science camp. Hansen has recently toured Australia and is usually referred to as 'the world's leading climate change scientist', and I've briefly reviewed his book in a previous post. (

I'm not a scientist either, but I've read enough to know that there are plenty of other scientific perspectives on this issue, perspectives that we need to seriously consider before we run off and collectively slash our wrists in despair, or indeed take political and economic actions that are unnecessary and unwise. Hansen's views are essentially based on the physics of CO2 in the atmosphere, a physics that is calculable and formula-based. Effects are measurable. A certain increase in CO2 means a certain global temperature rise; a certain global temperature rise means a certain amount of ice melting; a certain amount of ice melting means a certain amount of sea level rise; a certain amount a sea level rise means a certain amount of havoc to human populations. Etc. All will follow as night follows day. All measurable and therefore predictable.

Here is a quote from Hansen that perfectly sums up his view. It is a quote I find absolutely shocking because, as an intelligent layman, I am asked to believe it: '..with humans on the planet there will never be another ice age...A few geologists continue to speak as if they expect Earth to proceed into the next glacial cycle, just as it would have if humans were not around. That glacial period would begin with an ice sheet developing and growing in northern Canada. But why would we allow such an ice sheet to grow, and flow, and eventually crush major cities, when we could prevent it with the greenhouse gases from a single chlorofluorocarbon factory? Humans are now 'in charge' of future climate'. (p.229)

To my mind this defies common sense and ordinary human experience. It's myopia writ large. Ian Plimer has a great line in his book Heaven+Earth that addresses this hubris: '..humans are an insignificant short-lived recent terrestrial vertebrate living on a planet where natural forces are many orders of magnitude greater than any human force.'

Despite what we are continually led to believe, this 'physical', formulaic atmospheric science has not been universally embraced by the world's climate scientists as the sole or even dominant perspective in the field. It ignores so many other dimensions of the world's climate system - solar cycles, cloud behaviour, ocean dynamics, precipitation patterns, etc. Climate science is a rich, complex and developing field of study, containing much uncertainty and much that is still unknown.

Clive Hamilton and his peers have much fun name-calling skeptics like me as 'old, white males with far too much time on their hands'! There's truth in that, as many skeptics are simply embarrassing, ignorant, conservative know-nothings who give credence to fools like Christopher Monckton. And far too many skeptical scientists have become so angry with the way they've been sidelined in the debate that they've allowed themselves to be captured by political charlatans and fools. Professor Bob Carter is a perfect example. He's written some excellent articles on climate change but he's also written some absolute rubbish. This piece for instance was rejected by the ABC's the DRUM two weeks ago presumably because it was so dreadful, but was subsequently published in Quadrant Online:

There are new climate change books being published virtually on a daily basis. I'm still waiting, however, for the one that nicely brings all perspectives together and offers a well-honed critique of the state of play that can move the debate forward in a calm, measured, rational way.

That may be impossible, as it requires a wisdom that far transcends anger. We're a long way from that yet.