‘Six Degrees’ by Mark Lynas – A review

In its 2001 Third Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), predicted an average global temperature rise of between 1.4o and 5.8o by the end of the century. In ‘Six Degrees’, Mark Lynas draws together half a century of scientific research to present a comprehensive, degree-by-degree study of the effects of global warming on the planet. The IPCC’s prediction becomes far more worrying when it is considered they state 2o degrees as the limit of manageable global warming. As Lynas himself points out, ‘climate change is the canvas on which the history of the twenty-first century will be painted’.

We begin with 1o – a level no longer deemed achievable by the IPCC, therefore making this chapter’s events all inevitable: a scary proposition. The “dustbowl” of the American mid-west in the 1930’s will return to even greater effect, creating a Nebraskan desert as the fertile top soil of this area is stripped away exposing the sand beneath. Though the state’s people may not be missed, Nebraska is the highest producer of red meat in the USA, selling over 3 billion kilos annually. Meanwhile, across the pond in Europe, the Alpine skiing industry will collapse quite literally as melting snow triggers huge avalanches every year. The Great Barrier Reef is also likely to become extinct, with 70% of all corals already dead or dying. Lynas pulls no punches, stating in his final chapter that ‘the Alpine glaciers, the Nebraskan grazing lands and the resplendent coral reefs are already condemned by events which lie in the past.’

2o signals irrevocable damage to Earth’s biodiversity. A 2004 study published in Nature predicted that ‘over a third of all species would be ‘committed to extinction’ by the time global temperatures reached two degrees’. Like much of the effects of climate change, this is not due to the level of warming, but its unprecedented speed, a key argument lost on those, like the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who play down the dangers of global warming. Such speed prevents evolution saving many species as they are unable to adjust their range fast enough towards the poles (‘In Holland, populations of pied flycatchers have declined by 90 per cent… because their chicks hatching is currently mistimed with the advancing spring’). This is compounded by human’s already catastrophic impact on the natural world – ‘species are already becoming extinct at a rate of 100-1,000 times greater than the normal background rate’ – trapping many species in ever decreasing pockets of habitat.

The book’s remaining chapters continue in a similarly chilling fashion, revealing how humanity will become ever more confined to the poles, as nature is systematically annihilated. These chapters also reveal the worst of our fate: an unstoppable positive feedback cycle taking global warming out of our control. The release of methane hydrates, a gas 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat; the end of the albedo effect as all Arctic sea ice is melted; wildfires in the Amazon releasing carbon dioxide trapped in plants – these will all create an unimaginable ‘vicious cycle’ of warming, irreversibly changing the planet. 5o and 6o begin to call into question the survival of the human species itself, as we herd ourselves into ever smaller fragments of the planet. The assault on the ozone layer would leave the sun’s rays strong enough to trigger ‘outbreaks of cancer amongst anyone who survived’ whilst the new coastal areas created by massive sea level rise would become virtually uninhabitable given the upwelling of toxic hydrogen sulphide from the ocean’s depth. However, though Lynas concludes that human extinction would be ‘unlikely’ given humans’ ‘unique combination of intelligence and a strong survival instinct’, billions of people would inevitably die as we run out of habitable space.

The books ends with a chapter entitled ‘Choosing our future’: Lynas’ plea to us all to act now to stop an almost incomprehensible murder of human and natural population alike. Sadly, Lynas’ assertion that we cannot let atmospheric levels pass 400ppm is now outdated as in April this year readings of 400ppm were recorded at Mauna Loa, Hawaii for the first time in the history of the planet. This only serves to strengthen Lynas’ message that our ‘path lies not in passively accepting our destructive role, but in actively resisting such a horrendous fate. ‘Six Degrees’ is a landmark achievement, assimilating the work of thousands of scientists, and equipping our generation for potentially the hardest fight in the short history of humanity: stopping climate change.

Contributed by Ben Williamson

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