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Requiem for a Species

Book Review by Camilla Royle, May 2010

Clive Hamilton, Earthscan, £14.99

Requiem for a Species is promoted as the first book to spell out the implications of humanity's failure to reach an agreement at last year's climate talks in Copenhagen.

The conclusions Clive Hamilton draws are often alarming. He points out, for example, that our carbon dioxide emissions over the past century have already increased global average temperatures by 0.8 degrees Celsius, and as there is a delay before greenhouse gas emissions cause warming there is an additional 0.7 degrees Celsius of unavoidable warming on the way.

Therefore, limiting temperature rise to 1 degree Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels - which many delegates were calling for at Copenhagen - is impossible. Hamilton also sees the prospect of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius as extremely unlikely and argues that a temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius is a more realistic idea of what to expect.

The book conveys the panic felt within the scientific community at the prospect of these changes - which would raise sea levels by several metres, destroying island states and making rain-fed agriculture impossible in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The fact that many respected scientists are seriously considering geo-engineering - artificially engineering the planet - in order to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis gives some idea of the seriousness of the situation. One geo-engineering proposal, putting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere, could mean that humanity never sees blue skies again. This is one of the more rational suggestions.

Hamilton advocates that we face up to the reality of the situation and "enter a phase of desolation and hopelessness" before we learn to cope with the fact that the future is going to be very different from how we had hoped it would be. However, the book doesn't give much idea about the causes of climate change. A whole chapter of the book discusses the role of consumerism in the developed world. Although the rise of consumerist society is disturbing in itself (according to one study the first recognisable word spoken by one in four British children is a brand name) it then goes on to conclude that changing our individual lifestyles won't make any difference and what we need is collective action.

Hamilton is dismissive of what he calls the "far left" - equating all socialist organisations with the former Revolutionary Communist Party, who accused environmentalists of inventing climate change in order to attack the working class. This is a shame, as much of the book is about the disconnection between human society and the natural world - a subject that Marxist authors have covered in depth.

Requiem for a Species is recommended for those who want to get a clearer picture of the science of climate change as it reveals what scientists are saying in private. Hamilton is understandably angry at the corporate lobbyists who have encouraged climate change denial and deserve to be "cast into the eternal flames of hell". He also accepts that we should at least try to do something about climate change, but he just doesn't give much idea of what that something is.


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