Book Review: 'The Fate of the Species'

Scientific American writer Fred Guterl's new book The Fate of the Species should come with some warnings on the cover: "Not for those with even a modicum of anxiety. Not for reading on bad days. Consume pleasant media after use." He speculates on deadly new viruses and malware that can take down nations. I read the book just after seeing the movie Contagion again and had to put it down at points to differentiate between the warnings in the book and those from the fictional movie -- and remind myself just how real the threat could be.

In describing the most pressing dangers to the human species, Guterl spends considerable time talking about climate change. Though he believes that viruses pose probably the most direct threat to humans, he believes climate change is the most vexing because of how little we know about our ability to predict vast changes in a system as complicated as Earth's climate.

Speaking of the climate in terms of global averages is frustrating to Guterl. "(C)limate models are notoriously bad about predicting how a two-degree centigrade temperature rise will affect the Indian monsoons or nor'easters in the United States, or whether the drought in the west will go away anytime soon," he writes.

In the serious tone they deserve, Guterl talks about climate flips, or tipping points, in the systems of regional climate that could go on to impact other regions. He draws on the work of Marten Scheffer, who grew to become influential in the study of dynamic climate factors by working to try to clear up pond scum in the Netherlands. Guterl notes that these regional flips have occurred historically, such as when cold weather in Greenland coincided with sudden climate shifts affecting the water cycle in European forests and in Africa. Similarly, northern cold is known to have brought on drought in Africa and India; El Niño in the Pacific triggered the U.S. Dust Bowl.

Guterl interviews Tim Lenton of the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom to find out the parts of global climate most prone to a flip. He warns about more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affecting India's monsoons, ice at the north pole melting and heating Greenland, Greenland's glaciers melting and affecting ocean currents, the west Antarctica ice sheet calving and causing increased sea levels, deforestation or a die-off in the Amazon affecting air circulation and the El-Niño-Southern Oscillation causing rapid weather change. All of these patterns could reinforce climate change already underway and some of them could even reinforce each other.

The author even notes that large, centralized electricity grids could be a potential downfall of civilization and perhaps the species if they are attacked by malware. This makes the argument for distributed generation, in which power is sourced closer to the end user, a possibility in mitigating this threat.

In terms of the climate change debate, Guterl strikes a welcome balance. He understands deeply the difficulty of dealing with climate change but is hopeful that there can be a solution. While he holds no truck with deniers, he straddles the fence between technological interventionists and those who advocate a more drastic approach to curbing carbon dioxide emissions. (He may tip his hand a bit, spending more time talking about Harvard climate scientist David Keith's idea to lower temperatures by injecting sulfur into the stratosphere and by discussing carbon capture and storage rather than carbon dioxide reduction schemes.) His only hot-button paragraph is the following: "A significant part of the environmentalist movement has at bottom the notion of taking the world back to a simpler time, when humans were closer to nature, before technology got us into this mess in the first place." Most environmentalists wouldn't agree with his assessment, or like his tepid reception of locally grown food.

Some of the interesting points his book raises include the facts that no-till agriculture can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as can the production of synthetic meat. He also provides some talking points for President Obama in his promotion of algae as a biofuel by outlining how the Great Oxidation by early forms of algae 2.4 billion years ago paved the way for life on Earth. If algae started all this, maybe it can save us too?

Overall, the book is an important read that tackles climate change topics as well as other developments in science that could bring us to the brink. They could also depress us. Psychologists say that slightly depressed people view reality more accurately as they answer more questions correctly on memory tests. It might be worth it to learn a little more about the depressing truths that humans are facing, with our climate and with other concerns, to be better prepared for what might come.