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Heatstroke – Anthony D. Barnosky *****

I thought I knew what this book would be about as soon as I saw that subtitle ‘nature in an age of global warming’. Save the polar bear, blah, blah… pity the poor furry creature. In fact it proved to be a wonderful surprise. What hits you first is Anthony Barnosky’s excellent writing style. It’s pitched at just the right level. It draws you in, keeps you interested and never gets stuffy. There’s enough of Barnosky’s voice in there to make it personal, and he really knows how put science across with enthusiasm and to great effect.
Then there’s the content. Barnosky carefully shows us how climate change has affected nature in the past – how some species adapt or move to cope while others will inevitably be wiped out. In that, the impact of global warming on nature is a perfectly normal occurrence. But, he argues, things are different now, in part because of the different pace of change, and in part because we have chopped up nature into small chunks and pushed species so close to their limits. The result is that there can be no unaided escape for many, many species. It should be obvious really. As climates have changed in the past, a species would move with its preferred climate. But if you’re cooped up in a national park in one part of the country and need to head north (say), what can you do when there’s a city and miles of concrete roads in the way?
Even if we don’t care about the at-risk species in isolation, Barnosky points out how much we benefit from having access to nature. There’s a risk here of using the Tefal ploy. This is the spurious argument for the space programme that says it’s worth spending all those billions on it because we get all the spinoffs. Like, er, non-stick frying pans. But there is a stronger argument for the benefits of nature, whether its in medicine or Barnosky’s example of the heat resistant bacteria, without which we would never have developed any of the DNA manipulation technology we use today, from DNA fingerprinting to medical applications of being able to slice and dice DNA. This still isn’t a great argument for saving the lesser spotted snark (or whatever), but it’s fair to say we don’t know what we need to save until we find the application.
One danger with such a book is that it’s all doom and gloom and there are no solutions. That isn’t the case here. While Barnosky’s suggestions for doing our own bits to save the planet (use low energy lightbulbs etc.) are fairly trivial he’s strong on suggestions for dealing with the impact of climate change on wildlife environments with a mantra of keep, connect, create that is persuasively argued. Whether it’s possible to find funding for this in a climate of recession is a different matter – but Barnosky certainly carries the day with his arguments.
My only concern about this book is the accuracy of one crucial piece of information. It repeatedly refers to the fact that recent global warming is much faster than any natural warming, saying that we could have a rise of up to 5 °C in as little as fifty years. This is compared with a similar rise between the last ice period and the current interglacial, which took hundreds of years to happen, allowing species to adapt. Contrast this with a comment by Australian climate change expert Will Steffen who said ‘Abrupt change seems to be the norm, not the exception.’ According to him, on 23 occasions during the last ice age, air temperatures went through massive climbs, pushing temperatures up by as much as 10 °C in around 40 years. Similarly Richard Alley, in a report for the US National Academy of Sciences, concluded ‘Recent scientific evidence shows that major and widespread climate changes have occurred with startling speed… this new thinking is little known and scarcely appreciated in the wider community of natural and social scientists and policymakers.’ While this contradiction doesn’t undermine all the other great stuff in Heatstroke, it is a rather worrying contrast of information.
All in all, this is a superb book with a powerful message that we ignore at our peril. There is much more at stake than the poster-animal polar bear. It’s something we ought to hear more about. Highly recommended.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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