I have been reading two books lately that have had me weeping and given me nightmares. Which doesn’t sound like a high recommendation, I know, but it is.

The first is The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change by Tim Flannery.

One of the main strengths of the book is its presentation of the interconnected physical systems that are affected by, and in turn affect, the climate – the atmosphere, ocean currents and temperature, ice sheets and the earth’s albedo, the El Nino and La Nina cycle. He is appropriately cautious of the future impact of climate change – not in the sense of denying it altogether, which is a particular form of insanity, but in presenting a range of scenarios. The range, unfortunately, runs from bad to worse:

It’s too late to avoid changing our world, but we still have time, if good policy is implemented, to avoid disaster.

It’s an accessible, thorough and deeply disturbing description of climate change science that forms the platform for the book’s argument.

What gave me nightmares was the description of the current impact of climate change on biodiversity. We are already seeing measurable damage done to reefs through coral bleaching, we’ve seen the extinction of the Costa Rican golden toad due to climate change.

If the purpose of creation is to sing the praises of God (Psalm 148) then to contemplate being responsible for silencing so much of the glorious choir is a terrible thing.

Some of his speculation about political and social scenarios in response to climate change was disturbing, but, unlike the impacts on biodiversity, the evidence is too thin to extrapolate well. (“2084: The Carbon Dictatorship?” is a silly title for a chapter, with or without the question mark.)

Back on firmer ground, his account of the hustling of Senator Robert Hill (then minister for the Environment) at Kyoto is deeply saddening. Australia is the highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases and yet we managed to negotiate an increase of CO2 emissions on 1990 levels, and even then we will only achieve it (if, indeed, we do) not because of any action to reduce emissions (they are increasing) but because the slow-down in land-clearing can be counted as an emissions ‘saving’.

He provides, briefly, positive proposals, including some exploration of forms of carbon sequestering (basically sticking it back in the ground where it came from and hoping it doesn’t pop up later to bite us in the bum), and rapid decarbonising of the power grid through investment in wind, solar and geothermal energy sources. He nuts through the nuclear option (very briefly and unsatisfyingly, to my mind) and pushes strongly for the Contraction & Convergence approach to international climate change negotiation and response. Full C&C is a policy approach we are unlikely to see any movement on under the current crop of world leaders – or possibly any leaders, as it entails far greater economic adjustment on the part of polluting nations than Kyoto.

He concludes with a small, but empowering, checklist of things you can do to make a difference personally. I was encouraged by the fact that as a family we are already doing 7 of the 11 things he recommends, but have plenty more to do.

The second is The Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog, which is an account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. I picked it up at a second-hand bookshop and I am only able to read small sections at a time, as it is just too confronting and sad.

Her writing is amazing – as a poet as well as a journalist, there is a dark lyricism to her writing that really connects with me and captures the depths of the subject matter.

But it is the raw testimony of those who spoke to the Commission that is so heart-breaking. The denial and incomprehension of devastated parents, of tormented wives, husbands and children:

I asked them, ‘Show me the mark on his chin, then I will know it’s my son.’ They showed me the mark on his chin, and I said: ‘It’s not my son.”

I heard shots… I ran… slipped and fell… I crawled out at the front door… On the steps my son sat… with his father’s face in his hands… He was covered in blood… He cried over and over: ‘Daddy, talk to me…’ Today he is 21 years old. I am still woken at night by his cries: ‘Wipe the blood… wipe the blood from my father’s face.’

As well as this, she reflects with real insight and pain as an Afrikaner on the structural violence of apartheid that underlies these accounts of overt violence and on the sense of betrayal felt by some Afrikaners as the moral ordering of South Africa was completely upturned in the political revolution that brought the ANC to government.

It’s a painful book to read – and I’m sure it must have been to write. While there are no easy parallels, there are many provocative reflections that arise for me as I read it about dominant culture’s treatment of indigenous Australians (or even onshore asylum-seekers), about state power and the citizen, and the way moral crimes can be legitimized, and even made to seem necessary to people who would regard themselves as fundamentally decent.

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