Tim Flannery's climatic epic on the erosion of life on Earth is an epitaph and a cause for hope

THE WEATHER MAKERS: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change by Tim Flannery Allen Lane, £20; 368pp

IS THERE ANYTHING new to say about climate change? Anything beyond the now incontestable evidence of ice-cap melting and proliferating weather disasters that still fails to shift the Earth's most powerful economies? Tim Flannery's epic book deals remorselessly with these familiar signs of acute planetary stress, but adds something quite special.

In lucid and authoritative prose, he details what the implications of global heating will be for the intricacy of life on Earth. He sees a terrible unravelling of the links that have bound Earth's fabulously rich biosphere together, and in his exquisite delineation of their history and imminent endangerment his book becomes a hymn to life. Its destruction would, to him, be a kind of blasphemy.

Flannery is a distinguished Australian scientist, and the fact that, after a decade of sordid politicking, his home country has the world's highest per capita output of carbon dioxide, makes the political edge in his book sharp and rankling. But it's the poetic naturalist in him that is the true radical. Deploying palaeontology, ethics and cost-benefit analysis with equal facility, he weaves a narrative of allegorical power, from volcanic blow-outs 50 million years ago to the modern extinction of Costa Rica's golden toad, desiccated and then lost with the logged-out cloud forests. Climate change is as old as the Earth, but never has the planet seen it happen so fast, or had so much to lose.

It is the mechanisms of loss that are so telling, the reciprocities broken, the feedback loops stoked up. Plankton flourishes under sea-ice, and as the Antarctic ice sheet begins to disappear it is dying, robbing the great whales of their chief foodstuff, and the Earth of one of its major carbon "sinks". In New Guinea in 1997, drought and frosts killed vast areas of virgin montane oak forest. Firestorms followed, burning not just the dead trees but the ground, releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Pacific coral reefs are collapsing, robbed of sunlight by the vast cloud of toxic smog (the size of the US) that hung over South-East Asia in 2002, and poisoned by seaborne pollutants. They are another carbon sink, as well as one of the most beautiful ecosystems in the history of the Earth.

The changes are inexorable, the interdependence of the biosphere (what James Lovelock calls Gaia) ironically making calamity a shared thing in the same way that life is. And we are in the thick of it, as both culprit and victim. One of the revelations of climate-change research (itself a symbiotic, multi-faceted, almost Gaian business) is that the first phase of global warming, begun 10,000 years ago by the fires and soil disturbance of early farmers, was what provided climatic conditions benign enough for the evolution of human civilisation. It would be hard to imagine a circle more ironically vicious.

Yet Flannery remains an optimist, although he doesn't hold out much hope that governments and business will become the saviours of the planet. His closing sections on likely ways out of the crisis are a depressing catalogue of duplicity and self-interest (there is a powerful coalition between right-wing evangelists and the coal industry in the USA that argues that atmospheric carbon dioxide will "fertilise the Earth", and return us to Eden).

He remains convinced that a radical cutting of emissions is the only practical solution, and, as a believer in decentralised federalism both at a Gaian and a political level, that this is down to all of us. An immediate 70 per cent reduction would stabilise temperatures within about 50 years, just in time to prevent the worst-case scenarios kicking in.

Yet even with that, dramatic changes are inevitable: we are "physically committed" to them in researchers' jargon. The snow-cap of Mount Kilimanjaro will soon vanish into the heavens. Will the loss of that iconic image of the Earth's grandeur stir consciousnesses? Or will it take a Katrina-sized hurricane hitting Washington (not impossible) to do the trick?