Our Fragile Moment and the Nuclear Winter

Michael Mann’s Our Fragile Moment: how lessons from the Earth’s past can help us survive the climate crisis (Hachette, New York, 2023) is a climate and geological history of the planet from its beginning. Each chapter examines in some detail times when the earth was in various climatic extremes such as the “hothouse” of the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum of 55 million years ago or the “snowball earth” of the Proterozoic era 2 billion years ago, and the lessons we can learn from these events.

For personal reasons the chapter that grabbed my attention was called ‘Mighty Brontosaurus’ which covered the demise of the dinosaurs following an asteroid collision 66 million years ago. Mann wrote that: “there are remarkable parallels indeed between the dinosaur–killing asteroid impact and the Nuclear Winter worries of the 1980s” (p.94). I had been an anti-nuclear activist since the early 1970s but the publicity about a nuclear winter where the dust from a widespread nuclear war blocked out the sunlight certainly increased my activism – making nuclear war and its armaments doubly absurd. The nuclear winter book by Paul Erlich and others The Cold and the Dark (Sidgwick & Jackson, London 1984) came out in December 1983 and the following year I stood as a candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in Gippsland on a platform of publicising the threat of the nuclear winter.

For the rest of the decade there followed support and work with local PND (People for Nuclear Disarmament) groups. In 1987 friend Barrie Pittock had published Beyond Darkness: Nuclear Winter in Australia and New Zealand (Sun Books, South Melbourne, 1987). Barrie’s lifetime study and work in the CSIRO department of atmospheric physics was on the antithesis of the nuclear winter – climate change – and the same year he was presenting a paper to the Monash University Greenhouse symposium and was later the author of a similar titled work.

In his Introduction Mann noted there: “is a duality that governs the human species and the climate it enjoys. Human actions, particularly the burning of fossil fuels and the generation of carbon pollution, have impacted the trajectory of our climate over the past two centuries, but the longer term trajectory of our climate has also impacted us. It’s what got us here. By looking back at that trajectory, we can see insights into what futures are possible.” (p.6)

Wading through the many scientific acronyms may slow the general reader down but this book is well worth the read. A copy is available in the East Gippsland Shire Library.