Books books books

Perhaps you’re interested in supplementing your tapas-style RealClimate reading with a full meal of a book to curl up with. Maybe you’d like to send such a book to your good-hearted but clueless Cousin Bob, to convince him not to buy an SUV next time. Here are some possibilities ….

The Discovery of Global Warming (2003) by Spencer Weart presents the accomplishments of climate science as they evolved historically. And he does it wonderfully. Weart is a science historian with a string of books on physics, nuclear issues, and straight-up history to his credit. He is not a climate scientist but he writes about the issues of the day (a hundred years of days, from Arrhenius to IPCC) as though he was there. His scientific insight and ability to summarize is very impressive. This could be a good first book to read on global warming.

For best overall presentation of the science behind global warming to the lay reader, try Is the Temperature Rising? (1998) by George Philander. Philander is a long-time leader in the field of ocean / atmosphere interactions such as El Niño. His book is strong on fundamental principals of the physics of the atmosphere underlying the greenhouse effect and global warming. Global Warming, The Complete Briefing by Sir John Houghton (most recent edition, 2005), is somewhat stronger than Philander in describing what a global warming world would be like to the man in the street. Houghton was the lead editor of the 2001 IPCC Assessment reports, so his book is the very soul of authoritative, although it is intended as a textbook and is not exactly a page-turner. Of course the scientific gold standard here is the 2001 IPCC Scientific Assessment itself, available from Cambridge University Press or downloadable for free from here, but this is more of a reference book than cover-to-cover reading material.

The impacts of climate change to everyday life are brought to life in Mark Lynas’ High Tide, How Climate Change is Engulfing our Planet (2004). This is a concerned-young-man-with-travel-budget tale, with stops in Alaska, the sinking and soon to be abandoned Pacific island of Tuvalu, and other points around the globe. We’re sure glad he made it down from that mountain in the Andes. Along these lines, we must mention a masterful series of articles in the New Yorker last spring called Climate of Man by Elizabeth Kolbert. I hear that this will be published in April under the title Field notes from a catastrophe. Neither Lynas nor Kolbert are climate scientists, but both did an impressive job of getting the facts straight, and (more difficult) getting the feel of the big picture.

The topic of abrupt climate change is intertwined with the field of paleoclimatology. Foremost among books on this topic is Richard Alley’s Two-Mile Time Machine (2002) about ice core climate records. In my opinion this book beats out its well-written competition, Climate Crash(2005) by John Cox, because Alley is a practicing scientist, and a luminary one at that. The potential for abrupt climate change in our future was explored by a National Research Council committee and published in a very readable book called Abrupt Climate Change, Inevitable Surprises (2002), published by the National Academy Press. We should note that abrupt climate change is still a somewhat speculative topic, and the book hasn’t been written that would satisfy everybody. Probably won’t be for a while.

For the role of climate in past history, I would start with Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). His descriptions of the killing hand of drought acting against the Classic Maya and Anasazi civilizations, and the demise of the Norse Greenland colonies, are extremely lucid. Also on the list are two books by Brian Fagan, The Long Summer (2004) and The Little Ice Age (2000). The first of these recounts the tale of humankind through the deglaciation, including the development of agriculture during the Younger Dryas, up until A.D. 1200. The Little Ice Age book begins from the Medieval Warm period, when the Mayans starved and Europe built cathedrals. The little ice age is described as a time not of radically colder temperatures than today, but periodic, large climate swings and storms, contrasting with the stability of medieval times.

In the political and social arenas, the place to go is Boiling Point (2004) by Ross Gelbspan. Gelbspan is a journalist who treats the scientific scope, and the political response, to the threat of climate change with passion and authority.

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