MY Review of Books

Linden talks to the right people and makes a strong case, but I think he errs in seeing all of the climate changes as being analogous. The effects of circulation change in the North Atlantic are different to (potentially solar-driven) rainfall variability in the sub-tropics and are different again from the impacts of changing frequency and intensity in El Nino patterns. He unfortunately makes a large over-estimate in describing the magnitude of the 8.2 kyr event (claiming it lead to 5 deg C of global cooling, instead of a local result for Greenland), and then compares other ‘events’ to this more (climatically) well-documented case. There are a few more minor errors – isotopes are denoted by a pre-subscript (18O) instead of a superscript (18O) but we can probably blame the copy-editor for that. Linden appears to take seriously a suggestion that the Mayans were aware of multi-decadal variations in the sun’s irradiance and built them into their calendar – something that seems extremely unlikely to me. Overall though, the evidence for serious climatic impacts on societies is pretty strong and he swayed this member of the jury.

Next up is Elizabeth Kolbert’s book based on her extremely readable three-part series in the New Yorker last year. (I should note that I talked quite extensively to Elizabeth when she was doing the research, so I may be a bit biased). The benefit of having the famously pedantic New Yorker fact checking department (Hi Louisa!) working on your behalf is very clear as I wasn’t able to find a single mis-statement on the science. There is some overlap in material with Linden’s book – for instance both authors spend some time with Harvey Weiss talking about drought and the Akkadians. But Kolbert’s book is much more closely tied to the scientists and the environments in which they work than Linden’s, and as such, is a more personable and well rounded portrait of how the science is being done and why the scientists have come to the conclusions they have.

Kolbert spends time in the field in the Arctic, in Greenland, in the smoke-free rooms at the UN, in the dark corridors of a climate modelling centre and even includes a few lines of Fortran code from the GISS climate model – gobbledygook possibly even to the scientists that wrote it! But it’s an indication that she spent the time down in the trenches and that’s pretty impressive.

Finally, Tim Flannery. His book appears to have made the most noise and Flannery himself has generated a lot of media attention (and controversy) on his book tours. As befitting a book by a scientist, this one has by far the most ‘content’ of the three, and unsurprisingly, is a tougher (though still accessible) read. The sheer speed at which different studies and subjects are covered make it difficult to get into anything in depth. In itself, that isn’t bad – there is a lot of ground to cover – but it does mean that subtleties and caveats get lost.

As a scientist, one of the things I look for in popular science accounts is an appropriate recognition of the difference between a suggestion made in a single paper and the description of any ‘consensus’ on the issues (such as described in the IPCC reports for instance). We have made the point repeatedly here that single papers need to be placed in context and don’t necessarily overturn previous work. In the three books discussed here, I have the impression that Kolbert most recognises this, but unfortunately that recognition is not at all obvious in Flannery’s text.

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