MY Review of Books

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.

In case after case, Flannery quotes a single paper as an absolute proof of the particular contention. One example taken at random, is in relation to the MSU satellite record (which we’ve discussed here before, so skip this next section if you’ve heard it all already). Flannery raises the issue of the at-one-time apparent contradiction between the satellite records (usually taken to be MSU 2LT from the UAH group) and the surface temperature records. He quotes the Fu et al paper (which discussed the stratospheric contribution to MSU 2) as providing the final word on the subject. Now while this contribution was useful (and fitted nicely with previous work), it did not reconcile the different records. That had to wait until August last year when errors in the UAH algorithm were brought to light, and for a re-analysis by RSS demonstrating the sensitivity of the results to methodological issues in the treatment of the raw data. Obviously, one cannot fault Flannery for not knowing ahead of time what would be discovered, but he can be faulted for assuming that the one paper he quotes ‘solved’ the problem. Flannery is quite critical of the IPCC process, describing it as ‘lowest common denominator science’ and claiming that it must be assumed that things are likely to be worse than are described in those reports. I think he is fundamentally mistaken on this point and his too-frequent absolutist statements based on preliminary science are a classic example of why ‘consensus’ reports are both more careful and more correct than an individual opinion. For instance, there is no way that a ‘consensus’ statement that climate sensitivity is probably around 3ºC (plus or minus a degree) should be interpreted as implying that climate sensitivity is more like 6ºC. In science, ‘conservatism’ implies proper acknowledgment of the uncertainties, it does not imply that systematic underestimation of effects.

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