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MY Review of Books

Filed under: — gavin @ 5 May 2006

I’ve finally got round to reading a number of the many climate change-related books that have been published in recent months. These books seem to have caught the public imagination in ways that are different than in the past, and so it’s worth examining how they do. The three I’ve read are; Eugene Linden’s The Winds of Change, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe and Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers. The first two writers are journalists, while the third is a scientist by background, and while there is some overlap in contents all of them, they are clearly distinct works in quite different styles. I’ll mostly stick to commenting on the science though…

Eugene Linden’s book is very well written and sets up the book as a prosecutorial case that climate change can have (and has had) serious impacts on human society. He picks out a number of purported climate changes – the 8.2 kyr event, two less well-defined changes around 5200 and 4200 years ago, a mysterious (volcanic?) event in 536 AD, the Mayan collapse around 800 AD, and the Norse colony collapse in Greenland to make his case that societies can be vulnerable to abrupt shifts in rainfall, temperature etc. The 8.2 kyr event qualifies as an abrupt change by almost any definition (except that adopted by the NRC panel on the subject curiously) and was most likely tied to the catastrophic final draining of paleo-lake Agassiz and subsequent changes in the North Atlantic ocean circulation (see a summary of some of our recent research on the topic). This mechanism is not relevant to the other highlighted changes, and unfortunately no well supported ’causes’ have yet been demonstrated for the events in 5200 and 4200 BP. Solar forcing has been suggested for the Mayans and for the Little Ice Age, but hard evidence is difficult to come by.

Societal impacts linked to the 8.2kyr event involve potential changes in the Natufian culture in the Levant, but while intriguing, the imprecision of dating and lack of written evidence mean that this link remains speculative. However, evidence for societal impacts are tied to drought on ancient civilisations is much stronger – the ancient ‘Curse of Akkad’ describing the droughts affecting the Akkadian Empire; the Mayan collapse etc. – and this is well brought out in the text.

One example that I wasn’t previously aware of, were the climate events of 536 AD – ‘dry fogs’, crop failures, ‘dim suns’ and yellow snow etc. – features consistent with a large volcanic eruption, possibly near the site of Krakatoa – and which correlates with evidence of a sulphate peak in the North GRIP ice core at the same time. Linden quotes David Keyes as suggesting that the societal impacts of this event included the plague and the onset of the European ‘Dark Ages’. You don’t necessarily need to buy into this to get a sense of how disruptive this event was though.

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.

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.

There are also a number of careless errors in Flannery’s book that frequently deduct from his main points. How many interglacials before our own was the one 430,000 years ago? Five according to the Flannery (p68), four according to everyone else. How much flow in the Amazon? 1 Sv (106 m3/s) in the book (p192), a fifth of that in the real world. Has the Gulf Stream ‘stopped’ three times in the Holocene? No. Does global dimming indicate that we will be required to take CO2 out of the atmosphere in order to stabilize Earth’s climate? (p302). No. And there are more…

All of the authors end by emphasising the concern most scientists in this field feel for the ongoing climate changes and the potential for future serious impacts. Flannery is actually good on this point and discusses a number of the options for reducing emissions, some of which are likely only to make the practitioners feel good, some of which may actually do some good. But in terms of which books make a better case that climate change should be taken seriously as a problem, Kolbert’s and Linden’s are the more persuasive. Flannery’s is too polemical to appeal to those not already convinced. This is a shame, because contrary to Bill Bryson’s endorsement of the book ‘It would be hard to imagine a better or more important book’, I can easily imagine a better one. A rewrite using a lot more ‘suggest’s, ‘may’s and ‘possibly’s would go a long way to making the text more scientifically defensible.

And so, if you are looking for some informative and easy (though troubling) reading this summer, I would highly recommend Kolbert’s book (closely followed by Linden’s). Good reading!

70 Responses to “MY Review of Books”

  1. 51
    Hank Roberts says:

    Is there any likelihood a bloom of plankton (from a freshwater pulse, or fallout of a dust cloud full of minerals, for example) would change the temperature of the surface water (change the reflectivity, I suppose, or change how much is absorbed by making more complicated molecules for photosynthesis) — sufficient to make the water mass density change, affecting whether it sinks or not?

  2. 52
    Peer says:

    Re:50, The excitability of the Atlantic VS biology.

    Where not plate tectonics much less likely to create something agile and responsive than natural selection, the Atlantic ocean might have had the playful behavior of a kid chasing butterflies. And that is just one of many things that make your bio anology exiting.

    I am actually not aware why the atlantic overturning(conveyor) should be sensitive to altered wind patterns in the long run, provided that they does not significantly weaken the Antarctic circumpolar current or amplify arctic ice cover. For instance, since easterly winds push water northwards and westerly winds seawater southward, it is not obvious to non experts if a complete reversal of the westerlies blowing from N.America to Europe ought to make the gulf stream flow slower or faster.

  3. 53
    S Molnar says:

    Re #46 and #49: Unfortunately, has a history of getting its facts wrong, and of apparently sacrificing truth for some odd notion of balance. I recommend for climate questions.

    And for neurophysiology I recommend William H. Calvin (the popularizer of my favorite crackpot theory: The Throwing Madonna), although I have reservations about using biological analogies in the physical sciences. Some people (not Calvin, possibly Lovelock) have been known to go a bit overboard when following such lines of thought.

    [Response: I imagine you’re being ironic about “The Throwing Madonna.” On Calvin’s home page he states “Note that my throwing theory for language origins (last 3 essays) has nothing to do with the title essay: “The throwing madonna” essay is a parody (involving maternal heartbeat sounds!) on the typically-male theories of handedness.” Scientists will always find a lot to grouse about in books like Calvin’s or Jared Diamond’s (I’ve done some grousing myself). I’ve yet to find a professional anthropologist who thought much of Diamond’s books (not that their professionally couched theories often sound more testable to me than some of Diamond’s). I think there is a role for such books which spark interest in science and stimulate the imagination. If they serve to get readers interested in learning more they’ve done their work. They just shouldn’t be confused with weighty scientific tomes which obey a high standard of rigor; I am sure their authors don’t intend them as such. Now the question: is a book like Flannery’s in the same category as a book like “Guns Germs and Steel,” or is it something else? I feel that a book with an advocacy and polemical role has to take especial care with facts and inferences, and more clearly delineate where the author is being imaginative. –raypierre]

  4. 54
    Douglas Coker says:

    Re 9; Leggatt’s The Carbon War. It is well worth reading but hard to find. If you ring Amita at Solar Century +44 (0)20 7803 0100 she has copies available for a fiver (that’s £5 sterling). Bargain!

    Douglas Coker

  5. 55
    raypierre says:

    One of my favorites is still “The Next 100 years” by Jonathan Weiner ( of Pulitzer-winning “Beak of the Finch” fame). It’s out of print, and a bit dated, but as a lively introduction to the basic nature of the problem I think it’s still a great read, if you can find it in a used book store or on Alibris. I keep hoping some enlightened publisher will cut a deal that might encourage Jonathan to do some minor updates and re-release the book.

  6. 56
    Isaac Held says:

    As background reading for those trying to follow the global warming debate, I would recommend “On B*******” by Harry Frankfurt, available from I have not printed the full title being unsure of the obscenity standards maintained by this site. A short essay written by an eminent philospher, with the modest goal of simply defining the concept, I started it assuming that it was a joke but ended up reading it three times in one night.

  7. 57
    Matt says:

    The Gulf Dead Zone

    “Scientific investigations in the Gulf of Mexico have documented a large area of the Louisiana continental shelf with seasonally-depleted oxygen levels (< 2mg/l). Most aquatic species cannot survive at such low oxygen levels. The oxygen depletion, referred to as hypoxia, begins in late spring, reaches a maximum in midsummer, and disappears in the fall. After the Mississippi River flood of 1993, the spatial extent of this zone more than doubled in size, to over 18,000 km2, and has remained about that size each year through midsummer 1997. The hypoxic zone forms in the middle of the most important commercial and recreational fisheries in the coterminous United States and could threaten the economy of this region of the Gulf.

    Nutrient over-enrichment from anthropogenic sources is one of the major stresses impacting coastal ecosystems. Generally, excess nutrients lead to increased algal production and increased availability of organic carbon within an ecosystem, a process known as eutrophication. There are multiple sources of excessive nutrients in watersheds, both point and non-point, and the transport and delivery of these nutrients is a complex process which is controlled by a range of factors. These include not only the chemistry, but also the ecology, hydrology, and geomorphology of the various portions of a watershed and that of the receiving system. Both the near-coastal hydrodynamics that generate water column stratification and the nutrients that fuel primary productivity contribute to the formation of hypoxic zones. Human activities on land can add excess nutrients to coastal areas or compromise the ability of ecosystems to remove nutrients either from the landscape or from the waterways themselves.”

    Naturally, an algae based biodiesle industry based around New Orleans would clean a lot of this up.

  8. 58
    da silva says:

    Regarding raypierre’s question in the response to #53: is a book like Flannery’s in the same category as a book like “Guns Germs and Steel,” or is it something else?

    I think it is in the same class as Diamond’s Collapse, certainly. Both authors are good synthesizers who sometimes stray into oversimplification in the interest of supporting their theses. In fact, Diamond had a similar argument in Collapse (about the Rwandan genocide) to Flannery’s take on Sudan. In both cases, the arguments were interesting but overly simplistic. Any critical reader will think “yes, but…”

    Still, what makes their books compelling is the line of argument and the passion they bring to it.

    To the second part of RP’s question: I feel that a book with an advocacy and polemical role has to take especial care with facts and inferences, and more clearly delineate where the author is being imaginative.

    It would be nice. But it goes against the very nature of a polemic, doesn’t it. It’s a bit like saying that trial attorneys should be better about seeing their opponent’s point of view. Had Rachel Carson paused in Silent Spring to offer a sober defense of the judicious use of DDT in fighting malaria, would her book have had the same impact? It seems doubtful.

    It seems to me one of the paradoxes of public policy discussion: The most reasonable viewpoints are lost in the noise, while the noisiest (or at least, the most forcefully argued) get all the attention. That’s not to defend playing fast and loose with the facts. Just an observation.

    Interested to hear other views.

  9. 59
    Catherine Jansen says:

    Based on the recommendation here, I bought and read Kolbert’s book. Being a regular visitor to RealClimate, I didn’t find any major surprises in her book. But, basically, I found it depressing. It was an explanation of things gone wrong, without much vision of how to move forward.

    For example, Kolbert spends some time describing efforts to reduce emissions in Burlington, Vermont. She then points out that all the greenhouse gases saved in Burlington over several decades could be dumped back into the atmosphere in two hours by China. I’m sure she was perfectly correct. And it’s a good illustration of the size of the problem. But it made me feel like crawling into bed and sticking my head under a pillow.

    It’s a shame that Flannery made the mistakes that you outlined in the review. I think the reason that his book has been more popular is that it both frightens the reader and gives them hope…rather like Gore’s presentation. “The Weather Makers” left me feeling driven to do something. Kolbert’s book didn’t do that for me, although it was clearly well-researched, well written, and accurate.

    BTW … Re 49 – da silva – check the RC index. There has been a review of Lovelock’s book.

  10. 60
    Jim Redden says:

    Re #55 “One of my favorites is still “The Next 100 years” by Jonathan Weiner”. I concur with Raypierre’s mention.

    Nice read to place anthropgenic climate change in the context of Earth systems.

    Sat on my shelf for a couple of years; I am through the first third now… (i) The story of Keeling breaking away from the Christmas party with a grad student to pack the crate for the analyzer bound to the South Pole was amusing, and (ii), weaving the processes of the biosphere to thte tangibles of metric proces works to trigger thought.

    As one who likes the outdoors and solo adventures, Weiner’s book resonates with me… I guess because of the implied humility that should be placed on human endeavors…

  11. 61
    Hank Roberts says:

    Here’s the American Scientist April review of “Thin Ice” via Dr. Lonnie Thompson’s web page. Note, it’s a PDF file:

  12. 62
    Bryn Hughes says:

    Re 24
    [Response: Hmmm. I wonder why only five weather stations out of ~6000 were chosen… -gavin]
    Because in all probability there are only five rural, continental US stations with data from 1905 to 2003
    which can be guaranteed to have not to have suffered changes in building cover, vegetation, irrigation,..etc
    However there are other stations worldwide fulfulling the same criteria and I have come to the conclusion that
    they all closely resemble each other, having eliminated all anthroprogenic effects apart from CO2

  13. 63
    Bryn Hughes says:

    Further to 62
    Further researches have revealed that there are indeed only 5 stations in the USA and not much more than 20 other stations worldwide fulfilling the conditions listed. Yet as stated they are guaranteed to have not to have suffered changes in building cover, vegetation, irrigation,..etc
    Temperature Graphs of their 5 year mean are remarkably similar which shows that they are all being subjected to Global Warming in the the same way .However the temperature rise is less than that currently accepted,corresponding in recent years to the satellite and radiosonde data.

  14. 64
    mal fabian says:

    Tim Flannery’s book “the weather makers ” is a very good read for the average person, and I am sure that is who its written for. Tim Flannery works as the headed of the museum in south australia and in this his main job is introducing the sciences to the general public, not to experts in each particular field, something i am sure he could also do. But i certainly enjoyed his book and very highly recommend it to its targeted readers .

    Indeed my reading of his book was what motivated me to find and read your deeper articles. I am quite sure if I had started with meaty tough reading I would probably lost interest . This I think is why he has been so very very much loved in SA for his work at the museum . Its user/public friendly, and very understandable, for the general public, NEVER MEANT FOR SCIENTISTS ???

  15. 65
    Michael Lang says:

    Dear sir,

    I am wondering when you are going to review Marcel Leroux’s “Global Warming Myth or Reality” subtitled the Erring Ways of Climatology” recently published by Springer Praxis. Since this book is written by a sceptical French climatoligist who has no connection to the oil industry or the various liberterian think tanks and who claims indisputably, that the “greenhouse effect or global warming scenario is a myth” fostered on the general public by so called scientists, I would be very interested in hearing your rebuttal, because I am still in the process of forming an informed opinion.

    [Response: I’ll review (almost) any climate book that people send me. I draw the line at spending my own money on trying to keep up with the various (and repetitive) skeptical rants though. – gavin]

  16. 66
    David B. Benson says:

    Re #65: Michael Lang, I encourage you to vist Coby’s site, “A Few Things Ill Considered”. There is a link to it in the sidebar.

    [Response: Coby provides an excellent summary to the kind of arguments that are likely to appear in a book with a title like Leroux’s. I’m not aware that Coby has specifically discussed the Leroux book, though. I have limited time, and given Leroux’s paltry credentials and reputation, unless somebody points out to me some new argument in his book that is different from the others skeptics have been trotting around, I’m not going to spend any time on it. –raypierre]

  17. 67
    raypierre says:

    Also re 65:

    I have never heard of this Marcel Leroux before. The Praxis publisher’s web site claims he has published over 100 articles in international journals, but I looked over ALL the M. Leroux’s that Science Citation Index could find and these are the only articles that deal with climate or meteorology:

    1. Leroux, M
    El Nino
    RECHERCHE, (310): 6-7 JUN 1998

    2. Leroux, M
    Climate models
    RECHERCHE, (300): 7-7 JUL-AUG 1997

    3. LEZINE, AM; LEROUX, M; TURON, JL; et al.

    4. LEROUX, M
    RECHERCHE, 26 (276): 479-479 MAY 1995

    QUATERNARY RESEARCH, 41 (3): 390-395 MAY 1994

    6. LEROUX, M
    GLOBAL AND PLANETARY CHANGE, 7 (1-3): 69-93 MAY 1993

    7. FAURE, H; LEROUX, M

    “Recherche” is the in-house newsletter of the CNRS (the French National Science Foundation), I believe. Global and Planetary Change is a very minor journal. This guy is no heavy-hitter so far as climate research goes. He’s at one of the more minor CNRS labs in France. Given the title of the book (i.e. anything that claims global warming may be a “myth” is bound to be scientifically unreliable) and the $129 cost (limiting its likely readership), I doubt we’ll be reviewing it anytime soon. The only mystery is why Praxis, which had the good judgement to publish Rasmus’ book on solar variability, would get taken in by something like this.

    If you are looking to form your opinion and want something more quantitative than the books Gavin reviewed, the IPCC Third Assessment Report (WG-I) would be a much better place to start, as would David Archer’s book (Blackwell).

  18. 68
    Joel Shore says:

    From the point of view of a physicist who wants to learn more climate science, what do you recommend as a good book? In particular, I found the book “Elementary Climate Physics” by F.W. Taylor on Any comments on this book?

    [Response: Golly, there are a lot of books on climate out there. This isn’t one I’m familiar with. If you can find a used copy around, I recommend Houghton The Physics of Atmospheres . For something less condensed, try Murray Salby’s book, or Dennis Hartman’s book. My own climate book is designed to bring undergraduate physics majors up to speed on climate really fast; there are some draft chapters on my web site, but I’m several months behind on writing, so it’s unlikely to go to press much sooner than a year from now. –raypierre]

  19. 69
    Gavin says:

    Actually if the Amazon excerpt from the first chapter of the Leroux book is anything to go by, there is nothing to review. It is simply a polemic. How any publisher with a straight face can call this a ‘hard and dispassionate look’ at the science is a wonder to behold…

  20. 70
    Joel Shore says:

    Re #68: Thanks, Ray! I’ll try to check into those.

    Re #65, 67, and 69: I agree that the excerpt from the introduction to the Leroux book reads like a rant…and one that seems to be pretty stream-of-consciousness at that. By the way, Leroux is one of the gang-of-60 signers of that “Open Kyoto to Debate” letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper from back in April ( ). He is listed as “professor emeritus of climatology, University of Lyon, France; former director of Laboratory of Climatology, Risks and Environment, CNRS”.