RealClimate logo


Technical Note: Sorry for the recent unanticipated down-time, we had to perform some necessary updates. Please let us know if you have any problems.

Books ’07

Filed under: — gavin @ 21 December 2007

We have a minor tradition of doing a climate-related book review in the lead up to the holidays and this year shouldn’t be an exception. So here is a round-up of a number of new books that have crossed our desks, some of which might be interesting to readers here.

First off, Kerry Emanuel’s little primer “What we know about climate change” is a reprint of an essay he wrote for Boston Review earlier this year. I reviewed this for Nature Reports Climate Change already, so I won’t repeat myself here except to say that it is a good quick read from a reluctant convert. It might be particularly useful for a stubborn uncle at the holiday family gathering.

Gary Braasch is a photographer (and, full disclosure, someone I’m working with on another project), who has become one of the lead documenters of climate issues and whose images have appeared in National Geographic etc. He’s collected his photographs and travel notes into a new book ‘Earth under Fire – How global warming is changing the world‘. The book is very much a narrative of his personal journeys from the Antarctic Peninsula to Alaska and many points in between, documenting the changes he’s witnessed, the scientists he’s met and the people whose lives are already being affected. The science is descriptive rather than detailed (though there is plenty of interesting tidbits), but the real strength of the book is the imagery.

As Braasch points out in the introduction capturing, in a snapshot, climate changes that have been underway for decades is a challenge. Photos can have an iconic quality which, although they are not science themselves, can certainly illuminate that science. There is for instance a particular iconic series of retakes of old glacier photos showing the often dramatic changes over the decades. Many of these photos can be seen at his website, but they definitely come out better in the book.

Another book with great pictures – more loosely focussed on all kinds of environmental change – is “Our Changing Planet – The View from Space“, a multi-author introduction to the spectacular vistas now available from remote sensing. These cover visible changes in deforestation, the drying up of Lake Chad, the melting of the Arctic sea ice, mostly seen from 800 km up – the height of the polar orbiting satellites. The text associated with each subject is terse but has enough information for readers to work out what is going on and how any particular technique works. Again, some of the pictures are stunning. (Note despite the similarity in titles, this has nothing to do with the annual reports of the USGCRP which are a much duller read!).

Other RC people have recommended Storm World by Chris Mooney on the sometimes fractious, but always interesting, world of hurricane/climate links, and Six Degrees, Mark Lynas’ step by step guide to what each additional degree of warming might bring.

“Thin Ice” by Mark Bowen gets a big thumbs up as well. It is more or less a biography of Lonnie Thompson but it is by no means limited to Thompson’s work. Much of the book focuses on various important figures in the history of the science of climate: Arrhenius, Tyndall, and Keeling among them. And while paleoclimatology takes the main stage, one could read this book alone for a very clear lay-persons understanding of the physics of the greenhouse effect, or for insight into the mind of the brilliant and provocative James Hansen, or the story or Roger Revelle and David Keeling’s measurements of carbon dioxide concentrations. It is notable that Bowen has a PhD from MIT, so is no newcomer to science.

And finally, something for the kids. But only if your children have been very, very bad should you consider giving them a copy of Holly Fretwell’s ‘The Sky’s not Falling’. This is possibly the worst book ever written about climate change for any audience, let alone one that is being thrust upon impressionable young minds. It is replete with incorrect ‘Fun Facts!’ and misleading propaganda. For instance, did you know that “the two largest ice sheets today, Antarctica and Greenland, flow over the ocean and are already below sea level. If they were to melt sea level would not rise very much.”? Or that “sea levels twenty thousand years ago were eighty-two feet lower”? Me neither (try 400ft).

Luckily though this book fails at all levels. It isn’t a good children’s book – it ranges from the patronising; “Now imagine a new gas tax” to the inappropriately obscure (cherry-picked journal citations in the text, appallingly captioned figures – how many 11 year olds know what Gross Primary Productivity means?) and it’s even worse at the science (the hockey stick came from a computer model, scientists have found a direct connection between cosmic rays and climate!) let alone economics (e.g. We are rich because we pollute, and therefore polluting more will make us richer! Tragedy of the commons anyone?). Fun Fact! Tim Ball and Marc Morano helped with fact-checking.

Happy holidays!

Update: I am reliably informed that there is probably something much better for kids on the horizon: “How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming” by Lynne Cherry and Gary Braasch (again!).


89 Responses to “Books ’07”

  1. 51
    Blair Dowden says:

    Returning to the original topic, there is one prominent book published this year
    that was left out: Cool It – The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global
    Warming, by Bjorn Lomborg. In his own words, the argument in this book is:

    1. Global warming is real and man-made. It will have a serious impact on humans and
    the environment toward the end of this century.

    2. Statements about the strong, ominous and immediate consequences of global warming
    are often wildly exaggerated, and thus unlikely to lead to good policy.

    3. We need simpler, smarter, and more efficient solutions for global warming rather
    than excessive if well intentioned efforts. Large and expensive CO2 cuts made now
    will have only a small and insignificant impact far into the future.

    4. Many other issues are more important than global warming. We need to get our
    perspective back. There are many more pressing problems in the world, such as
    hunger, poverty and disease. By addressing them, we can help more people, at a lower
    cost, with a much higher chance of success than by pursuing drastic climate policies
    at a cost of billions of dollars.

    Lomborg presents a framework for analyzing climate change as one of many problems to
    be solved. Spending money reducing greenhouse emissions today will reduce the
    negative impact of those emissions in the future. But there is an optimum amount of
    money that should be spent, after which the amount spent will exceed any benefits.
    This comes as a welcome relief to the single issue approach in most other books on
    this topic. Given this reasonable approach to the problem, the reader may tend to
    trust Lomborg when he answers the question what is the optimum effort to combat
    global warming. Unfortunately this trust is betrayed by a systematic distortion of
    the issues involving climate change.

    The book starts with looking at the issues of the impact of climate change on polar
    bears, and heat deaths to humans from heat waves such as the one in Europe in 2003.
    Admittedly these straw dogs were first raised by environmentalists and the ignorant
    media, but Lomborg rides them hard throughout the book. You get the idea that the
    main problem with global warming is that more people will die of heat stroke. But
    don’t worry, even more people will no longer die from the cold. Polar bears are
    cute, and it is sad when old people die from the heat, but the real issue with
    global warming is the ability of humanity to feed itself. This gets only cursory
    coverage. Instead there is a consistent pattern of distorting information from
    authoritative sources.

    For example, on page 60 we are told “In its 2007 report, the UN estimates that sea
    levels will rise about a foot over the rest of the century.” He does not mention
    that this estimate explicitly excludes melting from ice caps, which is so uncertain
    they want to consider it separately than the other much better understood
    contributors to sea level rise. There is good evidence that melting ice caps will
    contribute many meters of sea level rise, what is uncertain is whether that will
    take place over tens, hundreds, or thousands of years.

    On page 36 we are told that the optimum strategy to deal with climate change is a
    carbon tax starting at two dollars per ton, rising to 27 dollars by the end of the
    century. He then quotes the two dollars figure throughout the rest of the book. The
    references for these pages all point to a 2006 study by economist William Nordhaus.
    But the Nordhaus 2007 paper (on page 18) states that the optimum carbon tax rate should start at
    $27 per ton and rise between 2 and 3 percent in real terms each year, reaching $90
    per ton in 2050 and $200 per ton in 2100. This is more than an order of magnitude
    higher than Lomborg claims.

    This book should not be lightly dismissed, because its logical approach to the
    problem will be appreciated by people of good will who cannot recognize the
    distortion in the details. The type of hysterical denunciation of Lomborg often seen
    in these pages will only reinforce how much more reasonable and balanced he seems to
    be. Branding him as a “denialist” is patently false, as point one from his book
    demonstrates. Instead, it would be better to embrace his approach, but correct the
    many errors and come up with a more realistic solution to this problem. A good start
    would be to steer people away from this flawed work, and instead consider the
    similar economic approach taken by Nordhaus that is more careful with the facts of
    climate change.

  2. 52
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #51 (Blair Dowden) “The type of hysterical denunciation of Lomborg often seen in these pages will only reinforce how much more reasonable and balanced he seems to be.”

    I don’t recall any hysterical denunciation. The main complaint against Lomborg is that he is systematically dishonest, as your own analysis indicates is the case in this latest book. If you can’t denounce a liar, who can you denounce?

  3. 53

    And for other media….

    Here’s a great YouTube video: HOW IT ALL ENDS at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mF_anaVcCXg

    It’s my argument about avoiding false negatives, except very well presented. I only have one criticism, and that is his false positive cell, which he shows as having economic costs, while I’m quite sure the world can reduce GHGs at least by half (and the U.S. by 75%) while saving money & not lowering productivity….I call it the “false positive bonanza” since its all this saving (and avoiding other enviro problems) even if GW proves to be totally false.

  4. 54
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re # 53 Lynn Vincentnathan

    It is helpful to watch his other videos, especially the one in which he introduced his use of the logic box (captioned “Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See”): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDsIFspVzfI&feature=related.
    The comments to that video are no longer available, but he reads them (or similar ones) in the video “How it all ends”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DoUt4LhkKY0&feature=related

    He’s the kind of science teacher that every child should have, but very few do.

  5. 55
    Blair Dowden says:

    Re #52 Nick Gotts – If you can’t denounce a liar, who can you denounce?

    My objection is the absolutism of the terms denounce and liar. Lomborg can and should be criticized, but to denounce is to say there is nothing valid in his work, which I disagree with. Lomborg’s book will appeal to a set of open minded people (and also denialists, but lets forget them). Denouncing may feel good to you, but others will see it as irrational confrontation, matching the alarmist stereotype which Lomborg describes, which has some truth to it.

    I am trying to say that in order to reach the people Lomborg will appeal to, it is better to tone down the rhetoric, and point out exactly how Lomborg is misleading them. He writes in a very reasonable tone, and I suggest you do the same.

  6. 56

    Blair Dowden (#55) wrote:

    I am trying to say that in order to reach the people Lomborg will appeal to, it is better to tone down the rhetoric, and point out exactly how Lomborg is misleading them.

    Try to lay out the facts and let them draw their own conclusions, but give them the facts in an essentialized manner — with choice examples. So that the appropriate evaluation is the next natural step.

    *

    Moral principles are often best handled in the abstract when explicit and left implicit when concrete.

  7. 57
    pete best says:

    Hey I agree but while people in power oppose then I doubt that anything serious will be done about it in the USA. OK a bill was past last week for US vehicles to do 35 mpg up from the current 25 come 2020 but even if this is so then China and India will eat up what the USA saves quite easily. This is the real problem, its a global issue.

    And just because scientists are not climate ones does not mean that they will not be listened to. After all climate science needs a lot of dat from other fields such as physics, chemistry, meterology, geology, paleontology etc so its only natural that some scientists from other disciplines will stick their oar in.

    I am a ardent AGW believer, the evidence is in and I have read much of it here at RC and artciles in other areas but I am concerned about the politics and perception of AGW globally. Bali may have seen like a success in the media and political circles but the reality seems not better than Kyoto.

  8. 58
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Blair Dowden, While in general I agree that denunciations are unproductive, in the case of Lomborg there is much to denounce. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this recently, because I, too, tend to accept the logic that the level of effort directed at mitigation must make economic sense. However, usual process by which this happens goes in 3 steps. First, there is that the scientific analysis establishes that the threat is credible. This analysis is “conservative” in the sense that even when the most optimistic assumptions are made there is sufficient confidence there will be adverse outcomes. Next, there has to be a risk analysis. This also has to be conservative–but in the sense that we have to look at pessimistic assumptions to determine what potential impacts could be, along with their likelihood. At the same time the cost and efficacy of possible mitigations has to be assessed. Only then do we feed this information into an economic analaysis to ensure that the highest-risk impacts are addressed effectively and economically. Lomborg has short-circuited the second step and has conducted his economic analysis based on the scientific or optimistic assessment. Since his is not an idiot, I can only assume he has done this intentionally to mislead the public who do not know better. In my opinion, the Stern analysis comes much closer to the ideal I have described than do that of Lomborg and his fellow complacent conservatives. It is simply not credible to argue for complacency when you have a physical system with positive feedbacks whose magnitude remains to be determined.

  9. 59
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #55 (Blair Dowden) “Denouncing may feel good to you”

    Blair, it’s not about feeling good, it’s about telling the truth. Lomborg’s entire career has been founded on lies, including unsubstantiated accusations against others. Treating such a person as if he were an honest intellectual opponent is itself dishonest. I think the only people likely to read this book in any numbers are those seeking ammunition against a bogey “environmentalist conspiracy”. Lomborg’s first book sold in large numbers because of media hype – I’d bet most of those who bought it never got past the first chapter.

  10. 60

    RE #57 & “China and India will eat up what the USA saves quite easily”

    Here’s an idea: Why not have China produce alt energy products and CF bulbs and items the world needs to become energy/resource efficient/conservative, instead of all those other useless products we neither need nor want.

    And we could help China and India become efficient/conservative in their economic growth. Pay them in part with solar ovens, solar water heaters, home wind generators, etc.

    I agree with Lomborg in this way, in our process of mitigating GW, we need to keep the poor in our hearts and minds, and allow them to develop sustainable living. His only problem is he doesn’t understand how very harmful GW effects will be and currently are for the poor of the world. And we can both mitigate and help the poor — by using part of that tremendous amount of money we save from mitigating GW to help the poor.

    There are villages in India that don’t even have electricity. Their children should be allowed a 40 watt tube light so they can study and go to college, as our children do, and maybe a fan to keep the mosquitoes off at night so they can sleep. I know there are a handful of biogas projects there, using local cow and human dung to generate power for lights and cooking fuel. We could help promote more of these.

    There is also potential in the MORINGA TREE for biogas, which we’ve just found out about. It’s been a source for very nutritious food all along, and known to have medicinal properties, but now they’re talking about biofuel.

    We have them growing in our back yard in S. Texas, and they shoot up to 30 feet within 2 or 3 years. They grow from seeds and branch-stocks. We keep cutting off branches and planting them. During our rare frost 3 yrs ago they died back, but then sprang back to life. Now we’re thinking about buying some acreage and growing more.

    Here’s a website (see the PowerPoint presentation):
    http://treesforlife.org/project/moringa/default.en.asp

  11. 61
    James says:

    Re #50: [Hell, a decade ago, they were claiming 30000 scientists opposing the consensus. Now we’re down to 400.]

    It’s also useful to put the number in perspective. A quick search finds that the US awards about 25000 science & engineering PhDs annually. Assuming the same number for the rest of the world, and a 40-year working career, I get an estimate of 2 million people who could reasonably be described as scientists. (I’d welcome a better number, if anyone has one.)

    So you’ve got 400 scientists out of 2 million who disagree with AGW. That’s one in 5000. Now take a random group of 5000 people, and ask them any question at all. What’s the chance that you won’t get at least one who disagrees with the rest, out of sheer cussedness, if nothing else?

  12. 62
    Blair Dowden says:

    Re #58 Ray – We seem to agree that Lomborg is using a sound methodology, but abuses it by using “optimistic” or misrepresented information on climate effects. But Stern may be guilty of the same thing in the other direction. I suggest you look at the 2007 Nordhaus Study I referred to earlier. On page 103 they give this assessment of the Stern Review:


    To begin with, the [Stern] Review should be read primarily as a document that is political in nature and has advocacy as its purpose. The review was officially commissioned when British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown “asked Sir Nick Stern to lead a major review of the economics of climate change, to understand more comprehensively the nature of the economic challenges and how they can be met, in the UK and globally.”65 For the most part, the Review accurately describes the basic economic questions involved in global warming. However, it tends to emphasize studies and findings that support its policy recommendations, while reports with opposing views about the dangers of global warming are ignored.

    Putting this point differently, we might evaluate the Review in terms of the ground rules of standard science and economics. The central methodology by which science, including economics, operates is peer review and reproducibility. By contrast, the Review was published without an appraisal of methods and assumptions by independent outside experts, and its results
    cannot be easily reproduced.

    I have only started to read this document so I don’t really have an opinion yet. I am not clear on how some of the uncertainties of climate change are handled.

  13. 63

    A quick note about the Stern Review.

    Eli Rabett gives the translation of an article by Oliver Voss which points out that with regard to one fairly important issue, this particular study is fairly flawed.

    I quote:

    One difficulty is that the costs of climate protection are incurred in the near future, but the benefits are felt only much later. To take generational equity into account, economists build the so-called discount rate {n.B.probably means social discount rate} into their climate models. It is “perhaps the most important parameter,” says economist Tol. The higher the discount rate, the lower the value of future benefits. As a result early costs have a higher value. The lower the discount rate, the greater – over a long period – the costs. A discount rate of zero means that future generations will be treated just like today. Stern used in his calculations, a relatively low discount rate of 0.1 percent. This is one of the main reasons his model leads to particularly high costs – and it has earned him much criticism from other economists.

    More nonsense from Eli Rabett
    Sunday, December 09, 2007
    http://rabett.blogspot.com/2007/12/more-nonsense-from-eli-rabett-tales-of.html

    As someone who is somewhat familiar with economics, I realize that the discount rate is fairly important to economic calculation. If you artificially lower the discount rate, you make the cost of long-term investments appear much smaller than they actually are. In fact, this is a large part of what results in the business cycle — as one can artificially lower those rates for only so long without risking hyperinflation, and as the discount rate rises back to its market-determined level, many of the long-term investments are shown to be malinvestments.

    Personally, I think the Stern Review underestimates the likely results of climate change, but likewise I believe that the treatment of the discount rate was highly questionable and that economists were right to criticize it on this point.

  14. 64
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Blair, I think that the Stern report is a fair attempt to look at what the damage COULD be, not a true risk assessment. Indeed, at this point, that is all that is possible. It is unlikely that we have fully appreciated the implications of a warming world, especially for agriculture and disease in a world of 9-12 billion people.
    One area of conventional economics that I think has to be approached very carefully is that of discounting future cost versus current expenditure. In a physical system with ill known positive feedbacks, this is not advisable.
    Given the uncertainties, the only viable approach I see is a concerted effort to decrease carbon emissions, but subject to the constraint that economic health of both developed and developing economies has to be considered (otherwise how do we pay for the R&D, mitigation, etc.) I am afraid that this will be THE problem for the next generation, and if they don’t solve it, the problem for the generation after that may be simply preserving what they can of civilization.

  15. 65
    Rick Brown says:

    Regarding the Stern review, I’d be curious what Eli or others have to say about this piece.

    Kenneth Arrow (Nobel laureate in economics), Tapei Times, opinion piece, 12/13/07, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2007/12/13/2003392376

    . . . There is greater disagreement about how much to discount the future simply because it is the future, even if future generations are no better off than us. Whereas the Stern Review follows a tradition among British economists and many philosophers against discounting for pure futurity, most economists take pure time preference as obvious.

    However, the case for intervention to keep carbon dioxide levels within bounds (say, aiming to stabilize them at about 550 ppm) is sufficiently strong to be insensitive to this dispute.
    . . .
    A straightforward calculation shows that mitigation is better than business as usual — that is, the present value of the benefits exceeds the present value of the costs — for any social rate of time preference less than 8.5 percent. . . .

  16. 66
    James says:

    Re #63: [If you artificially lower the discount rate, you make the cost of long-term investments appear much smaller than they actually are.]

    On the other hand (and as someone who has every intention of sticking around as long as he possibly can), I think I can make a pretty good subjective argument that Stern’s discount rate is too high, not too low. Maybe even a zero discount is too high: in my personal life I forego a lot of discretionary spending on consumer goods, so as to invest the money for future benefits.

    Of course another assumption implicit in applying a discount rate is that it’s even going to be possible to purchase the same goods in the future, something which in the case of AGW-related effects is hardly certain. To use the cliche example, if it costs $X for a polar bear today, what’s the appropriate discount rate to use for the price, after they’ve become extinct?

  17. 67
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #62-66 James makes a good point with his polar bear example: the notion that everything can be translated into monetary values and give you sensible answers is fundamentally flawed. Neoclassical economics can give useful guidance on what one might call “local” questions: what is likely to happen to the price of a particular good in an established market over the short term, or perhaps what rate of corporation tax can be levied in one country without driving capital away. Trying to apply it to the major problems of the world over the next century obliges you to make many assumptions, often arbitrary, like particular discount rates, or radically unpredictable, like specific technical and cultural changes. An analogy might be with mapping the Earth’s surface onto a plane: it works well for small areas, but if you try to map large areas, you have to choose a particular projection, and whichever one you choose will produce distortions. At the limit, where you map the whole surface, you can’t even maintain the correct topology. If there is any rational way to deal with long-term policy questions, it must be in the context of a far broader science of modelling socio-techno-ecosystems (development of which has barely begun), combined with the “robust policy” approach of Popper, Lempert and colleagues (see e.g. R. J. Lempert (2002) “A New Decision Sciences for Complex Systems” http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.082081699). Conventional economics was not designed to deal with problems on the scale we face, and just won’t cut it.

  18. 68

    RE #63 & discount rates, I’m thinking when it comes to morality, sin, and life and death issues discount rates don’t apply. If my actions today kill someone 10,000 years from now, that is just as bad as killing someone today. Also whether it is 10, 100, or 1000 of us together killing that one person, it is just as bad.

    So, while we wouldn’t want to spare the lives of future people by starving ourselves today, we can at least cut back on all our guns and butter to avoid killing them. And we can operate more closely to the production possibilities frontier (become efficient), as we are in the highly inefficient center right now.

    Mitigating GW is really more a question of mercy than economics.

    And there’s no such thing as a “rational, economic man” — since people are even refusing to do the economic thing (become energy/resource efficient/conservative) and save money without lowering productivity or lifestyle AND avoid killing people.

    It seems there must be some kind of Freudian monster that’s awakening from some deep and long repression that’s driving supposedly “economic man.”

    So the field of economics is sort of on shaky grounds.

  19. 69
    Blair Dowden says:

    Re #67 Nick – You could make much the same argument against using climate models. There are arbitrary assumptions and difficult to predict physics, and anyway we already know that doubling carbon dioxide levels is a bad idea. But developing a climate model is the only way to rigorously develop the best knowledge that we can have to make the best possible decisions.

    Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is primarily about economics, so developing an economic model is the best way to make the most rational decisions. Of course, there are limitations with these models, but I do not accept the notion that economics cannot handle different value systems and future uncertainties so we should forget about it.

    For example, let us consider the idea that we cannot put a value on the iconic polar bear. We can ask how much it will cost to save them. Suppose the answer is stop all greenhouse gas emissions immediately. This will be rather expensive, such as the total collapse of our society and hundred of millions of deaths. Perhaps you will agree that the polar bears are not worth that. If so, then you accept that they have an economic value, and economics can deal with that.

    Or maybe you are imagining a rich society with lots of gadgets, but a horribly polluted environment. But in realitiy it is the rich industrialized societies that have the cleanest environments. That is because they can afford to spend some of their wealth on clean technology.

    The point being made by Nordhaus (and Lomborg, though not honestly) is that drastic cuts now may not be the best long run strategy if you value human welfare. Making ourselves too poor could even interfere with our ability to develop the carbon free technology that we need. This is no excuse to do nothing, rather there is an optimal effort to be made.

    The Nordhaus model produces what is supposed to be the optimal level of effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That is a carbon tax starting at $27 per ton of carbon today, and rising at 2 or 3 percent a year in real terms to over $200 a ton in 2100. This will (supposedly) lead to a global average temperature rise (from 1900) of 2.4 degrees C by 2100 and 3.4 degrees by 2200, as opposed to the 3.1 and 5.3 degrees we will get if we do nothing.

    I personally wonder exactly what assumptions are made to conclude that 3.4 degrees is optimal. Even more surprising is the statement that we can hold the increase to 2.5 degrees with a carbon tax starting at $31 per ton. That sounds like a bargain to me, but supposedly the world will be poorer if we go that route.

    Obviously we cannot take such results as gospel, but I think we should question details of the model, not totally discard it because we don’t think everything can be reduced to monetary terms, and isn’t economics what got us into trouble in the first place?

    Or maybe we should take these results as gospel, because the “optimal” solution here is far better than anything being done so far, including the Kyoto accord.

  20. 70
    Nick Gotts says:

    re #69 (Blair Dowden) “For example, let us consider the idea that we cannot put a value on the iconic polar bear. We can ask how much it will cost to save them. Suppose the answer is stop all greenhouse gas emissions immediately. This will be rather expensive, such as the total collapse of our society and hundred of millions of deaths.”

    I think you make my point for me. Obviously total collapse of our society and hundreds of millions of deaths is worse than the extinction of the polar bear – attaching arbitrary monetary figures to the two adds precisely nothing to our understanding and does not affect our judgement – it’s just an economist’s fetish. How would you calculate the cost of the latter in monetary terms? By how much it would cost to avoid it? But how would you calculate this? By how much people would be prepared to pay to prevent it? Who do you ask? If our society collapses, then the financial system clearly goes with it, and the question of how much this “costs” is surely ludicrous.

    “drastic cuts now may not be the best long run strategy if you value human welfare. Making ourselves too poor could even interfere with our ability to develop the carbon free technology that we need. This is no excuse to do nothing, rather there is an optimal effort to be made.”

    The idea that there must be “an optimal effort to be made” is itself a fallacy which I think you only believe because you have been bewitched by neoclassical economics, with its dogma that everything can be reduced to a common currency, of money or “utility”. Suppose we could save 100,000,000 lives over the next 20 years by investing now in (say) malaria prevention, but at the expense of increasing the probability warming will pass a threshold beyond which (say) the Amazon dies, or vast quantities of methane are released from clathrates? (Of course in practice this is still much too simplistic – we will not know how many lives would be saved, or exactly what the probabilities are, but we may indeed need to make this kind of choice.) There is no objective answer here – it is a moral choice, which different people would answer differently. We can argue rationally about it, just as we can about whether Shakespeare is greater than Tolstoy, but there is no final court of appeal. In the literary case, of course, we don’t need to agree an answer; in the former, the only fair way to do it is one person, one vote – worldwide, and we should get as near to that as we can.

    Neoclassical economics is founded on assumptions about how people behave that are known to be false (in particular, in the current context, they do not discount exponentially). It has no useful theory of innovation, cannot deal effectively with changes in institutions or preferences over time, and fails to account for cognitive limitations. (I don’t have all the references to hand to justify these statements, but have given some in past posts, and should be able to find them in reasonable time if necessary.) It is indeed a key part of what has got us into this mess.

    Incidentally, I would not wish to insult Nordhaus, or Stern, or Arrow, by naming them in the same sentence as the Danish liar.

  21. 71
    Blair Dowden says:

    Re #70 – Nick, I don’t see the relevance of your objections to neoclassical economics. My objection is that monetary wealth does not necessarily mean a healthy or happy society. But, to borrow a concept from paleoclimate, wealth is a pretty good proxy for those things. For the same reason I give more credibility to scientists with their climate models than skeptics with their handwaving and bafflegab, I think a good economic model is better (not perfect, same as climate models) than wishing and moralizing.

    In your example, we do nothing about climate but save 100 million people from malaria. Then the effects of climate change hit, and, I assume, do even more damage. This is precisely the problem the economic models are trying to solve, and the “optimal” solution is to spend some on malaria and some preventing climate change.

    Now, I agree that just counting the money might miss something important. Maybe some people die while others get rich. But people dying is not good for the economy, so measuring wealth still has some predictive value, however morally distasteful that may seem.

    My point is that people respond to economics much more than anything else, so any solution to reducing climate change must be primarily economic. Than means using a good economic model. It also means criticizing those parts of the model that do not properly reflect our values, but doing so in a constructive and rigorous way, not dismissing economics altogether.

  22. 72
    Nick Gotts says:

    re #71: (Blair Dowden) “I think a good economic model is better (not perfect, same as climate models) than wishing and moralizing.”

    I don’t “dismiss economics altogether”. Problem is, we don’t have good economic models for events on the relevant scale; my belief is that we cannot build them, as long as economics is considered an autonomous discipline, as neoclassical economics considers it. Over periods longer than a few years, technical innovation, cultural change, institutional change and environmental change each mean that the elements it treats as exogenous have to be treated as part of the same system.

    Over the next decade or two, the constraints on effective action to limit AGW are primarily political – how far can we overcome the special interest groups such as fossil fuel, auto and airline corporations, and the politicians they fund. If these interests don’t like an economic model, they will commission another one – and the “slop” in economic modelling – the unavoidable arbitrary assumptions and unknowables – are quite sufficient to allow them to do so without the kind of outright dishonesty necessary in relation to climate. Contrary to what you appear to believe, the situation in economics does not resemble that in climate science, because (1) people are not particles and (2) economics has been far more directly influenced by ideological considerations, specifically (and particularly with regard to neoclassical economics) the need to “justify the ways of Mammon to Man”.

  23. 73

    Since we are talking about books (not to detract from the valuable discussion about economics), I’d like to invite anyone interested to review my novel (No Tomorrow) with a climate change theme. Contact me via the book’s discussion site (email address concealed at http://groups.google.com/group/no-tomorrow/web/how-to-buy) and I’ll send you a free PDF. This is not a commercial venture — I thought it would be more fun for the average reader wanting to go through the learning curve I did about climate science to read something entertaining than to trawl through all the material as I had to.

  24. 74
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re Our Changing Planet.

    Just picked up my copy from the bookstore (they weren’t carrying it – had to special order).

    What an absolutely beautiful – and informative – book!

    Thank you much for the rec.

  25. 75
    Isabelle Silverman says:

    please post the wonderful comment about Holly Fretwell’s dreadful book on amazon.com and barnes and noble.com. we need a comment from real scientists who have fact checked the idiotic fun facts…
    Isabelle

  26. 76
    Krish says:

    A few ideas on how to seek Economic Sustainability

    1) Individual consumers need to consciously consume less of whatever it is that they consume. The government or NGOs should incentivate families to benchmark their current levels of consumption on various fronts, then reduce them. Consuming fewer air-miles each successive year should be high on our list of priorities, considering their huge addition to our individual carbon footprint. (As a cheap and effective alternative to flying, we may consider video-conferencing.)

    2) Advertising aimed at making people buy more should be tapered off. Only adverts giving information should be allowed.

    3) Roadside advertising hoardings should be reduced by 50%, and they should not be illuminated, as they use up precious energy for a relatively non-productive purpose.

    4) Stop adding power generation capacities, whether thermal or otherwise. Freeze them at existing capacities and merely replace thermal capacities with wind-energy and solar generation capacities.

    5) Stop registering new private vehicles. NGOs or government should incentivate people to give up private transport (for instance by giving them free passes on public transport with 10-year validity.)

    6) Each year, taper off the numbers of private transport wheels by 10% or more, and enhance the capacity of public transport by 20%. This will result in a net improvement in the quality of transportation and reduced congestion each year. Also encourage biking and hiking by improving the quality of roadsides, and including rest facilities (lounges) every kilometre or two.

    7) Enforce a one-child policy with both carrot and stick. This means that within the span of 60-70 years, population would go down by about 50%.

    8) Build infrastructure for localised means of recreation such as playgrounds and stadiums, both indoor and outdoor. Encourage greater participation in physical and mental sporting activities by organizing competitions etc.

    8) Civic and governmental efforts to improve quality of life are crucial to wean off people from the rat-race.

    This is not saying that we shall have no more problems, and shall live happily ever after. Every situation and every lifestyle inevitably has its own set of problems… and we shall have to be alert and aware to deal with them as they arise.

    Warmly,
    Krish
    http://friendlyghost.rediffiland.com
    http://globalwarming.rediffiland.com

  27. 77
    Jerry McManus says:

    I recently read “Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us about Our Future” by Peter D. Ward, a paleontologist and professor of Biology and of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington:

    http://www.powells.com/review/2007_06_09

    Ward’s theory, based on evidence in the fossil record of past extinction events, is that warmer temperatures alter ocean circulation to the point where oceans become dominated by anoxic bacteria which emit quantities of hydrogen sulfide and eventually kill off oxygen loving lifeforms, first in the depths of the ocean, and then on the Earth’s surface as the gas migrates into the atmosphere.

    I’m curious what climatologists think of this book, anyone here read it? Or know someone who has?

    Cheers,
    Jerry

  28. 78

    Without a doubt, we need new thinking and new leadership and, yes, we need both now.

    Hmmm…… ok…… for just a moment let us consider that at least one way to realistically address the challenges posed by global warming and global warming could be by limiting the rate of increase in the unbridled growth of the global economy.

    Perhaps we could follow what we already know from good science, sound reasoning and common sense. We can choose to respond ably and differently, in a more reality-oriented way, to the emergent global challenges looming before humanity, the ones that we can certainly manage because these challenges can be seen so clearly now to be spectacularly induced by the unrestrained global growth of human overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities now threatening to ravage the Earth.

    Of course, it is fair to ask what the family of humanity could choose to do “ably and differently, in a more reality-oriented way.” Here are several ideas that come to mind.

    1. Implement a universal, voluntary, humane program of family planning and health education that teaches people the need for setting a limit on the number of offspring at one child per family.

    2. Establish an upper limit on the growth of the individual human footprint.

    3. Restrict the reckless dissipation of limited natural resources so that the Earth is given time to replenish them for human benefit.

    4. Substitute clean, renewable sources of energy, through the use of substantial economic incentives, for the fossil fuels we rely upon now.

    5. Recognize that everything human beings do on the surface of our planetary home utterly depends on the finite resources and frangible ecosystem services of Earth. Perhaps the time is nearly at hand when an endlessly expanding, gigantesque global economy on a relatively small planet of the size and make-up of Earth becomes patently unsustainable.

  29. 79

    From my humble point of view and limited scope of observation, a perfect storm is taking shape in the form of a gigantic blast of ‘success’ called economic globalization, that can be seen as a soon to become unsustainable consequence of the selfish politics of neo-conservatism and the unbridled economics of market fundamentalism. How on Earth can the relatively small, finite planet we inhabit be expected to much longer sustain the huge scale and anticipated growth of an endlessly expanding global political economy?

    The billionaires are already looking ahead with pleasure and great anticipation to the coming of the first trillionaire among us.

    The color of the clouds on the far horizon are ominously turning from white to black. Some kind of impending ecological collapse or else calamitous economic disaster appears to loom in the offing.

  30. 80
    Ron Taylor says:

    I am about one-third through “GLOBAL WARNING, The Last Chance for Change,” by Paul Brown, the environmental correspondant at the Guardian for 16 years. It was published in 2007 by The Reader’s Digest Association (which I found surprising). That the head of Greenpeace wrote the Foreward may be a negative for some, but so far the text seems very thorough, balanced and nuanced. It includes many superb photos, as well as a few charts and graphs. It is especially good on the history of both the science and policy development. I would be interested in the response of others to this book.

  31. 81

    How about limiting per-human consumption of Earth’s limited resources as one way of addressing the emergent global challenges looming ominously before the family of humanity?

    Let’s assume that all of us agree with the idea of having a discussion that seeks to find a reliable, secure, sensible and sustainable path to a good enough future for our children.

    Inasmuch as human beings appear to be members of a species that appears to be inadvertently threatening to outgrow the planet it inhabits, the idea of at least not over-consuming Earth’s dissipating resources could be an idea whose time has come.

    Given the relentless plunder and obscene per-capita consumption of Earth’s finite resources we are seeing in our time, choosing not to fecklessly plunder and grotesquely squander might be a bit too much to hope for.

    Perhaps a more modest goal will be achieved when human beings agree to do what is humane and necessary by eschewing conspicuous over-consumption and, alternatively, beginning to voluntarily restrain themselves from literally “eating the family of humanity out of house and home.”

    By suggesting this alternative, we would be consciously choosing to consume less resources as one reasonable and sensible way of responding ably to the gluttony and morbid obesity rampant in ‘advanced’ societies in our time?

    Perhaps our children will soon enough come to understand that the choice to “consume less” is the most efficacious and powerful thing any person in the “overdeveloped” world can do to preserve life as we know it and the integrity of Earth.

    If consuming less resources occurred collectively among individuals in the human community who are conspicuously over-consuming, as my generation of notoriously voracious elders is doing now, then a sustainable, “consume less” behavioral repertoire could make a huge difference, one that really makes a difference. It could help the family of humanity save itself from its unhealthy, recklessly increasing and soon to be unsustainable per-capita over-consumption activities.

    Just this week a friend of mine said he possesses at least one of everything in the world he wants….and he is only getting started. Life is all about wealth accumulation and consumption, he advises. He is going for all the gusto, he says.

    Is this an example of the one ‘right’ way to live or else the dream to which the human community is to aspire?

    The Earth can barely sustain several million people behaving like my friend (and me). What can 6.6 billion (soon to be 9 billion) of our brothers and sisters reasonably and sensibly expect “to possess” in the course of their lives?

  32. 82
    Ron Taylor says:

    Re my 80, “Global Warning”

    Oops. On page 153, covering sea level rise, brown converts 1.7mm per year to inches and gets 0.6 inches per year, a factor of ten too large. Too bad. Other than that, the book seems very good thus far.

  33. 83

    Dear Friends,

    If you will, please forgive me for saying that I believe my not-so-great generation of elders is literally on the verge of devouring the birthright of its children and mortgaging their future, while not giving so much as a thought to the needs of coming generations. My generation may be remembered most for having ravaged the Earth and irreversibly degraded its environment, leaving our planetary home unfit for life as we know it or for human habitation or both.

    The fiascos in Iraq and on Wall Street will be seen as symptoms of venal administrations.

    Unfortunately, many too many of our brothers and sisters as well as virtually all the political leaders, economic powerbrokers and ‘talking heads’ in the mass media are not yet acknowledging the distinctly human-induced predicament looming ominously before humanity, even now visible on the far horizon. Because human overproduction, over-consumption and overpopulation appear to be occurring synergistically, at least to me it makes sense to see and address them as a whole. Picking the most convenient or most expedient of the three aspects of the human condition could be easier but may not be a good idea. The “big picture” is what we need to see, I suppose. At some point we are going to be forced to gain a “whole system” perspective of what 6.6 billion (soon to be 9 billion) people are doing on Earth. That is to say, the human community needs to widely-share a reasonable and sensible understanding of the colossal impact of unbridled production, unrestained consumption and unregulated propagation activities of the human species on Earth……. and how life utterly depends upon Earth’s limited resource base for existence.

    If human beings can share an adequate enough grasp of the leviathan-like presence of the human species on Earth, then we can choose individually and collectively to behave differently from the ways we are behaving now, lest my generation could lead everyone to inadvertently precipitate the massive extinction of biodiversity, the irredeemable degradation of environs, the pillage of our planetary home and, perhaps, the endangerment of humanity.

    Sincerely,

    Steve

  34. 84

    Something is happening that many too many people appear not to be seeing, I suppose.

    Scientific evidence is springing up everywhere that indicates the massive and pernicious impact of the human species on the limited resources of Earth, its frangible ecosystems and life as we know it.

    Guided by mountains of carefully and skillfully developed research regarding climate change, top rank scientists like Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, Dr. James Hansen, Dr. Hans J. Schellnhuber and Dr. Christopher Rapley issued a Climate Code Red emergency declaration this month to leaders of governments and to the family of humanity proclaiming the necessity for open discussion and action by politicians and economic powerbrokers.

    From my humble perspective, many leaders of the global political economy are turning a blind eye to human over-consumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities that can be seen recklessly dissipating the natural resources and dangerously degrading the environs of our planetary home. The Earth is being ravaged; but it appears many leaders are willfully refusing to acknowledge what is happening.

    Because the emerging global challenges that could soon be presented to humanity appear to so many fine scientists as human-induced, leaders have responsibilities to assume and duties to perform, ready or not, like them or not.

    Perhaps leadership in our time has too often chosen to ignore whatsoever is somehow real in order to believe whatever is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially agreeable, religiously tolerated and culturally prescribed. When something real directly conflicts with what leaders wish to believe, that reality is denied. It appears that too many leaders are content to hold tightly to widely shared and consensually validated specious thinking when it serves their personal interests.

    Is humanity once again finding life as we know it dominated by a modern Tower of Babel called economic globalization? That is, has human thinking, judging and willing become so egregiously impaired by our idolatry of the artificially designed, manmade, global political economy that we cannot speak intelligibly about anything else except economic growth and profits without sounding like blithering idiots?

  35. 85

    Can anyone name anything in the human world that is more sublime than a responsible, able and courageous scientist who eschews political convenience, economic expediency and the hoarding of endless wealth in order to speak out loudly and clearly for new and unexpected science, especially when the unforeseen, good evidence has great explanatory power and profound implications for the future of the family of humanity on Earth?

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001
    http://sustainabilitysoutheast.org/

  36. 86

    Please consider a few open questions related to the ominous potential for mass devastation that could result from human-induced climate change between now and 2025.

    Is it somehow harmful to ask direct questions like this one regarding good scientific evidence of the potential for either apocalyptic climate change or pernicious impacts from the rapidly growing, colossal presence of the human species on Earth?

    Are willful blindness, hysterical deafness or elective mutism ever acceptable “defenses” for scientists who choose to deny evidence derived from good science?

    Is there some reasonable, sensible or moral foundation upon which faithful scientists can stand upright and say, “I refuse to acknowledge carefully and skillfully gained scientfic evidence if I cannot refute it?”

    Are scientists who present good evidence of climate change and human population dynamics, even though their research is plainly unforeseen and surely unwelcome, entitled to have their evidence openly discussed by professional colleagues with established expertise?

    If the global challenges looming before humanity are as formidable as the best available scientific evidence indicates, then is the family of humanity not well-advised to begin widely sharing in open discussions in the mass media, not just in blogs like this one, what is to be done in order to avoid whatsoever is unmanageable, while managing and mitigating everything else?

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  37. 87

    Perhaps we need to find a new way of living in the world because we may not be able to provide a good enough future for our children by following much longer the “primrose path” of endless economic globalization that our leaders are relentlessly pursuing now.

    We need to do something, both individually and collectively, that is different from the way we are doing things now.

    Time is short, it appears. Something calamitous could happen soon, much sooner than most people are imagining.

    Recently the great man, James Lovelock, reported that he is hoping for 20 more years before “it hits the fan.” By ‘giving’ us twenty years, I suppose he will not disturb the reigning, self-proclaimed masters of the universe among us from my not-so-great generation of elders who have set their sights on rampantly growing the global economy until its unbridled increase becomes unsustainable and produces some kind of colossal ecological wreckage, the likes of which only Ozymandias has seen….come what may for our children, coming generations and for life as we know it on Earth.

    Such adamantine willfulness, unvarnished selfishness, unmitigated arrogance, and unfathomable potential for the precipitation of mass destruction are unparalleled in human history, I believe.

  38. 88

    We are seeing the emergence of a global community of sorts that is passively connected in cyberspace and has as its mission the protection of human wellbeing and the preservation of environmental health, among other goals.

    How do we advance from passive “cyber contact” to a grounded, more active connectedness for precipitating necessary human behavior change?

    Thanks for your consideration.

  39. 89
    Nick says:

    Thanks for your reviews. I have purchased “Earth under Fire – How global warming is changing the world” and found it very interesting. I will visit your homepage again if there is any new reviews.

    Regards,


Switch to our mobile site