The Discovery of Global Warming

A common remark I make about climate change books I like is that “it wasn’t like a textbook”. I like non-fiction books that I can carry around and read cover-to-cover just like I would a novel. I like them to draw me in and catch my interest as if they were a suspenseful PD James or just a comfortable Maeve Binchy.

The Discovery of Global Warming, by Spencer Weart, had all of these qualities and more: It contained as much information as a textbook, even if it didn’t read like one. That, I think, is the benefit of science history. It can be written in a way that is compelling as fiction, but it’s all true.

I think I will place this book near the top of my list of resources for concerned citizens who are looking for more information on climate change. It is so helpful because, instead of saying “scientists are confident that humans are causing the Earth to warm”, it traces back through history and follows this discovery all the way through, from Fourier to the AR4. We see the top of the credibility spectrum in action, and examine exactly where the conclusions of the scientific community came from.

There are lots of great details in this book to sink your teeth into. How did the Cold War pave the way for much of our knowledge about the atmosphere? Why does chaos theory apply to weather models much more than climate models? And, of course, my very favourite – the 1970s aerosol debate. How did scientists realize that the warming force of greenhouse gases would overpower the cooling force of aerosols, long before the warming was actually observed?

All of this is written in an incredibly elegant and engaging tone. Weart’s style of writing somehow reminds me of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Lost World – succinct characterization, unintended (or just well-hidden) satire, a calm detachment from the story that somehow makes it all the more fascinating.

I read the “Revised and Expanded Edition”, so I’m not sure if all editions of The Discovery of Global Warming contain all the extras in the back: a timeline, an index, and a chapter entitled “Reflections” that is full of Weart’s musings about risk management and science communication. “Unlike, say, the orbits of planets,” he writes, “the climate in the future actually does depend in part on what we think about it. For what we think will determine what we do.”

A tangible alternative to the more comprehensive online version (really, who wants to read a book by navigating a web of links and scrolling through chapters on a computer screen?), The Discovery of Global Warming is worth every cent, and every minute of your time it takes to read it. I look forward to future volumes as this story continues to unfold.

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5 thoughts on “The Discovery of Global Warming

  1. Having got to grips with why CO2 and other gases respond to IR radiation and having dabbled in understanding quantum physics in the past.

    I bought a beginners book about quantum physics, which I am reading now.
    It’s called Quantum Physics: Beginners Guides by Alastair I.M. Rae. Published by Oneworld.

    The sequence of explanations and the clear writing is spot on. It is filling some gaps in my knowledge. It’s probably a good starter book for a lot of students.
    It also covers the basics of nuclear energy, the greenhouse effect, metals, insulators, semiconductors and new stuff like exploiting spin.

  2. I have recc. Weart’s book to many people, including a lot of meteorologists.

    The timeline of discovery shows how many of the popular myths on climate change were long ago dismissed by the science community.

  3. This is the number one book on climate change that I recommend to people. Weart describes the development of an entire field of research from the ground up and thus answers the question: ‘why do we know what we know?’. It’s a real gem. Glad to see it reviewed.

  4. Is the Proposed Trans Global Highway a solution for population concerns and global warming?
    One tremendous solution to future population concerns as well as alleviating many of the effects of potential global warming is the proposal for the construction of the “Trans Global Highway”. The proposed Trans Global Highway would create a world wide network of standardized roads, railroads, water pipe lines, oil and gas pipelines, electrical and communication cables. The result of this remarkable, far sighted project will be global unity through far better distribution of resources, including including heretofore difficult to obtain or unaccessible raw materials, fresh water, finished products and vastly lower global transportation costs.
    With greatly expanded global fresh water distribution, arid lands could be cultivated resulting in a huge abundance of global food supplies. The most conservative estimate is that with the construction of the Trans Global Highway, the planet will be able to feed between 14 and 16 Billion people, just using presently available modern farming technologies. With a present global population of just under 7 billion people and at the United Nations projection of population increase, the world will produce enough food surpluses to feed the expected increased population for the next 425 years. Thomas Robert Malthus’s famous dire food shortage predictions of 1798 failed to take into consideration modern advances in farming, transportation, food storage and food abundance. Further information on the proposed Trans Global Highway can be found at http://www.TransGlobalHighway.com .

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