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.

Uncertain Science….Uncertain World

Several months ago, I wrote a generally favourable review of geophysicist Dr. Henry Pollack’s newest book, A World Without Ice. So when I came across his earlier book, which was about the nature of the scientific process  – something that fascinates me – I couldn’t wait to read it.

Uncertain Science, Uncertain World is about uncertainty in science, as you may have guessed from the title, and it is absolutely fantastic. If you’re pressed for time, just read the first three chapters – they’re the best. They discuss how the public’s tendency to “equate science with certainty, rather than uncertainty” has been fed by the American school system and the mass media, and what the consequences are.

He talks about how everyone is born a scientist, how children observe the world around them with a fierce curiosity, instinctively exploring and experimenting. Then they go to school, and decide that science is boring. In elementary school, and to some extent in high school, science is presented as a memorization of facts and theories, rather than an exploration of the boundaries of and barriers to our knowledge, which is what scientists actually study. “Science is presented as answers rather than questions,” Pollack writes.

I couldn’t agree more. I wasn’t always the self-professed science addict that I am now. Until I reached high school, I thought that science was dry and boring, and until I started researching climate change, I didn’t see the creativity and problem-solving in it. In science class you memorize facts and do calculations, so it’s very hard for students to realize how cool it is to discover facts and derive calculations, rather than just repeating what someone else did before you. Intelligence is defined as how many facts you can stuff into your head, not how good you are at figuring things out for yourself.

The media doesn’t help, either. Pollack explores the well-known ails of science journalism, and the stigma against public communication in the scientific community. He shares a great example of how the media turned an amateur earthquake prediction, with no support from geologists, into a national frenzy that led to evacuations and the closure of schools. Mainstream journalists, in general, are not good at assessing credibility for scientific issues, but their influence on the public is so great that frequent mistakes by journalists lead to worldwide misconceptions.

This public illusion of certainty, in a field that actually thrives on uncertainty, can be easily exploited by vested interests. “When scientists acknowledge that they do not know everything about a complex natural phenomenon,” writes Pollack, “the public sometimes translates that to mean that scientists do not know anything about the subject,” and, for issues such as climate change, there are many people actively encouraging this jump in logic.

After the stellar beginning, the rest of the book is somewhat more mediocre, albeit still enjoyable. Pollack uses a series of examples and metaphors to explain irreducible measurement error, confidence expressed as statistical probability, conceptual and numerical models, experimentation, and forecasting vs hindcasting. As Pollack is currently studying how rocks retain heat and provide a record of past temperatures that can be used as proxy paleo data, facets of climate science are used as examples in nearly every chapter, and the last chapter of the book is devoted to climate change. However, he also uses examples from economics, plate tectonics, election polling, and the legal system. It is truly a multidisciplinary approach that will appeal to scientists and science enthusiasts from every field. Highly recommended to all.

Science and Communication, Part 1

Usually books about climate change take me some time to read. As fascinating as they are, they’re not the kind of literature I would read to relax. They take far more energy to get through than something like Twilight.

This wasn’t the case for Science as a Contact Sport, the new book by Stephen Schneider. I couldn’t put it down – I absolutely whizzed through it. The narrative wasn’t about explaining scientific processes as much as describing what it’s like to be a climate scientist, and how that has changed since the early 1970s. Perhaps my enjoyment of the narrative was due to the fact that I think I like memoirs – although the only other memoir I’ve read is Memoirs of a Geisha (and wasn’t that fictional?) In any case, Science as a Contact Sport was a memoir of the kind of person I want to follow in the general footsteps of: someone who studies climate change, particularly modelling and radiative balance, and has a good sense of how to accurately communicate science to the media and the public.

Schneider has been studying climate change for a long time – he’s literally one of the pioneers of climate modelling – so his story was able to begin in the 1970s. There were quite a few familiar figures in the early narrative, including James Hansen as a PhD student (there was even a photograph!) and Richard Lindzen, who was brilliant but had unusual views on how to communicate uncertain science to the government and the public.

I was fascinated by the insider’s account of the 1970s radiative forcing debate – which would win out in the end, aerosols or greenhouse gases? As Schneider was the co-author of one of the few papers that predicted a cooling, he was able to explain the problems with that paper and why it was quickly discredited. Firstly, the climate model used for the paper didn’t have a stratosphere, so the climate’s sensitivity to CO2 was underestimated by a factor of 2. Secondly, the paper incorrectly assumed that aerosols would evenly disperse globally, like greenhouse gases do. It was very early on in the study of both aerosols and climate modelling, so Schneider’s mistake wasn’t a big deal to the scientific community – but it sure keeps coming up in editorials and YouTube comments these days.

The thesis of the book was that being a climate scientist in the 1970s was very different to the way it is now. In the early 70s, Schneider and his colleagues pounded away at the frontiers of their fields and filled their minds with purely analytical questions. Those who talked to the media about their work were reprimanded, and some scientists even questioned the integrity of creating assessment reports for the government.

Today, however, climate scientists create major international assessment reports every few years, while politicians try to sabotage the process. They are morally obliged to talk to the media, unless they’re happy with the media talking to Fred Singer instead. And even so, editorials and Fox News segments are all too happy to twist whatever they say in hopes to damage the credibility of their field.

Science used to just be about science. Now, as scientists studying an area that is socially and politically important, Schneider and his colleagues have to be adept at both science and communication. The book provided some great suggestions for improvement. One of my favourites was to take the first half hour of each conference to summarize what was known in that field, so that the journalists present wouldn’t witness only the cutting-edge discussions and come away thinking that climate science was uncertain because the scientists all disagreed.

Science as a Contact Sport was a fantastic book that had a lot to say about the nature of science, scientific literacy in the public, and the state of science journalism. A lot like Chris Mooney’s new book, Unscientific America, but specific to climate change. It really got me thinking about the vast chasm between scientists and the public and how we should address it, to the point where it’s inspired a whole series of posts. Keep your eyes open for part 2 – coming soon.

Climate Cover-Up

I’m fairly new to the issue of climate change, and even newer to the politics surrounding it. I’ve spent the past two years reading about climate change causes, impacts, projections, myths, media blunders, and public misconceptions.

I knew that vested interests, such as the fossil fuel industry and political lobby groups, had played a part in the widespread public confusion. However, I naively assumed that they had simply taken advantage of said confusion – that the public was already unsure, so the vested interests decided to jump in and prolong it.

How wrong I was. How very, very wrong I was, as Jim Hoggan and Richard Littlemore proved to me in their new book, Climate Cover-Up.

Example after example, and story after story, showed that vested interests didn’t just take advantage of public confusion surrounding climate change. They created it. They deliberately constructed the so-called “debate” in an effort to – what? Earn more money? Fight socialism?

Take the Information Council on the Environment, one of the first climate change lobby groups. They were established in 1991, right after governments first started to respond to climate change – Thatcher, Bush Sr, and Mulroney all made promises to reduce emissions. The ICE flat-out stated that their objective was “to reposition global warming as a theory (not fact)” and “to supply alternative facts to support the suggestion that global warming will be good”.

The American Petroleum Institute was even more blatant. A leaked email contains a list of objectives for their PR campaigns:

Victory Will Be Achieved When

-Average citizens “understand” (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the “conventional wisdom”

-Media “understands” (recognizes) uncertainties in climate science

-Media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints that challenge the current “conventional wisdom”

-Industry senior leadership understands uncertainties in climate science, making them stronger ambassadors to those who shape climate policy

-Those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.

Everything that we’ve been bemoaning for years now. Misplaced public doubt, artificial balance in the media, Bush and Harper’s ties to the oil industry. It didn’t just happen by accident.

The email goes on to discuss strategies to achieve these objectives, including plans to produce and distribute “a steady stream of op-ed columns and letters to the editor” doubting climate change. So all those skeptical editorials in the popular press might not be written by journalists that have been taken for a ride. They might actually be by people with ties to lobby groups like the American Petroleum Institute.

You could look at Frank Luntz’s plans to capitalize on uncertainty. Or the American Enterprise Institute’s offer of $10 000 to any scientist who wrote a critique of the IPCC. Or how The Great Global Warming Swindle, a documentary oft-cited by YouTubers, creatively took statements from its interviewees out of context.

Climate Cover-Up made me so angry. I remember not being able to fall asleep the night I finished it. Then telling everyone I could about it. I had been immersed in the issue of climate change for two years, and yet I had failed to grasp the scope of vested interests’ influence on the public.

Many of our readers, who have been following this issue for years, are probably familiar with the stories and examples in the book. There isn’t anything in it that will be new to everyone.

But that wasn’t the book’s purpose, and climate scientists aren’t the book’s audience. Rather, Climate Cover-Up is aimed at those just becoming interested in climate change politics. It’s aimed at people who are unaware of the near-constant misinformation thrown at them, who are new to the immense power of money and industry over science and truth, who wouldn’t think to check the citations of editorials. It’s aimed at people like I was, two years ago.

I must also note that Climate Cover-Up is substantially easier to read than most books about climate change. The prose is witty and easy to follow. It doesn’t talk about science. It feels nothing like a textbook.

I’d like everyone in the world to read this book. But truthfully, I’d rather that it hadn’t needed to be written at all.

A World Without Ice

Dr Henry Pollack, the author of A World Without Ice, is a geophysicist and an IPCC author. According to Al Gore, in the foreword, he is also “a scientist with the rare ability to engage ordinary people and to translate scientific ideas into everyday terms that are easy to understand”.

I couldn’t agree more. Pollack didn’t write A World Without Ice like a scientific journal, or like a textbook. Rather, he wrote it with the air of an enthusiastic science teacher introducing his students to new topics.

I was introduced to many new topics throughout the book – basic glaciology, the Earth’s geological thermostat, the Maunder Minimum – and I didn’t have to struggle to understand the terminology, or read anything twice. Pollack wrote with such clarity that learning new scientific topics felt almost effortless.

But absolutely top-notch were his metaphors. For example, this is how Pollack explains how the three factors of the Milankovitch cycles can combine to cause climatic change:

The composite is like listening to sound from an electronic synthesizer, which uses only three tones with different volume settings. The combination is usually some gentle cacophony, but from time to time there is some harmony between two of the tones, and on occasion with even one tone dominating, coming through loud and clear. The right combination of these Milankovitch factors sets the stage for snow accumulation at high latitudes and the beginning of an ice age.

Brilliant, no?

My one complaint about A World Without Ice was that Pollack tended to step too far away from his central topic of ice as a geological and climatic force. He ended up explaining everything that was even remotely related to ice, instead of sticking to what made his book unique.

For example, the North and South Poles are dominated by ice, so the first 30 pages were devoted to a history of polar exploration. Interesting stories, but not really necessary in a book about geology. It’s easy to find entire books about polar exploration if the reader is so inclined.

Later, when global warming came into the discussion, Pollack spent several chapters going through the basic lines of evidence for anthropogenic warming. I would wager that most readers of A World Without Ice are familiar with An Inconvenient Truth, or something similar, which has these explanations as its central purpose. Therefore, I don’t feel that running down this path well travelled is necessary for the audience at hand.

I feel that pieces of A World Without Ice could have been taken out, and the book as a whole would have actually benefited. So the next time I read it (and yes, I’m quite sure there will be a next time), I may not read the whole thing. I may skip the story of Captain Cook’s Antarctic voyage, or the explanation of the Keeling Curve. But I will read, many times over, the explanations of how ice is tied to geology, glaciology, and paleoclimatology. That’s what Pollack, this enthusiastic science teacher, intended the book to be about. And that’s what he does best.

TLC Book Tours is offering one free copy of A World Without Ice to a ClimateSight reader! The first person to correctly answer this question will be the winner:

What chapter of the IPCC AR4 did Dr Henry Pollack contribute to?

Leave your guesses in the comments. This contest is open to Canada and US readers only.

Two Great Canadians

It’s a rare day when you find a book about climate change written by a Canadian. The authors are American, mostly. Some are British or Australian. And that’s a real shame, because there’s a lot going on in Canadian politics about climate change – but you can’t read about it anywhere. The newspapers don’t report it (I hadn’t even heard of Bill C311 until I went to PowerShift). The government website certainly doesn’t report it. Currently, my only source of Canada-specific climate news is the One Blue Marble blog. We’re going into Copenhagen as the least committed and least cooperative developed nation in the world. And most Canadians don’t even know it.

That’s why it was so refreshing to read Keeping Our Cool by Andrew Weaver, a top Canadian climate modeler. He is a professor at the University of Victoria, the chief editor for the Journal of Climate, a lead author for the IPCC, and the Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis. Certainly some impressive credentials. I sort of dream of doing my Master’s under him.

The book was very well-rounded for climate literature. It covered basic scientific processes (with lots of fancy graphs), the history of climate science, and policy alternatives. But my favourite chapters had to do with the media and politics – purely because they were Canada-specific.

I know all about George Bush’s inaction on climate change. But until I read Andrew Weaver’s book, I didn’t see just how blatantly Stephen Harper was carrying on the torch. I’ve read Boykoff and Boykoff’s study, which surveys American newspaper articles. But I was less aware of how the Canadian media reported climate change, apart from my local newspaper and news channel (and Rick Mercer, of course).

It was so refreshing to have a sense of what was going on at home for once, after wasting so much time trying to figure it out for myself.

My only complaint was that the book was poorly organized. It constantly switched back and forth from scientific explanations, to Canadian news, to examples of vested skeptical interests, to Canadian politics. This was probably deliberate, so that the chapters wouldn’t get monotonous, but it makes it a lot harder to find what you’re looking for later (like while writing a book review!)

Another great Canadian, military expert and geopolitical analyst  Gwynne Dyer, wrote a very different book. It was probably  different to anything else I’ve read about climate change. It was  definitely a lot scarier.

Every alternate chapter of Climate Wars described a different  future scenario, exploring how climate change would affect  international relations. United States, 2029, where masses of  starving immigrants from the drought-stricken Mexico lead the  American government to close the southern border and arm it with barbed wire, machine guns, and land mines. Northern India, 2036, when water disputes with Pakistan lead to a nuclear conflict that destroys the Taj Mahal. China, 2042, when geoengineering gone wrong corresponds with a massive volcano, leading to a sudden (albeit temporary) drop in temperature. The Arctic, 2175, when the oceans begin to smell like rotten eggs – anyone familiar with previous mass extinctions will know why that’s not as trivial as it may sound.

Scary, scary stuff. And most of it within my lifetime. Military “scenarios” are not predictions or even projections. But they’re based on such projections, so they hold a frightening grain of plausibility.

When people claim that the consequences of turning away from fossil fuels will be worse than just letting climate change happen, tell them to read Climate Wars. It shows us just what’s at stake here.

Moments of Revelation

Dr Iain Stewart holding a rock

Dr Iain Stewart holding a rock

Over the past few days I’ve worked my way through the three-part BBC series, Climate Wars, hosted by Dr Iain Stewart, a geology professor with a very cool Scottish accent. An excerpt from this series was featured in one of Peter Sinclair’s videos, which looked quite fascinating, and anything Peter refers to as “brilliant” is probably worth watching.

Worth watching indeed. I’d recommend anyone and everyone to watch this series. It’s basic enough for someone with little to no knowledge of this issue, yet presented in such a compelling way that the most experienced climate scientist wouldn’t get bored.

One of the film’s major strong points was simply the way it was organized. Dr Stewart traced the history of both the science and the politics around climate change, splitting it into three parts:

Part one: Scientists had known for decades that anthropogenic greenhouse gases could cause warming of the Earth, but now, following thirty years of aerosol-induced cooling, global warming was starting to show; almost every year was record-breaking. James Hansen was the first to “stick his neck out” – testifying to Congress that he believed anthropogenic climate change was underway. He later claimed that he had weighed the risks of being wrong and looking stupid, versus doing nothing and not telling the world about such a huge potential threat. Sort of like an early Greg Craven, I suppose. I found this part to be the least interesting of the three. It also began strangely – Stewart mentioned a letter to the US president, signed by top scientists, which warned of an impending ice age. I’d never heard about this before. Does anyone else know more about this letter?

Part two: The skeptics fought back as strongly as they could, questioning absolutely every scientific claim regarding global warming. I found this to be absolutely fascinating; it solidifed a lot of issues in my mind and helped to unify my knowledge on the topic. Stewart went through the research which showed that the Earth was warming as a result of human activities – and showed how all the yelling from skeptics helped to make the theory even stronger. He also “infiltrated the walls” of the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change, which I found to be absolutely hilarious. They had a comedian making bad jokes about how New York could handle some global warming, Monckton and Singer making their usual accusations of fraud (Stewart remarked that “when these become the talking points, then I know that the scientific debate is really over”), and Patrick Michaels publicly admitting “Yes, the second half of the century did show some warming, and it was the result of human activities…..and now you all hate me for saying that…….” Dr Iain Stewart explained that, even though the controversy doesn’t really exist anymore in the scientific literature, the claims of skeptics still live on in the popular media and on the Internet. Instead of fighting a scientific battle, they’re now doing public relations.

Part three: Scientists knew that humans were causing global warming, but how bad would it be? After the brilliance of the second part, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the last segment quite as much…….but I was proven very, very wrong. It both terrified and fascinated me. Terrified because it discussed the Younger Dryas, something I hadn’t really heard of before, where it warmed about 5 C in just a few years. So far beyond anything I thought was possible. When this research was released, the idea that the climate was steady and slow-moving could no longer be embraced.

And then it fascinated me because it was the first time that climate models seemed really, really cool.

The idea of modelling something – anything – on the computer is somewhat unremarkable to me. I am of the generation that literally grew up using computers; I vaguely remember playing astronaut addition games on Windows 3.1 when I was four. I have seen so many things digitalized; the prospect of modelling climate is obviously immense, but it doesn’t amaze me.

But then Dr Stewart made a “dishpan climate model” with a spinning bowl, water with some dye, an ice-cube Antarctica, and a Bunsen-burner Sun. He set it all up and before long…..you could actually see regular patterns in the water’s movements that looked like the prevailing winds. It was so, so amazing. Even more amazing than a complex model on the computer because it was real and tangible and you could touch it. Like a little Earth on the countertop. All of the complex processes of our climate eventually come back to these simple factors. (I want to make one myself. But I don’t have one of those spinny things.)

And then I started wondering what computer modelling would be like, and remembering how much I loved physics last year, how I liked to put four or five algebraic equations together and solve it all in one complicated step to reduce error. Manipulating variables and shifting things around. Like a little puzzle. I was remembering how much I love hard math problems, because you actually have to use your brain, try everything you can think of, stretch the limits of your logic…..and you feel such a sense of accomplishment when you finish that all the work is worth it.

Is a climate model just a really large and complex collection of equations and puzzles that have to fit together in the right way? It would be pretty cool if it was. I knew that studying climate change required a lot of math, but this is the first time that I can see a clear path showing how an issue I care deeply about could coincide with aptitudes I enjoy.

Two Good Books

The Heat is On by Ross Gelbspan was an enjoyable book. It didn’t take much effort to keep reading, and I whipped through it in a couple of days.

Much of the book was devoted to the politics of climate change, most notably the PR attempts by skeptics to delay action. There were some well-placed but infuriating examples, especially the story of Benjamin Santer, and how he was suddenly charged with fraud in the 1995 IPCC report by the folks from SEPP and the Marshall Institute. This was obviously an underhanded attempt to damage the IPCC’s credibility to the public, and it lives on today. I was trying to find a decent link from a respectable source that explained this story in more detail, but I got tired of sifting through results from Climate Depot and the SEPP website.

The book also explored how climate change will affect businesses and the economy. “The laws of supply and demand,” writes Gelbspan, “do not supersede the laws of nature – and when those two sets collide, the physical planet is the court of highest appeal.” The last chapter was devoted to possible solutions. There was nothing that set this book apart from others of its kind, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

However, I felt that The Heat is On was a little dated, as it was written in 1997 – before the record-breaking years of 1998 and 2005, before Katrina, before Exxon stopped funding the skeptics. I felt this last point is quite important, as the skeptics were constantly referred to as “industry representatives” or “fossil fuel funded” in the book, while today the skeptics are more representatives of the extreme right-wing community, such as the Heartland Institute. The skeptical community seems more and more like a resistance to regulation, rather than a resistance to getting rid of fossil fuels. Naomi Oreskes refers to this phenomenon as “free market fundamentalism” in her excellent lecture (but resist the urge to read the comments – they’ll annoy you to no end).

Bottom line – there was nothing much that was new or spectacular in this book, but I enjoyed it anyway, and would recommend it to all.

I enjoyed Hell and High Water by Joseph Romm even more. It seemed more structured, more comprehensive, and more solution-oriented. The first half of the book was devoted to climate change impacts, especially hurricanes and sea-level rise. It was quite terrifying, even though I read this sort of stuff all the time.

The second half of the book discussed politics and solutions. Skeptics were referred to as “Denyers and Delayers”, a title I found quite fitting. There was a lot of Bush-bashing.

I found the solutions to be very well thought out and organized. Romm explained how we can’t rely on “new technology” to save us – we need to start now with what we have, which will buy us the time to develop this new technology. He told the success story of California’s energy efficiency program, which amazed me, and which I will likely devote a post to in the near future. I know there are a fair few Californians who read this blog – anyone want to leave their opinions, info, links, etc in the comments?

He discussed why peak oil won’t happen soon enough to save us from global warming, and why hydrogen power is not a viable solution unless and until we can find a way to get hydrogen from something other than fossil fuels. He explored the touchy subject of how to share emission reductions between developed countries and developing countries.

Romm also discussed media, one of my favourite facets of climate change to study. He noted that climate change, when it is reported in the popular press, is subject to a great deal of artificial balance, as “the media has the misguided belief that the pursuit of balance is superior to the pursuit of truth – even in science journalism.” He measured up the two sides of the scientific debate and claimed that the skeptics “remain a group small enough to fit into a typical home bathroom.” He quoted an anonymous editor at a major televison network, who replied to the question, “Why don’t you make the link between violent weather and global warming?” with, “We did that. Once. But it triggered a barrage of complaints from the Global Climate Coalition.” He mentioned a 2006 poll in Time magazine which found that 64% of Americans think there is a lot of scientific disagreement about climate change.

It’s like the media chapter was designed especially for me. I love reading about new topics – but I also love learning more about the topics I already know and love.

I think everyone should read Hell and High Water. It’s an up-to-date, far-reaching, well-cited account of global warming in the physical world and society.

As always, if you’ve read these books, you’re welcome to leave your own thoughts about them in the comments.

The Average Person

craven I first watched the Manpollo videos about a year and a half ago, when I had the flu, and ended up watching the entire six hours over two days. I don’t remember when it was that I discovered Greg Craven was writing a book based on the videos, but I’ve been excited to read it ever since.

The Manpollo videos have inspired my view on climate change and transformed my way of talking about it more than anything else I’ve read or watched. In a nutshell, Greg Craven’s process of risk management takes the pressure off us to be amateur scientists. It doesn’t require that we assess the statistical methods of people with PhDs when we only have a high school knowledge of science. Instead, it shows us how to use logic, assess credibility, and weigh the benefits and consequences of taking action vs not taking action on an uncertain threat.

I suppose I sort of expected that Greg Craven’s book would be a step up from the videos, would contain even more ideas, anecdotes and talking points that I could really sink my teeth into, would tell me more that I hadn’t already heard in the six hours of Manpollo.

But his book wasn’t like that. Greg Craven disappointed me.

And I’m grateful for that.

See, the book was not aimed at people like me who have an interest in climate change that borders on obsession. It was not aimed at the people who already know which sources are skeptical of anthropogenic climate change and which are worried about it. It was not aimed at those of us who can rattle off the current concentration of atmospheric CO2 without a second thought.

The book was aimed at the average person, who basically knows what climate change is but hears so much shouting in the media that they have no idea of its level of agreement. Who knows there are two sides and doesn’t want to offend anyone. Who has never heard of Milankovitch cycles, methane hydrates or the Goddard Institute of Space Studies.

If the average person stumbled upon most climate change blogs, most of the terms would be foreign to them. I hope they’d be able to understand most of what I write here on ClimateSight (as I try to stay away from analysing hard data) but they’d probably still need a bit of background information.

The average person, with little to no background information on climate science and policy, needs somewhere to start. They need the tools to assess the credibility of a source. They need to know where to go for more information about a topic. They need a basic knowledge of risk management, logic, and bias.

What’s the Worst that Could Happen? provides exactly that. It seems like a more concise version of the Manpollo videos, all the topics outlined in a simple process without the need for much background reading. If I were to recommend a book to start with for this anonymous average person we’re discussing, it would be hard to find one better than this one.

Instead of telling you stuff, Greg Craven tells you how to find stuff out for yourself. He doesn’t tell you how much agreement there is on climate change, he introduces you to a credibility spectrum instead. And even then, he doesn’t just give you his credibility spectrum, he shows you how to make your own.

He doesn’t tell you that oil executives are denialist trolls, he explains possible biases that could lead a person to a hasty conclusion. He gives one of the best basic explanations of the mechanics of anthropogenic climate change that I’ve ever read. Craven is possibly the least offensive, but most helpful, writer I’ve ever encountered.

My only complaint about the book was how he handled the “individual professional” and “individual layperson” sections in the chapters about statements. On the Skeptic’s side, he listed every individual prominent skeptic he could think of, I believe it was about a dozen. On the Warmer’s side, he had Hansen, Oreskes, and Gore. That was it. He explained that this was because he filled his credibility spectrum from the top down, and the statements at the top were almost exclusively weighted to the Warmer’s side. But there is something personal about an individual’s work that makes a person trust them and put faith in their arguments, rather than a report like the IPCC which is dry and anonymous. I wish that Craven had put some kind of indication, perhaps the Doran and Zimmerman report, that the opinion of individual scientists was also weighted towards the Warmer’s side. Otherwise it seems like the masses are not in agreement with the authority, which is supposed to be the source you listen to.

And because I agree with this concept so wholeheartedly, I feel compelled to share with my readers my answer to the question Craven asks at the very beginning – what would make you change your mind?

I would change my mind about dangerous anthropogenic climate change if a new discovery was made, if some new explanation came forward that gained as much agreement as the current theory holds now. If the national scientific bodies of the world, the peer-reviewed journals, and university textbooks had a complete overhaul because scientists discovered that humans were not changing the climate. If some new explanation surfaced that proved Arrhenius and Callendar wrong. It would be a discovery akin to the theory of relativity. As George Monboit said, “If you can prove these statements wrong, you should apply for a Nobel Prize. You will have turned science on its head.”

I listen to the scientists. I’m not surrending my rights and freedoms as an individual to them. I just trust their analysis more than I trust my own.

To conclude

If you already know a fair bit about climate change, and want some really fascinating dicussion points that will keep you going for literally years, watch the Manpollo videos. If you’re a really hardcore skeptic who thinks climate change is a global conspiracy, Manpollo was made especially for you.

But if you’re new to this topic, start with What’s the Worst that Could Happen? I assure you that there is no better place to begin.

A Few Moments of Brilliance

heatI just finished reading one of the many climate change books on my reading list, “Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning” by George Monbiot. I have to say that the subtitle really annoys me. Fossil fuels are burning, yes, but the planet isn’t burning. It isn’t combining with oxygen and disintegrating.

Most of the book was a fairly dry account of possible ways to create a low-carbon economy – carbon capture and storage, building efficiency standards, reducing reliance on air travel. It was well researched and carefully planned, but not really my cup of tea.

However, there were several quotes, at the beginning and end of the book, which I found absolutely brilliant, for their style and word choice as well as their content.

“We can determine, for example, that the financial costs of Hurricane Katrina…..amount to some $75 billion…..But does it capture the suffering of the people whose homes were destroyed? Does it capture the partial destruction, in New Orleans, of one of the quirkiest and most creative communities on earth? Does it, most importantly, capture the value of the lives of those who drowned?” -page 50

“This must, in other words, be a moral decision, not an economic one. Either we decide that it is right to spend a lot of money seeking to prevent catastrophic climate change or we decide that it isn’t, but we must make that decision on the grounds of how much we value people and places as people and places, rather than as figures in a ledger.” -page 51

“But this baby, this strange little creature, closer to the ecosystem than a fully grown human being, part pixie, part frog, part small furry animal, now sixteen days old and curled up on my lap like a bean waiting to sprout, changes everything. I am no longer writing about what might happen to “people” in this country in thirty years’ time. I am writing about her. As she trembles on the threshold of life, the evidence of her mortality is undeniable. It seems far more real than mine…..Global warming is no longer a generalized phenomenon, its victims no longer abstractions. Among them might be my child. Or yours. Or you. Or even  me. Of all the complex matters encapsulated in this subject, this, until now, has been the hardest to grasp.” -page 206

Among these quotes runs a common thread: the idea that money is imaginary, numbers are imaginary, but people are real. People are the basis of the very real, tangible world of the human species. And now this species seems willing to destroy itself in favour of imaginary topics such as math and the economy.

I’m not sure if I’d recommend this book to others. If you’re interested in the real nitty-gritty of sustainable energy, it’s very thorough. But otherwise, I found the parts of the book that were most worth reading are the quotes listed above.

If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your opinion of it. Feel free to leave a comment if you’re so inclined.