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.