Book Review: Global Warming: The Last Chance for Change
"The last 50 years stick out like a sore thumb... The temperature's gone up and up and up. It bears the imprint of human activity."
--Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Princeton University
"It's not something we can adapt to...we can't let it go another 10 years like this."
--Dr. James Hansen, Director NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, member National Academy of Sciences
"The weight of evidence for climate change is very strong indeed, and it has gotten stronger over the years...The rate of warming is now greater than it has been for 10,000 years; that means the rate of climate change is greater than it has been for 10,000 years."
--Sir John Houghton, Professor in atmospheric physics, University of Oxford, recipient of Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal, Honorary Member American Meteorological Society
"This is the biggest challenge our civilization has ever had consciously to face. If this goes on, we will lose ice cover on our planet. The process will cause such rapid transformation we will have enormous trouble adapting."
--Sir David King, Professor of Physical Chemistry at Cambridge, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government
[All of above quotes from Paul Brown's Global Warming: The Last Chance for Change]
When prominent scientists make statements like these, it is foolish to ignore them. But that is exactly what we have been doing. The top scientific minds from all over the world in near unanimity have looked at the scientific evidence and given a collective "Holy shit! We're in deep trouble if we don't do something." And by and large the world has been ignoring them. Slowly that has been changing as more and more books expose people to the truth about Global Warming. The latest such book is Global Warming: The Last Chance for Change, by Paul Brown.
My first impression of Paul Brown's book was that it was a glorified version of Al Gore's book on the same subject, An Inconvenient Truth. I figured it would be much the same as what I had read before. In some ways this is true. I did already know much of what is presented in Brown's book. But, in another sense I was very wrong. I wound up far more impressed than I had expected. I can safely say that this is the most comprehensive book on Global Warming to date, covering a huge amount of ground in a very concise but accurate manner. Al Gore's book was an excellent and clear Powerpoint presentation on the subject. This book has the same quality, but interwoven with text that is densely packed with facts. For this very reason it is not as good a basic introduction as An Inconvenient Truth, but it can be viewed as more definitive, the place to go after finishing An Inconvenient Truth. I consider this book a must read for just about anyone. Even Global Warming skeptics should read this book because if they can't address the points made in this book in detail, then they have no business calling themselves skeptics.
Paul Brown is a long time journalist for The Guardian. He is not a scientist, but it is clear to me he either understands the science very well or has people working for him who do. There were few places where I would consider the science anything but solid in what he says. He goes a tad beyond what most scientists would in a few places, for example, when he pretty directly attributes the disaster of Hurricane Katrina to Global warming. But when he does so, he still argues from a point of very solid science and makes a convincing argument. (More on that later)
The photos are often spectacular...stunning, in fact. At first I found the mix of photos and text to be confusing. Perhaps it could be organized better. But I got used to the mix within a couple of chapters. Initially I found myself neglecting the text in favor of the photos. The photos kept drawing me in while the text seemed to cover ground I was already familiar with. In the first couple of chapters, the photos were a dramatic montage of what I already knew. By the end of the book I found I was focusing far more on the text than the photos as the facts drew me in more. In some way there are three threads that flow through the book: the illustration of Global warming as told in dramatic photos, the facts and figures densely presented in the text, and the excellent sound bytes given in the accompanying quotes, like the ones I quote above. Together it is a powerful combination if, at times, overwhelming.
One thing brought up in the book that many ignore: the basic theory of a greenhouse effect is nothing new. It is, in fact, quite old. It was first proposed in 1827 by the famous scientist and mathematician Jean Baptiste Fourier (after whom the Fourier Transformation is named). He observed that certain gasses trap heat and suggested that the composition of the atmosphere would affect the earth's temperature. John Tyndall refined this theory in 1860, measuring the absorption of heat by carbon dioxide and by water vapor and correctly hypothesized that the cooling during the ice ages was due in part to a reduction in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In 1896, Svante Arrhhenius (another very famous scientist) first hypothesized the opposite: that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would increase temperature. We are right now proving his hypothesis by our own actions. The first person to raise the alarm that human activity was already leading to a warming of the earth was G.S. Callender (presumably no relation to Marie Callender...) in 1938. The temperature rise he was seeing was tiny compared to what we are experiencing now, yet it was something that still caught his attention. Finally, the modern theory of man-made global warming was put forward by Hans Seuss (no relation to Theodore Geisel even though they both lived in San Diego...) and Roger Reville in 1957.
The science is not new. It has been based on detailed observations here on earth since the 19th century and explains the details of the climates on Venus, Earth and Mars. The predictions made in the 1970's and 1980's based on this theory have largely been coming to pass already. There really is nothing controversial about the basic theory of man-made global warming. Some of the details remain controversial (such as whether changes in ocean currents will lead to a North Atlantic cooling effect within global warming) and Paul Brown honestly recognizes many of these controversies. But the basic science of what is happening is solid. Global warming deniers have about as much validity as creationists: none.
Let me insert one point of my own here. Some try to pooh-pooh the science by claiming that scientists in the 1970's were claiming that we were entering a new ice age. This claim is false. There never was a clear scientific consensus that a new ice age was beginning. The claim is based on a single scientist's statement in a non-scientific context that he later withdrew. But the truth is that if we naturally were entering a new ice age, yet we suddenly start getting an unprecedented pace of cooling, that only makes the case of man-made global warming that much more dramatic. But I think the bottom line is, there has been a steady increase of scientific consensus that we are causing global warming staring from around 1938.
At times Brown focuses on aspects of Global warming that have been neglected. Most of us already know that sea level rise is already in progress and that many small island nations are threatened. But most of us think of the problem as one of migrating within a nation, with coastal flooding driving the population inland. Here in America, many people will have to move from the Gulf Coast and Florida and much of Manhattan to more inland areas. But we all remain Americans. Brown discusses the depressing and rapidly approaching problem of entire island nations, like Mauritius, that will disappear in their entirety. The people who live there will have to somehow find a nation to accept them as foreign immigrants or they will die. The complete submersion of entire nations, something already in progress, is something hard to imagine. Yet we will have to imagine it very soon. This is why some of the nations most interested in implementing global warming solutions are an alliance of threatened island nations. Imagine the view of right wing Americans if entire nations suddenly wanted to move to America because they were about to be underwater. Compassionate conservative? Yeah...right.
But it isn't just small island nations. Among the cities that are threatened that have no current plan to deal with sea level change are cities like New York City, Hong Kong and Chittagong. These three cities alone would represent 30 million refugees as sea levels rise. London and Amsterdam are examples of cities that currently have plans in place to deal with sea level rise...but are having to continually upgrade them because sea level increases are outpacing what was planned for.
And then there are hurricanes. Global warming is something that COULD increase hurricane strength. This remains somewhat controversial, but Paul Brown really puts it into perspective. To quote Brown:
There is a point that needs to be made here about the responsibility of all of us, including scientists. Several times in researching this book I was told by some scientists that they could not be sure Hurricane Katrina or the melting ice caps was related to man-made climate change. It is what the computer models predict would happen and the sort of events they would expect, but they cannot as yet be certain any one event is caused by the man-made greenhouse effect...
This is true, of course, but examine the evidence of all the remarkable weather events that occurred around the world in 2005, 2004 and the decade before, and it seems to be overwhelmingly obvious that something extraordinary was happening--in fact, that man-made climate change was here--a fact finally confirmed by scientists in the three 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.
There is a key SCIENTIFIC point to be made here. Certain predictions were made by scientists as long as 20 plus years ago as to what to look for if the man-made Global Warming hypothesis was correct. These predictions HAVE COME TO PASS. That is a key test of any theory: can you make predictions that are true. The predictions made about global warming HAVE largely come true. Incidents like Katrina are in essence evidence for global warming because the global warming hypothesis predict more such events will happen...and more such events ARE HAPPENING.
Looking at Hurricane Katrina, it is true that any single event cannot be strictly attributed to global warming. But...hurricane Katrina does serve as a case study for global warming's effects on hurricanes. Warm water is one contributing factor to the strength of a hurricane. At the moment that hurricane Katrina crossed the Gulf of Mexico, the water of the Gulf was the warmest ever recorded. That warming of the water is perfectly in line with global warming predictions. Katrina was category 1 when it hit this pool of record-breaking warm water. By the time it had crossed the Gulf it had gained strength to category 5. It is hard not to see a chain of causation from global warming to warmest water in recorded history in the Gulf to a hurricane strengthening according to predictions from category 1 to 5 before slamming into America's Gulf coast. This is precisely the behavior scientists would predict based on the global warming hypothesis. In science, when data fits one's model so closely, it is considered robust support of one's hypothesis. This cannot be ignored. The evidence for the man-made Global Warming hypothesis is strong and becoming stronger each year.
The book manages to be amazingly up to date, even addressing the opening of the Northwest and Northeast passages in the Arctic, something that happened for the first time after the book was written. It also manages to include the depressing 2007 IPCC report concluding that global warming is accelerating at a rate previously unexpected. The fact it is so up to date at times means it is pretty discouraging since 2007 was the year of bad news for climate. It was the year we realized the previous predictions that we only had 10 years to deal with global warming are almost certainly way too optimistic and 5 years may be more realistic. It also presented a few predictions (still speculative, but probable) that I had not been aware of. Everyone who pays attention is now aware that the Sahara is expanding Southward into previously fertile regions. What I had not previously been aware of is that the Sahara is threatening to jump the Mediterranean and engulf parts of Southern Europe...dramatic photos included!
There is a great deal of depressing material. He goes into great detail about the entirety of the problems that are already arising from global warming, and is brutal about describing the scale of the problems our children and grandchildren will face...and how hard it might be to deal with the problems. At times it started getting me pretty pessimistic. But by the end, he focused on solutions already in hand which rekindled hope.
Brown specifically refers to a book I have often mentioned as something we all should be paying attention to: Jared Diamond's book Collapse. Diamond discusses how civilizations historically CHOOSE to survive crises...or not. His book is among the most important books I have read. It discusses historically how civilizations have survived or collapsed under stress and what choices they made or didn't make to face that stress. He then faces up to the stresses our own civilization is facing and discusses how we are...and most often are NOT choosing to deal with it. Brown specifically refers to Diamond's book and suggests we have the same kind of choice past civilizations had. I kept remembering the image from Jared Diamond's book of the Easter Islanders seemingly stupidly cutting down the very last tree on their island and creating their own downfall. It is easy to look at that Easter Islander cutting down that last tree and condemning them to failure and think they were stupid. But then I look at our own civilization and see us in essence doing the exact same thing: facing KNOWN collapse and doing everything we can to AVOID dealing with it. This is what the past 7 years has been: the insane and stupid equivalent of that Easter Islander cutting down that last tree and condemning an entire civilization to collapse. That's us, folks.
Throughout the past 10,000 years (since the origin of agriculture and the entirety of human civilization) there has been 280 ppm. In 2007 the levels of CO2 reached 383 ppm. Human civilization has NEVER faced these levels before, with the consequent warming. Same trend for methane, which, though at lower levels, is a STRONGER greenhouse gases. All of these gasses are not only at record levels, but are increasing in the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate...and that rate is accelerating! This is a triple threat. Highest levels faced by human civilization, increasing at the fastest pace ever in human history, AND that pace is accelerating.
Also unprecedented in the history of our civilization is the thawing of the tundra...which could bring on one of the so-called "tipping points" beyond which our civilization cannot deal as huge quantities of methane (as much as 70 billion tons, all of which is more than 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide). What had not sunk in for me before is that there has never been any thawing of the permafrost during the entire history of human civilization. Not one year has the permafrost thawed since we started building towns or cultivating crops. Similarly, sea level has been amazingly constant throughout civilization. The rise we are now experiencing is almost completely new in its scale to human civilization. Small tribes of hunter gatherers may have experienced this kind of change at a much slower pace tens of thousands of years ago. But since we started living in settled towns with highly organized societies we have never experienced anything like this. And we have NEVER experienced it at this pace. In essence, this is all new...all unknown.
We know we already are outside any safety zone...and we are falling further and further outside any safety zone at an accelerating rate. That is what the scientists are telling us almost unanimously...and we have not really been listening. That is suicide. We are CHOOSING to collapse as surely as the Easter Islanders did.
But there is hope. Nation after nation is deciding the time has come to make the change from stupidity to care. Denmark and Germany are singled out for their alternative energy programs. Even as conservative nation as Switzerland is singled out for notice as being on the front line of global warming. Brown is very willing to give due credit to Republican politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger for doing as much as any politician about Global warming. And he mentions early interest in the dangers of global warming from none other than Margaret Thatcher. But fools like Bush are singled out for brutal condemnation for their stupid refusal to face the facts and deal with a very real crisis.
Brown outlines the extensive options that already exist for cutting carbon dioxide output. He points out that much of the technology we need existed decades ago. If only we had started applying them decades ago! But now we are technologically better able to change our habits. Using current solar technology, it would take 1% of the world's desert area covered with today's solar technology to power the entire earth's electrical demand. This technology can be combined with production of hydrogen as an energy storage technique (other ways can store the energy for when the sun is down) which then produces water as a byproduct for use as drinking and irrigation water. And this is using just ONE alternative technology. Supplemented with wind (currently economically competitive with clean coal and requiring far less subsidizing than nuclear), geothermal (Japan's geothermal potential could supply one-third of their current electrical demand), small scale hydroelectric and methane production from waste all are current technologies that combined could supply our energy needs while creating local jobs, cutting down on wasted energy due to distribution problems and giving us cleaner air. Add in the newest technologies (tidal and related ocean-based technologies) which are up and coming, and all it takes is the political will to accomplish. Fortunately some nations HAVE the political will. Unfortunately, American does not yet.
By contrast, Brown goes a long way to debunking the myth that nuclear energy is our savior. We may need to keep active the current nuclear power plants, but building new ones will do us no good, as I discussed in an earlier diary.
Energy efficiency, alternative energy, economic shifts...all are current technology that would, far from creating economic stagnation, create vast economic opportunities. In many cases it already IS creating massive economic opportunities. Brown ends with one of the more extensive list of suggestions for how individuals and local communities can be and already are part of the solution.
Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth did more than any book to bring the basic facts of global warming to a wide audience, but lacked details and skimmed over some controversies. Jared Diamond's Collapse discussed in great detail the sociology of how nations collapse or succeed, with considerable applicability to our current situation. John and Teresa Heinz Kerrys' book This Moment on Earth focuses on the power of individuals to be a part of environmental solutions rather than simply accepting the problems. Paul Brown's Global Warming: The Last Chance for Change is the most comprehensive of global warming related books I have read to date. I figure it is probably must reading for anyone who wants to understand all that we are facing and how we can face it.
I end with a quote Brown uses in his final chapter:
It is our task in our time and in our generation to hand down, undiminished to those who come after us, as weas handed down to us by those who went before, the natural wealth and beauty which is ours.
--President John F. Kennedy