Climate Change 101

Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change
Elizabeth Kolbert

The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations
Eugene Linden
Simon & Schuster

Climate Change: Turning Up the Heat
A. Barrie Pittock
Earthscan Publications Ltd.

If you’re still confused about “global warming,” you’re not alone. The official line from the current administration is roughly “It’s not happening, and if it is, it’s too late to argue about what causes it, so let’s subsidize hydrogen and buy SUVs.” The oil lobby continues to attack reports of global climate change—a far more accurate term for what we’re experiencing than “global warming”—as exaggeration, pseudo-science and downright lies. After all, the ad says, if we breathe out carbon dioxide, it can’t be air pollution, can it?

For those of us with only the single lab course required for an arts degree, it can be difficult to follow the science. Rather than trust the commercials, readers can turn to several recent books that offer accessible introductions to the reality of global climate change.

The most readable is Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. Developed from a three-part series Kolbert wrote for The New Yorker, Field Notes is the sort of descriptive journalism that makes for compelling reading. She ventures to Swiss Camp, where scientists are studying the history of the world’s climate in the ice pack; visits with an archaeologist in the Euphrates valley to explore the way a prolonged drought—“climate change”—wiped out a major city-state; and explains the difference between a slow change and a “dangerous anthropogenic interference”—the sort of rapid change that could occur if a major ice shelf collapses.

Kolbert makes use of graphs and diagrams, but not in a manner threatening to the non-specialist. Field Notes is a great place to start learning about what our near future might hold.

If Kolbert is providing the general-interest introduction, then Eugene Linden’s book, The Winds of Change, is the intermediate course. Linden digs deeper into the history of the study of climate and weather and organizes his book like a legal brief, offering arguments, evidence and counter-arguments—and, while he does offer a few nightmare scenarios (such as a series of storms of the scope of Katrina), he also expresses a bit of optimism that our society may be better equipped to handle climate change than any before. That is, if we don’t succumb to denial.

One of Linden’s strong points is an excellent explanation of the El Niño phenomena, covered in three chapters. At the end of the book, Linden includes “A Chronology of the Accelerating Pace of Climate Change and Scientific Discovery.” Though it might be comforting to some that scientific discovery is picking up speed, the pace at which the climate is changing will give most readers chills.

The real weakness of The Winds of Change is twofold. First, though it’s got plenty of graphs, maps and diagrams, it doesn’t contain footnotes. Second, in spite of a useful index, it doesn’t have a bibliography. Readers hoping to use the text as a springboard to further reading will be thoroughly disappointed.

That’s not the case with Australian professor A. Barrie Pittock’s Climate Change: Turning Up the Heat. While it’s not a light read, Pittock’s book, available in the United States from Earthscan, is a measured and detailed introductory examination of the issues surrounding global climate in general and the current “warming” trend in particular. Of particular value to the confused, Pittock includes an entire section dedicated to explaining what scientific certainty is and how scientists evaluate risk. In spite of the extra work to wade through the Queen’s English, Pittock’s text—and it’s certainly been used as a textbook in colleges—is far and away the most comprehensive introduction to one of the most serious issues our culture will ever face.