Sunday, July 24, 2011

Global Climate Change: a new book sorts out the facts and the myths and rebuttals

As a follow up to my recent post noting the article on climate change written by Vice President Al Gore and appearing in Rolling Stone magazine, Southern Fried Science has an interesting review of a new book by oceanographer Orrin Pilkey and his son, Keith Pilkey: Global Climate Change, A Primer.

For those who may feel a bit overwhelmed (and it's easy to do) by the many issues and environmental impacts that fall under the heading of climate change, this book addresses them one by one. Of particular note, according to Andrew of Southern Fried Science, is that the book also addresses the many arguments used by those who choose to deny that climate change or global warming actually exists or that, if it does, that it is fueled by human activities.

A Primer for Climate Change

Sea level rise. Desertification. Ocean acidification. Climategate. Permafrost. Greenland ice sheet. Hockey stick. The language of global climate change can be overwhelming. Every year, as we learn more about the ways that human activity fundamentally alter global processes, the subject becomes even broader and more complicated. Fortunately, world renowned oceanographer Orrin Pilkey and his son, Keith Pilkey, have produced a comprehensive and readable primer on global climate change. The strength of Global Climate Change: A Primer can be broken into three sections – the content, the conflict, and the illustrations.

The Content

The Pilkies are excellent writers and do an impressive, thorough job covering most of the issues involved in global climate change. The target audience for this book is the general public, so the style is heavy on anecdotes and light on dense jargon. While they touch on most of the aspects of climate change, some of sections are weaker than others. Pilkey the senior is an accomplished oceanographer who works on barrier island, so the sections on ocean acidification, sea level rise, and changes in coastal processes are, almost necessarily, the strongest and most compelling.

That doesn’t mean that other topics are short changed. For a 120 page book, the breadth of subject matter is impressive. Anyone interested in examining a specific climate change topic would do well to start with this primer.

One thing that is lacking is an accessible bibliography. The standard bibliography is an excellent collection of sources, but it is difficult to link the references with the text. A thorough collection of end notes, connecting each page to the references mentioned would make it easier for the reader to track down the primary sources.

The Conflict

Complementing the discussion of the causes and effects of global climate change are frank and thoughtful responses to the misconceptions, myths, and outright deceptions common to the climate change denial movement. Each chapter ends with a “myths” section that takes a firm look at the claims made by climate change deniers and thoroughly debunks them. Every claim I’ve heard in recent years is in this book and critically addressed.

Two chapters are entirely dedicated to the manufacture of doubt. These two chapters really shine as new and important contributions to the climate change literature. Climategate, the leaking of several thousand e-mails which, though it revealed absolutely nothing, became a lightning rod for the denialist industry (and I do mean industry, as they painstakingly lay out the funding sources and motives behind the major political and corporate players who are manufacturing climate change dissent). To paraphrase Senator Inhofe, the myth that human activities haven’t led to measurable and significant changes to the natural systems governing the earth’s climate is the real “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

But Pilkey and Pilkey don’t just pick on the low hanging fruits of climate change deniers. They also address some of the misconceptions that have promulgated through the climate change community, explain some of the issues with mathematical models, and discuss the detrimental results of “bandwagon” and “state-of-siege” effects.

These chapters could best be summed up with a quote from Elizabeth Kolbert:

“No one has ever offered a plausible account of why thousands of scientists at hundreds of universities in dozens of countries would bother to engineer a climate hoax.”


It is weird to refer to the illustrations in a book about climate change as beautiful, but that’s the only way to describe the batiks by Mary Edna Fraser. In the most dramatic departure from traditional popular science literature, Pilkey and Pilkey eschew diagrams and photographs common to the style and illustrate the book with luscious, vibrant silk printings of landscapes and seascapes that evoke the central topics of the book with devastating effect. While a book founded in science, by nature, adheres to data and dry analysis, the illustrations appeal to the readers’ emotions, creating a global sense of place that cannot be captured in figures and photographs.

As an introductory book on global climate change, this is by far the best I’ve found. It’s ideal for the non-specialist who wants to learn more about the issues and get an appreciation for how far out to lunch the denial lobby is. This illustrations alone are worth the price. Also of note is the final chapter on geoengineering, which proposes some possible solutions to the the current problem, adding some hope to an otherwise doom-and-gloom subject.

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