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global climate change

15 december 2015

I know the basics of climate-change science: humans are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and the earth is warming. There's likely to be a causal connection, not just correlation or coincidence. It's likely to be better for world climate and our place in it if we slow down on the greenhouse gases. In any case, we should get ready to deal with the effects of climate change even if we can't do much about its causes.

I wanted to know more, and found Orrin and Keith Pilkey's Global Climate Change: A Primer recommended on some websites. Unfortunately, this book doesn't provide much of a primer on the science, and illustrates some of the rhetorical morass that the whole issue of climate-change has fallen into.

"Primer" suggests a book that will explain the science of climate-change models, and teach some basic science to the general reader as it goes. I'll have to look elsewhere, perhaps in some of the sources that the Pilkeys cite in their bibliography. They very briefly (and clearly) explain the greenhouse effect and give some information on the most problematic greenhouse gases. Water vapor is the most important greenhouse gas, but the Pilkeys see it as being in equilibrium and not a contributor to current warming trends. The major problems come from carbon dioxide and methane. We produce the first largely by burning stuff, and the second largely by having so many animals emitting it into the atmosphere (though the thawing of oceanic methane ice is another concern and could be triggered by warming from other causes, in a kind of feedback situation). Almost immediately though – on page 13, which is only a tenth of the way through the text – the Pilkeys go meta. We are treated to a primer less about the science than about the controversy over global warming, in which the deniers are evil and interested, and the scientists are pure of heart and logically irrefutable. Honestly, I tend to agree with them, constitutionally, politically, and on the evidence. But their rhetoric goes over the top like a wave from one of the devastating coastal storms they keep invoking, and the waters of tendentiousness never recede.

The book becomes more catechism than primer, instructing its reader in talking-point responses to "deniers." To round out the odd religiousness of the book, we are treated to chapter after chapter of disaster scenarios. Rising sea levels, melting ice caps, colossal storms, desertification, forest fires, ocean acidification, extinctions, the disappearance of traditional cultures, vast changes in the biosphere, civil wars.

Many of the pages of the book are taken up with Mary Edna Fraser's colorful, impressionistic views of Earth's features from the perspective of space. These add nothing to the "primer" aspect of the book and seem intended to produce aesthetic meditation on environmental ravages. Aesthetics are perhaps inseparable from rhetoric, in the long run, but here they distract from the knowledge one needs to assess the rhetoric.

The treatment of storms is particularly problematic. We've seen some big storms lately. Storms are predicted to accompany climate change. But even the Pilkeys admit that "globally there has been no trend, decadal or annual, toward increasingly frequent large tropical storms" (25). But it could happen.

And it could. But it strikes me that apocalyptic scenarios are weak in proportion to their drama. Every disaster from every pessimistic science-fiction film seems poised to hit a warming earth at once. This is not helpful; it tends to paralyze action and produce either denial or fatalism.

More productive would be to note that temperatures and CO2 levels are going up in tandem, and that long-range thinking about how to reduce both (and cope with the changes to agricultural zones and coastal habitats that are already under way) is somewhat urgent. Also urgent is education about the science: but I will have to look elsewhere for that.

Pilkey, Orrin H., and Keith C. Pilkey. Global Climate Change: A primer. With batik art by Mary Edna Fraser. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.