No Words Wasted Sale

Washington Post Book World
Friday, March 17th, 2006


The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth

by Tim Flannery

The Heat Is On

A review by Thomas Hayden

Three new books on global warming should provide beachgoers with plenty of responses to the question they will likely hear all summer: Hot enough for you? The short answer, according to Elizabeth Kolbert, Eugene Linden and Tim Flannery, is definitely yes. These authors -- two magazine journalists and a biologist -- explore many of the same branches in the tangled thicket of climate history, science and policy. Each takes a different approach to sorting through the foliage, but all arrive at largely the same conclusion: The Earth is warming, we're causing it, and that is not at all a good thing.

The broad outline of the argument is familiar: Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the air keep our planet toasty by letting the sun's energy into the atmosphere and not letting it out again. By clearing forests and especially by burning fossil fuels such as gasoline, oil and coal, humankind is boosting these gases to the sweltering point and beyond. But climate is a wondrously detailed and complex thing, and climate science is full of uncertainties and apparent contradictions that have made for a confused public, politicized policy and some of the most tedious science journalism on the planet.

For those who have thus far avoided said media reports, Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe, written largely as a series of vignettes about scientists at work, provides a reasonably painless tour through the standard themes of climate change reportage. For those who have paid more attention, Linden delivers, among other things, an engaging look behind the scenes of that reportage. But in a refreshing cultural turnabout, it is the scientist, Flannery, not the journalists, who focuses on the big picture, writes in bold language and broad strokes, and makes the most passionate and ultimately convincing plea for action. It's as if having earned his scientific capital, Flannery is now ready to spend it, and in so doing he delivers a tour de force. Here, finally, we have an authoritative, scientifically accurate book on global warming that sparkles with life, clarity and intelligence, rather than settling for being merely important.

As a paleontologist and mammalogist, Flannery wanders into and out of his home disciplines in The Weather Makers but manages the material with force, clarity and authority throughout. He covers much of the same ground as Kolbert and Linden -- the workings of the global climate system, the history of climate, the melting polar ice caps -- and adds particularly well-drawn portraits of a biological world already showing signs of global warming, and of the computer-based artificial world of climate forecasting. In the process, Flannery is often more stylish than the journalists, noting, for example, that "it is in our lungs that we connect to our Earth's great aerial bloodstream, and in this way the atmosphere inspires us from our first breath to our last." A touch over-the-top perhaps, but he deploys such passages sparingly and writes lucidly.

Flannery is fast emerging as one of our best popularizers of science -- a term vaguely insulting in many academic circles for those who somehow manage to convey not just the why of things but the why-we-should-care. The secret in Flannery's case, developed in earlier books such as his ecological histories of North America (The Eternal Frontier) and his native Australia (The Future Eaters), seems to be confident knowledge joined to a storyteller's gifts and a writer's determination to get it just right -- a rare combination, and a powerful one when brought to bear on such a monumental topic.

The author spends the final third of The Weather Makers assessing the varieties of apocalypse that lie in wait for our warming world and the options we have for keeping them at bay. Despairing of sufficient government action to confront the coming crisis, Flannery advocates what might be called the Smokey Bear approach to fighting climate change: Only you can prevent forest fires, to say nothing of the species loss, widespread drought, resource wars and quite possible collapse of civilizations that Flannery sees resulting from the increasingly manifest changes wrought by human-induced global warming. In laying out a personal program for reducing individual contributions to the atmospheric carbon dioxide pool, he is the only author here to make a direct appeal for urgent, individual action to counteract global warming -- and he's quite likely the only one currently generating his own solar electricity to protest the profligate carbon pollution of coal-fired power plants.

Kolbert is less forthcoming about her own carbon budget, though she seems otherwise happy to insert herself into a narrative that covers many aspects of the canon of climate change reportage. Here we have the melting Arctic sea ice; the northward shift of England's heat-avoiding butterflies; the ancient Akkadian civilization, established some 4,300 years ago between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and shortly afterward driven off the world stage by severe droughts; and the engineering marvels dreamed up by the Dutch to defend against ever-rising sea levels. And throughout, we have the requisite portraits of dedicated scientists as they earnestly drill into glaciers, sift through desert sands and construct fantastically complicated computer models to make sense of it all. Based on Kolbert's 2005 three-part New Yorker series, the book is competently reported and often nicely written, but for the most part it falls well short of vivid -- Kolbert visits interesting places with interesting people but never quite manages to take us along on her travels.

Our children may well hate us for leaving them with a messed-up, overheated planet. Field Notes from a Catastrophe reads at times as though written with a nervous glance over the shoulder at that coming generation, as if motivated by a guilty sense that such a book should be written, if only to immunize the author against future recriminations. Kolbert is at her best when she sticks to straight reporting and at her unfortunate worst when she indulges in largely pointless first-person passages.

Linden, by contrast, is at his best when he takes the first-person plunge in The Winds of Change. He covered the development of climate science and the debate on global warming during a two-decade career at Time, and his latter chapters on how the advances in global-warming science have filtered through into public opinion and policy are invaluable. "I've watched with frustration as the story presented to the general public has diverged ever more markedly from the story as it is seen by the scientists studying the phenomenon," he writes, noting a growing gulf between a public narrative in which climate change is a "moderated and incremental . . . problem for future generations" and the ever-stronger scientific consensus "that humans have already had dramatic effects on climate, and that climate, when prodded, is prone to violent and extreme swings rather than gently paced changes."

The Winds of Change is largely about climate history, with Linden proposing that climate is on trial as "a serial killer of colonies and civilizations" and applying significant effort to digging up evidence for the prosecution. (He spends considerable time among the Vikings of Greenland and the classic Mayans of Central America, and he all but bumps into Kolbert in ancient Akkad.) Only recently have reconstructions of past climates achieved enough detail and precision to allow the side-by-side comparison of climate change and human events in history, and Linden's sections on the work of Columbia University paleoclimatologist Peter de Menocal and University of New Mexico Mayanist Lisa Lucero are among the most interesting in the book.

Kolbert and Linden both end their books calling for action to curtail carbon dioxide emissions before our current global civilization succumbs to a dramatic climate shift of its own making, and both decry the apparent paralysis gripping the official global efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The degree of scientific certainty is now more than adequate to justify immediate action, says Linden, who attributes the ongoing state of inaction to a synergy between "cautious scientists interacting with cautious policymakers, all to the delight of naysayers who hold that no action is necessary." Unfortunately, that interaction is often mediated by journalists, who, when it comes to global warming, might just be the most cautious party of all. Kolbert and Linden are good journalists and far too experienced to fall for the equal-time canard, whereby the voices of the tiny fringe of scientists who dispute that humans are affecting climate are amplified out of all proportion to their relevance. But both display signs of lacking confidence -- a tendency to soft-pedal a little here, to get bogged down in technical details there -- as if, in bending over backward to appear thorough and fair-minded, the journalists have fallen victim to the softer bias of insecurity.

It has become fashionable in certain circles -- most prominently the White House -- to say that global warming is an important issue and thus worthy of more study. More knowledge is always good, and real gains can come from an intensified effort to monitor the globe's changing climate and ecosystems -- to parse out the climate roles of cloud formation and open-ocean ecology, for example. But in this sense, global warming is not much different from evolution -- the much-publicized controversies have very little to do with the science. Just as evolution is the central organizing principle of modern biology, so global warming has become the context for all ecology and conservation. Nothing can be fully understood or predicted without taking it into account. As all three authors here make clear, global warming is real, it's happening now, and if the existing research is not joined by real action, real soon, then the best scientists in the world will be able to provide nothing more than a richly detailed diary of our home planet's grim, needless decline. As Kolbert writes, to do nothing "is not to put off the consequences, but to rush toward them."

Thomas Hayden is a science journalist in Washington, D.C.

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