Climate · Global Warming

Three Books on Climate Change, Part 3

This is part three of a series of three articles on global warming.  This article is a review of Mark Hertsgaard’s book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, 2011. 

Hertsgaard’s book, is less about what climate change is like or what is causing it and more about what we can do about it.

He talks about both mitigation and adaptation, the language used by the scientists and journalists and policy experts who work in the climate field. Mitigation is the attempt to either emit lessCO2 into the atmosphere or ways in which the CO2 that is already there can be taken out. Adaptation refers to the ways in which we might be able to cope with the climate change that is already in the tube, the warming that is going to be unavoidable even if we were to eliminate all CO2 emissions right now.

Mitigation has to do with things like more fuel-efficient vehicles, renewable sources of energy and sequestering the CO2 released when we burn coal. Adaptation has to do with things like figuring out how to maintain water supplies after all the mountain glaciers are gone, how to grow food in arid climates, building dykes to keep out rising water and designing new kinds of cities better suited for a hotter world.

Hertsgaard discusses the remarkable progress that has been made in adapting to the consequences of global warning that have been made in Seattle, Chicago, New York and all over Europe, particularly in the Netherlands. He also talks about the remarkable lack of progress that has been made in the US as a whole when compared to what Brittain and Europe are doing.

Hertsgaard’s book begins with the fact that climate change is not something that will happen far in the future; it is something that is happening right now. He says that one day, after listening to the chief British science minister talk about the immediacy of climate change, he realized that his young daughter was going to have to live through the worst of climate change. This was a real wake up call for him and he felt that it was imperative that all of us need to wake up and deal with it seriously right now, before it is too late.

And I feel the same way. I have five grandchildren ages 5 to 13. These kids are probably going to live right through the worst of climate change and their lives are going to be seriously affected. In fact, I am deeply fearful that they and many other people may not live through the coming environment disasters.

This is a tough thing to face and I don’t like it any better than Hertsgaard does. But, like Hertsgaard, I think we have to do something and we have to do it now. At least we have to try. I think that Lynas’ plan of using a number of wedges to at least mitigate climate change and to attempt to avoid the immediate tipping points seems to make a lot of sense. All of what he recommends can be done right now–all of it is technically possible and do-able right now. Unfortunately, the current political situation in the US is making any kind of meaningful environment change next to impossible in this country.

None of the books I review in this article discusses this unavoidable fact in any detail. President Obama had planned to introduce a bill that would mandate a carbon cap and trade bill in the US late in 2010. However, after realizing that the Democrats just didn’t have the votes to pass the bill, he abandoned the effort. Since then, even any mention of climate change or climate change has totally disappeared from the main stream news media.

Unfortunately, before anything can be done about climate change, the first step is going to have to be the defusing of the deliberate campaign by energy companies, oil companies, automobile companies, and other large corporations to undermine climate change legislation and to cast doubt that climate change even exists. Perhaps the corporate campaign to conceal climate change can be defused if enough people in the US begin to understand that climate change is real and that it is not something that is going to happen in the distant future, that it is happening right now and that the earth is balancing on the very edge of several irreversible tipping points as we speak.

Below are several books about the deliberate campaign to cast doubt on climate change.

Eric M Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to climate change, 2010. Go to this book at

Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity, 2009. Go to this book at

James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore, Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny climate change, 2009. Go to this book at

A climate cover-up by many large corporations, politicians and wealthy individuals in the US is undeniably a fact. However, this doesn’t mean that climate scientists know for certain exactly what is in store for us. CO2 and other greenhouse gases are clearly and definitely increasing in a regular progression in lock-step with a regular, world wide, average temperature rise. About this there is no doubt. There is also no real doubt that this climate change is anthropogenic, i.e. man made.

However, exactly how climate change will manifest itself in the future and exactly when we will feel its full consequences is still not known precisely. This is mostly because scientists still don’t completely understand how quickly we will cross the important environmental tipping points. Right now most scientists say that the future world may go in any of three different directions: First, negative feedbacks may kick in with a lowering of CO2 in the atmosphere and accompanying lower temperatures. There is very little evidence that this is happening. Second, the atmosphere could go on gradually accumulating CO2 and and temperatures could keep on gradually rising with no abrupt thresholds or sudden changes in climate for many years. This is currently the consensus of most scientists and the Interglobal Panel of Climate Change (IPCC). Third, more and more climate scientists are beginning to fear that we are nearing several tipping points that could rapidly flip the whole system into a new and as yet unknown state, probably a lot like the early, hot days on the earth where there were huge carbon releases from the overheated soil and massive methane farts from the ocean floor. As Fred Pearce says, “This is conjecture. We simply don’t know. But hold on to your hat: we could be in for a bumpy ride.”

Also there are a lot of factors like the effects of clouds, water vapor and aerosol pollution (like soot from Asian cooking stoves, sulphur pollution from coal burning and carbon particles from the burning of tropical forests and peat bogs) that vastly complicate the whole climate change issue and make exact predicton very difficult. Most current climate modeling does not take tipping points and the other complicating factors into account. However, the most recent research seems to be indicating that traditional climate modeling is much too conservative and that climate warming with its attendant disasters is much closer than was previously thought.

It is even possible that the opposite of climate change may happen in some places; some researchers say that a return of the small ice age that brought quite cold weather to Europe and North America only 500 or so years ago could possible return to the Northern hemisphere. Scientists say that in recent years less of the sun’s heat is reaching the earth because of sun spot activity. This is true, however the earth is still getting hotter in spite of this activity. If may not be getting as hot as it would without the sun spot activity, but it is still getting hotter.

Also, some scientists fear that climate change may shut down the Gulf Stream and other major ocean currents and since the Gulf Stream warms the coasts of Eastern North American and Western Europe, these areas might get a lot colder. However, the increased heat being generated by increasing CO2 still exists, if parts of the Northern Hemisphere get colder, this heat just gets shifted to other parts of the world, like the southern hemisphere. A cooler, even quite cold North America and Europe mostly means that the hot parts of the world will just get extra hotter.

In any case, it is clear that very bad things are in store for the human race and for the earth, even if we don’t know exactly what they may be or exactly when the effects of climate change will turn really ugly. We are currently in the midst of a vast experiment concerning the fate of the earth. Considering the huge stakes, the possible extinction of most of life on earth, it seems to me that this is an experiment that should not be allowed to continue. We don’t know the exact outcome of the experiment. In fact we don’t even know if it is even possible to call it off at this point. But I think we have to try. Maybe it is still possible to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change. A lot is a stake.

Beach, Palms and Log, Dominican Republic.  Picture by Hanselmann Photography. 


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