The Climate Change Conversation

Hugh Gorman reviews two recent books on the science and politics of climate change.

By Hugh S. Gorman | July 27, 2008

Kerry Emanuel. What We Know about Climate Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. xii + 96 pp. $14.95.

Joseph F. C. DiMento; Patricia Doughman, eds. Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. xii + 217 pp. $19.95.

Many in the United States believe that the debate over climate change is more about science than policy. They believe this in part because one strategy among those engaged in policy debates has been to cultivate the public perception that scientists fundamentally disagree on whether human activity can alter the world’s climatic patterns. Two books recently published by MIT Press for a broad audience address this issue head on. They are What We Know about Climate Change by Kerry Emanuel and Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren, edited by Joseph F. C. DiMento and Patricia Doughman. Both are aptly described by their titles and nicely accomplish their goals.

The Climate Change Coversation

Nobel laureate Al Gore presenting his famous slide show on climate change

Nobel laureate Al Gore presenting his famous slide show on climate change.

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Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, has crafted a highly accessible essay published as part of the Boston Review series, dedicated to short books that help people “start to reason together across the lines others are so busy drawing.” The slim volume invites readers to digest it in a single sitting, and those who take that opportunity will be pleasantly surprised. Although the book has only one figure and no charts or footnotes, there is little doubt that we are hearing from an authority on what scientists know and don’t know about atmospheric dynamics. Emanuel’s language and style is quite literary, and he seamlessly interweaves thoughts on the history of atmospheric science, the dynamics of atmospheric systems, and the methods of science research. He ends with a list of 13 findings from the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which he argues “are not in dispute, not even by les refusards.”

At least, he probably should have ended there. In his last few pages Emanuel turns his attention from science to politics, arguing that there is nothing inherently political about the implications of climate change. For Emanuel, debate falling on either side of a liberal–conservative axis is a chance occurrence, and he can imagine conservatives embracing the conclusions of climate change science under slightly different circumstances. But conservative skepticism of the science is not an accident. The implication of climate change is that we must rethink our relationship to the earth and reject the notion that free markets will automatically solve all social problems. Emanuel’s attempt to depoliticize the issue is politically naive, and he might as well have let sleeping dogs lie. This is especially true considering that the book includes a brief, thoughtful, policy-related afterword by environmental policy scholars Judith A. Layzer and William R. Moomaw.

DiMento and Doughman’s edited volume covers both the science and policy of climate change, complete with references, figures, charts, and tables. The chapters each address a question that a reader might have about climate change, such as what is the cause, what are the local and global effects, how do we know we are not wrong, how is the world responding, and what does climate change mean for our children and grandchildren. DiMento and Doughman contributed to five of the eight chapters, so there is a consistency in style that one doesn’t usually find in edited volumes.

The chapters on the causes and effects of climate change cover much of the same ground as Emanuel’s essay. Both, for ex-ample, contain clear descriptions of how greenhouse gases absorb heat, why concentrations of those gases are rising, and what effect they are having on the earth’s climate. Climate Change, however, is in a position to shed light on topics that Emanuel’s essay cannot, for example, by providing a deeper discussion of local and ecological effects. What happens, the authors ask, when a butterfly emerges before the flowers on which it depends for sustenance? Shifts in climatic patterns, they emphasize, can have subtle effects on complex ecological systems.

Climate Change also directly addresses the politics of communicating science; the introduction even includes a figure showing politically motivated edits to a scientific report. Another chapter addresses the problem of communicating science as “news.” It points to, among other things, the “tyranny of balance” that occurs when journalists attempt to balance yea-sayers with nay-sayers without giving any indication of whether one position or the other is on the fringe. Climate Change closes with a sober look at the potential effects of altered climates on human security and the unknown challenges that lie ahead.

Is human activity altering the earth’s climate? Both books agree that the 2007 IPCC report summarizes the state of the science, and that there is a consensus: yes, we are altering the earth’s climate. What We Know about Climate Change makes that case as elegantly as one could hope for. Climate Change goes a step further and examines the challenge of making policy based on climate science. It suggests that a major difficulty involves communicating science that has policy-related, and thus political, implications through news media ill suited for the task and to a public that often has a simplistic view of science. Both books contribute to the policy-making process by communicating the science well and by shifting the focus away from supposed scientific disagreements and toward the difficult work of reaching consensus on an informed response to the concerns that exist.