Preventing climate confusion raining
The Discovery of Global Warming, Spencer R Weart
Publishers: Harvard University Press (2003); American Institute of Physics (online)
Regular readers will be aware that my goal of a new page published every day has gone up in CO2.
The reason is that I have an additional job, as a subeditor for Fairfax Media. Taking up a new job at 61 years has proved to be both exhilarating and exhausting. Some of it is a walk in the park—essentially the same software I have been using since starting the Jade River : A History of the Mahurangi publishing project, in 1994—and headline writing—my best to date: Mortgagee Destroys House.
The part that I find hard work, proof reading, wasn’t a subeditor’s responsibility until recently. I’m not good at it but mustn’t grumble—to be paid to learn at my age is pure privilege. The letters pages are amongst the most demanding. Editing and abridging letters without fear or favour is quite some test of character…
What some letters have alerted me to is the vulnerability of suburban newspapers’ letters pages to being used as a soft touch to purvey intellectually dishonest statements designed to confuse readers about anthropogenic global warming—a rearguard action presumably designed to undermine public support for any government action on climate.
In the face of the observed sea-level rise, which appears miniscule to the lay person—the mere one to two millimetres per year since the Little Ice Age ended in the 19th century—it is all too easy to be sceptical, especially as we are drip fed a little misinformation here, a little misinformation there. This is where we need heroes such as physicist and historian Spencer R Weart, director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. Spencer Weart’s book is just what you need if, for example, Justice Michael Burton’s finding of errors in An Inconvenient Truth was niggling away at you. That action, which sought to have Al Gore’s book banned from British schools, failed—the judge finding it ‘broadly accurate’. As for the nine errors found, Catherine Brahic in a New Scientist opinion piece says:
Gore oversimplified certain points, made a few factual errors and, at times, chose the wrong poster child (Mount Kilimanjaro should have been replaced by any number of Alaskan or Andean glaciers, for instance). [The deficiencies are] unfortunate, but it remains the most comprehensive popular documentary on climate change science I have seen.
Back to The Discovery of Global Warming. Its joy, for those of us not possessing a scientific background, is that it ‘is meant to be a quick read’—at 240 pages it is 85 shorter than An Inconvenient Truth—but it is a serious resource and well-indexed. But that is the hard copy book, and while entirely affordable, the far better version is that which is online. No need to damage the atmosphere by having a book flown from the opposite corner of the Pacific—just click here and start reading. Lest you are reluctant to take that plunge, the introduction begins thus:
It is an epic story: the struggle of thousands of men and women over the course of a century for very high stakes. For some, the work required actual physical courage, a risk to life and limb in icy wastes or on the high seas. The rest needed more subtle forms of courage. They gambled decades of arduous effort on the chance of a useful discovery, and staked their reputations on what they claimed to have found. Even as they stretched their minds to the limit on intellectual problems that often proved insoluble, their attention was diverted into gruelling administrative struggles to win minimal support for the great work. A few took the battle into the public arena, often getting more blame than praise; most laboured to the end of their lives in obscurity. In the end they did win their goal, which was simply knowledge.
The scientific community is being tested like it has never been tested before, and that a physicist of the calibre of Spencer Weart accepted the challenge to directly address the lay community is profoundly hopeful.
Scientists must convince us that the threat to our well-being is real and immediate, without the luxury of being able to demonstrate what will probably happen if we continue our profligate fossil fuel consuming ways. If we insist on waiting until we can see graphic evidence of sea-level rise, with our own eyes, or to feel that the globe is getting much warmer, with our skin, we will have left our conversion from sceptic to believer too disastrously late. Abysmally, only time will prove whether we are near, or have long since passed, the tipping point that could see an unstoppable worst case sea-level rise of 80 metres. Left too late, our efforts to prevent that capsize will amount to half a dozen tom cats on the weather rail, to borrow a typically whimsical William Garden turn of phrase.
The Discovery of Global Warming is the ballast needed by newspaper editors, members of Parliament, local body councillors and other decision makers to weather the occasional intellectually dishonest squall that can strike without warning.