Global Climate Change: A Primer

By Bryan Walker 25/07/2011

Global Climate Change: A Primer may be a book for beginners, but those with an understanding of the issue will find interest in the wide-ranging exposition provided by geologist Orrin Pilkey  and his lawyer son Keith. Pilkey’s research area has been shorelines and coastal geology, with a special focus on barrier island coasts, and his previous book The Rising Sea, which I reviewed here, gave clear warning of the possible magnitude of sea level rise this century. This primer has been written to provide a brief and simple account for the layperson of the science of global climate change. The guided tour the authors provide is well managed in terms both of the straightforward language they use and the topics they select to survey.

They first explain the three inter-related factors through which the ever-growing human population is changing the Earth’s temperature and climate: greenhouse gas emissions, the discharge of aerosols and changes in land use.  One short table suffices to compare the lifespan and global warming potential of the various gases. The general reader is not bombarded with complex statistical information — just enough to be enlightening. The chapter includes a useful section on the cycle of methane emissions and the massive quantities stored in permafrost and the methane hydrates of the sea. It concludes with a few of the ’myths, misinterpretations and misunderstandings of the deniers’, a feature which closes off most chapters of the book.

There may have been only one table in the first chapter, but the reader will already have encountered four of the striking illustrations from the batik silks of artist Mary Edna Fraser. These continue throughout the book. They’re fascinating depictions, often drawn from aerial photographs she has taken herself, of deltas, rivers, oceans, floods, fires, volcanoes, icebergs, glaciers, and more. Her art meshes splendidly with the book’s written material, engaging the imagination at the same time as the text does the intellect. It adds an appropriate poignancy to the message of the threats climate change carries for human life on the globe.

Moving on to the impacts of climate change the book initially focuses on fires, desertification, floods and storms, ’no catastrophes at all if humans weren’t present’ but matters of real concern since they are present, and in ever increasing numbers. Later chapters take up the question of wider impacts, but before they get to them the authors take a couple of detours.

One is to look at doubts and uncertainties in the science. I thought the book conceded more than was necessary on this topic, especially when it found room to report Roger Pielke Jr’s view that greenhouse gases will not have a perceptible impact for decades. Not that the authors expressed agreement, but it seemed a rather large assertion to give attention to just because scientists can’t be exactly sure about aspects of the results of greenhouse gas levels. The weight they give to uncertainties also leads them to claim that James Hansen’s view that a sustained carbon dioxide concentration of more than 350 parts per million risks irreversible catastrophic effects is ’simply not justifiable’. I would have thought that Hansen provides reasonable justification, and in any case due caution is always present in his conclusions. Nor are his conclusions based on faith in models, as the authors appear to suggest. They are chary of models and appear to consider they are resulting in a minimizing of direct observational data. They also speak of the bandwagon effect as dulling the sharp edge of scientific cynicism which characterises good science. They are, of course, right to point out all the uncertainties present in climate science, but I haven’t struck climate science writing that doesn’t adequately acknowledge them. I thought they could have made their point without such a suggestion. However the chapter includes a strong defence of the integrity of peer review.

The second detour examines the manufacture of dissent. A layperson’s guide to the science perforce must give some attention to the apparently vigorous scientific division on the issue. Senator Inhofe calls global warming a hoax, but the authors point out that the only hoax involved is that being perpetrated by public relations efforts by the fossil fuels industry. The chapter dissects the work of the denial lobby from its roots in the tobacco industry through to the denier propaganda furthered by organisations such as the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and others. The authors name prominent spokespersons such as Patrick Michaels, Willie Soon, Nir Shaviv, Richard Lindzen, Bjorn Lomborg and others who should be ignored by those seeking to understand climate change as viewed by the scientific community. It’s a justifiably hard-hitting chapter.

Returning to the impacts of climate change the book discusses the future of ice, from the dynamics at work in the ice sheets to the disappearing alpine glaciers and the melting permafrost. Sea level rise is an obvious consequence, and the book concludes that we should expect at least a one metre rise by century’s end, even in the unlikely event that we quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But they refer to the opinion of Hal Wanless of Miami University that the most likely rise will be 1.5 to 1.8 metres, and recommend that prudent planners should assume the higher figure. On the question of ocean acidification the book draws attention to the rapidity of the current rate of carbon dioxide addition to the ocean waters, making it difficult to draw lessons from the much slower acidification events in the geologic past.

Coastal and low-lying human communities are at grave risk from sea level rise. The book examines this threat under the heading of ’disappearing civilisations’. From large cities to small settlements, inundation by the sea may be the first catastrophe on a global scale caused by climate change. The human and economic costs are rightly described as almost unfathomable.  The authors consider that within this century all delta communities (with the possible exception of Holland) will be abandoned. ’New Orleans is a goner.’

The plants and animals of the seashore are the first chosen to illustrate the threat to ecosystems posed by climate change, a threat exacerbated by other human activities putting them under pressure. Stressed coral reefs, disappearing mangrove forests and salt marshes with nowhere to move are discussed, followed by a selection of land plants and animals clearly under threat.

A final survey of scary geo-engineering possibilities leads to the affirmation that the crisis requires a political, not a geoengineering, solution.

The book is an excellent survey for the layperson who wants an overview of the science and an understanding of what it points to for human society. It’s not good news for the human future or for the established energy industry. The preface to the book surmises that this is why a question of science has unprecedentedly become a partisan issue, remarking that never in American history have the basic tenets and procedures of science been so widely questioned by the news media. All the more reason for patient explanations to the general reader of what we have unknowingly set in motion and what we can and must do to restrain it.

[Purchase via Hot Topic affiliates: The Book Depository (UK, free shipping worldwide), Fishpond (NZ),]