Category Archives: Books

Minireviews: The cryosphere and atmosphere

Shawn J. Marshall - The Cryosphere (2011)

Ice and snow comes and it goes and it changes form in all sorts of strange ways. Density and thermal conductivity and heat capacity varies depending on circumstances, and heat flows about in all directions. A glacier or ice sheet may look like just a big static pile of ice, but is actually a knot of non-linear processes that are very difficult to model, giving current models for future melting a conservative bias.

Recommended: Yes. This is the most technical book in the series so far. Half of it goes over my head. The other half makes frozen water seem like the most fascinating material on earth. If I had to choose a career in science, I think this would be it.

David Randall - Atmosphere, Clouds and Climate (2012)

The atmosphere behaves a little like water on a frying pan. Heated from the earth below, (which again is heated by the sun), it responds with patterns of turbulence that have the overall effect of transporting energy up from the ground to the upper atmosphere, and from the equator towards the poles, partly by storing it as latent heat in water vapor. Add the Coriolis effect and the different heat properties of land and sea, and you have those global disturbances that from one perspective we call climate, and from another weather.

Recommended: Yes.

Chris Mooney – Storm World – Hurricanes, Politics and the Battle over Global Warming

Chris MooneyStorm World – Hurricanes, Politics and the Battle over Global Warming (2007)

The debate among scientists over the link between global warming and hurricane strength reflects an old and sometimes bitter divide between empirical meteorologists, who look at hurricanes as they actually occur, and try to find patterns in the data, and theoretical meteorologists, who try to form models that can explain how hurricanes operate. The idea that global warming will increase hurricane strength, and maybe already has, has more support among theoretical meteorologists, and is met with more skepticism from the empiricists. But apart from the aging hurricane giant and climate skeptic William Gray, who’s been flying into hurricanes since the 1950s, meteorologists don’t debate global warming as such, but its effects. And during the 2005-2006 hurricane seasons, this difference of opinion was politicized and blown out of all proportions by journalists, activists and politicians, dragging hurricane scientists into a media game they were not prepared for.

Recommended: Strongly. I usually hate anecdote-driven science books, but this is a perfect example of how they can also be used to illuminate, by placing a confusing debate in a historical context. I agree entirely with the way Mooney balances the opposing viewpoints, and with his warning to those who want to mix politics and cutting edge science by hyping up the latest papers that confirm their view. Non-scientists should aim to make rational decisions based on uncertainty, and leave the scientific community in peace to reach conclusions at its own, infuriatingly slow pace.

James Hansen – Storms of My Grandchildren

James Hansen – Storms of My Grandchildren (2009)

One quarter sound but poorly explained climate science, one quarter anecdotes about Hansen’s visits to the White House, one quarter Hansen’s personal theories about how we’ll drown and/or fry ourselves to extinction, and one quarter reasonable discussions on energy policies.

Recommended: No. Hansen never really backs up his claim that we must limit CO2 levels to 350 ppm if we want to avoid a 75 meter sea level rise, or that burning all our oil, gas and coal is certain to cause Venus-like temperatures. He just repeats that he “has come to believe” that it is so. Hansen is in many ways a mirror image of the climate skeptics. He relies on generally accepted theories when he can, but cherry-picks when he must. He even resort to the same conspiracy theories as the skeptics do about why other scientists don’t take his theories seriously. It’s because he’s opposed by a powerful and tightly knit network of IPCC-related scientists! This isn’t science. It’s the ramblings of a crank. His views on solutions are more down to earth. He argues that cap-and-trade doesn’t work because it sets a floor on CO2 reductions, and that governments should not aim to “pick winners” among energy alternatives. The best solution is a large carbon tax where funds are distributed directly back to the citizens. Oh, and he’s pro-nuclear. (Oddly, the one thing nearly all the books I’ve read on climate change and energy alternatives so far have in common is that they’re cautiously pro-nuclear and pro-carbon tax.)

Minireviews: David Archer – The Long Thaw, Michaels and Balling – Climate of Extremes

David Archer – The Long Thaw (2009)

An overview of what climate scientists know – and don’t know – about climate change in the past, the present, and the distant future.

Recommended: Yes. If you’re not sure where to begin, start with this one. Archer is a level-headed writier. Maybe that’s why I find it more chilling when he explains that he has no idea what could trigger a massive land ice meltdown than when James Hansen say it’s definitely going to happen.

Patrick J. Michaels, Robert C Balling Jr – Climate of Extremes (2009)

Global warming is real, and is caused by human CO2-emissions, but the effect is possibly a bit smaller than the IPCC believes. It’s too soon to blame global warming for hurricanes and other extreme weather events, and too soon to tell what it will do to the land and ocean ice. Climate scientists do in general know what they’re talking about, but there may be a publication bias in favor of “worse than we thought” papers in scientific journals, and there is definitely one in the general media. Listen to climate scientists, never to journalists.

Recommended: Yes. This is one climate skeptical book I have no problem recommending. This is how skepticism is supposed to work. Michaels and Balling are not mindless contrarians, and their main criticism is aimed at how climate science is presented by non-scientists, not the science itself. Their temperature argument isn’t convincing, but “too soon to tell” is probably closer to the consensus than “we’re driving off a cliff”.

Mark Lynas – The God Species

Mark Lynas – The God Species – Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans (2011)

An attempt to reinvent the Green movement as more pro-human and pro-science. Humanity should aim to live within certain planetary boundaries, (such as 350 ppm CO2, and max 0.001% yearly extinction rates). With the help of planning, science, and glorious futuretech, we can achieve this without compromising living standards or growth.

Read: Half.

Recommended: Weakly. If you’re a traditionalist Green, you may find his support of genetic modification, nuclear power, and economic growth usefully provocative. Environmentalists will certainly become more effective if they listen to him. The rest of us don’t need to be told that solving environmental problems with the use of authoritarianism and population reduction is .. wrong. And, at times, Lynas tips over into a kind of technocratic mysticism that sounds like the Green version of the Singularity. He dreams of a new age, the age of the God Species, where humanity will manage its own ecosystem, like a Gaia made manifest. Humility would be a better approach. Even if these planetary boundaries are as important as he says, (and he doesn’t really make that case convincingly), respecting them does not mean we must or should become planet-scale gardeners.

James Delingpole – Watermelons – How Environmentalists are Killing the Planet, Destroying the Economy and Stealing Your Children’s Future

James Delingpole – Watermelons – How Environmentalists are Killing the Planet, Destroying the Economy and Stealing Your Children’s Future (2011)

Another candidate for most idiotic book of climate skepticism, this is a book-length version of that type of blog post where you repeat some things you’ve read on the internet in a hyperbolic and folksy way. 300 pages of it.

Read: Half, at which point, after ranting for 136 pages without touching on any specifics of climate theory, Delingpole declares that that should be sufficient evidence to settle the matter, so now let’s just talk about how much we despise those environmentalists. Future readers who find my copy in a second-hand book store will find an angry exclamation written in the margin at this point. I was waiting for him to start the part of his book where he actually makes some arguments. But no, that was it.

Recommended: No. Delingpole’s climate skepticism is so content-free that I wonder if he’s paid by Greenpeace to discredit the rest of them, (and I’m not the first to suspect this). Delingpole believes the Hockey Stick is the central pillar of global warming, (which will be news to climate scientists). He believes the “warmists” lost the debate and should have admitted defeat back in 1998, because that’s when the earth stopped warming, (a statement so stupid, even skeptics who use the “warming has stopped” argument will blush in embarrassment). And that’s actually about as deep as his views go.  The rest is rhetoric. Enjoyably written, though. He should start a blog. Oh.

Minireviews: David Archer – The Global Carbon Cycle, Helge Ryggvik – Til siste dråpe

David Archer – The Global Garbon Cycle (2010)

Carbon cycles the earth at different time scales. Over hundreds of thousands of years, rock dissolution and degassing from volcanoes and the deep sea use CO2 to keep temperatures within a livable range. Over thousands of years, changes in CO2 and temperature amplify each other for some unknown reason, starting and ending ice ages. On a human time scale, carbon sinks in the ocean and on land help halve the impact of human CO2 emissions. Nobody knows how long it will continue to do this, and it is possible that at some point we’ll trigger the positive feedback system. This would be bad.

Recommended: Yes.

Helge Ryggvik – Til siste dråpe (2009)

The forgotten economic concept of land rent makes it morally questionable to profit from oil, and is the reason why the oil economy has such a destructive effect on everything it touches.

Read: Half.

Recommended: No. The moral dilemma of oil profits would have been relevant 40, or at most 20, years ago. Today, the only relevant oil dilemma is whether it is right to pump it up at all. And even if you do find this relevant, Ryggvik wanders about without focus, and doesn’t even explain what we should have done differently, (dump the oil at cost + “fair” profit? And then what?) There are two potentially interesting, much shorter books hiding in here: A socialist analysis of the economic dilemmas of oil, and a critical history of the Norwegian oil industry. But this book is neither of them.

Minireviews: Climate and the oceans, and skepticism by and for dummies

Geoffrey K. Vallis – Climate and the Oceans (2011)

A quick overview of how water circulates in the oceans, (under the influence of the wind, the sun, and the coriolis force), how the oceans affects the climate, (largely by slowing down temperature changes, in both directions, and at all time scales), and how this may be affected by global warming, (nobody knows, but some of the possibilities are pretty bad).

Recommended: Weakly. Half of it is too mathematical, but the rest gives a good idea of the sort of processes that are involved.

Harold Ambler – Don’t Sell Your Coat: Surprising Truth About Climate Change (2011)

Incoherent arguments and irrelevant anecdotes, sprinkled with speculation.

Recommended: No. This is possibly the worst book of climate skepticism I’ve read so far. Some of the arguments were so idiotic that I began to wonder if it was a parody. (Did you know that if you plot the temperature changes of the last 1000 years on a Kelvin scale, there’s hardly any change at all? And that, contrary to what those climate alarmists claim, cold weather can actually be pretty dangerous?) At most it functions as a competency test. If you read it, and find the arguments plausible, then congratulations: You are not competent to have an opinion of your own on this subject. But Ambler’s leftism makes for a refreshing change. (He blames the IPCC on Thatcher.) And I like that he, like many other skeptics, is bold enough to make a testable prediction: That global cooling will begin any day now. Any day.

Christopher Booker – The Real Global Warming Disaster

Christopher Booker – The Real Global Warming Disaster (2009)

Some climate scientists once believed that the earth was cooling, therefore we should doubt all climate scientists forever and to the end of time. Michael Mann may have underestimated the Medieval Warm Period, therefore we shouldn’t listen to anyone who gets similar results, and also this undermines all other climate science as well, somehow. Activists lie, politicians exaggerate, and IPCC scientists can be assholes, therefore we should only listen to the handful of scientists who claim that it’s all false. The cooling will start any day now. Why, it even snowed early this year.

Recommended: No. Booker tries to make up in polemics what he lacks in coherent arguments. He hammers you over the head just like he (falsely) accuses climate scientists of doing. What, no doubt? And how can you trust anyone  who didn’t spot the errors in The Great Global Warming Swindle? I do like his critical approach to climate politics and activism, though, an area I agree is probably full of bullshit. Perhaps the political world accepted global warming sooner than the science justified. And certainly the skeptics have sometimes been unfairly vilified. But there’s a problem. Despite all these potential flaws, and the handful of moderately successful counterattacks from the skeptics, the field keeps growing in strength. It is plausible that fraud or bad studies could go unnoticed for a while, but for two or three decades? The longer this goes on, the greater a conspiracy you need to believe in to reject global warming.

Archer, Rahmstorf – The Climate Crisis

David Archer, Stefan Rahmstorf – The Climate Crisis (2010)

A scientific summary of the IPCC AR4.

Recommended: Yes. I have four levels of confidence in this: 1) I have high confidence in their understanding of past and current climates. The more I read of the bombastic claims of the climate skeptics, the greater the contrast becomes to the supposed alarmist scientists, who are sober and open about their uncertainty. (Activists and politicians are a different matter.) 2) I have a bit less, but still high, confidence in the ability of their models to portray the range of outcomes we risk facing, all of which is both plausible, and seems to have a precedent in past climate changes. 3) I have low confidence in their list of specific dangers, (so and so number of species extinct, etc.), partly because that’s the wrong level of thinking about this problem, except as part of a big picture that apparently hasn’t been assembled yet. The real problem is the range of uncertainty involved in changing a dynamic system we don’t understand, not particular outcomes. 4) And I have no confidence in their suggested solutions, both on a technological and an economic level. It’s all sunshine. Apparently we can solve this problem by hardly spending any money at all. Let’s just put up a few solar panels, switch to electric cars, etc. MacKay, Richter, and Smil, all mention major challenges that this book (and possibly also the AR4) doesn’t even address. There’s no solution to be found here, only wishful thinking, and they’re overreaching by even trying.