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  • Ken Ilgunas

Book Recommendation: "What We Know about Climate Change"

Kerry Emmanuel is a professor of climate science at MIT. He was a registered Republican, but he recently changed his political affiliation to “Independent” because of his former party’s stridently contrarian stance on global warming. (This New York Times book review gives a bit more background on him.) What We Know about Climate Change is an easy-on-the-eyes read for the layman. It’s neither technical nor muddled with scientific jargon; it simply compiles everything we know about climate change in a book that can be read in a day. And it’s definitely not partisan: Emmanuel takes shots at both halves of the political spectrum.

As a scientist, Emmanuel speaks authoritatively on the current science of climate change, but I found his commentary on the politics and psychology of climate change denial to be especially enlightening. (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he has degrees in sociology and psychology, as well.) I wholeheartedly recommend his book. The Kindle edition is only $7.50.

Some snippets: We are not the first organism to alter the earth’s climate:

“There is little evidence of much oxygen before the advent of cyanobacteria, a phylum of bacteria that produced oxygen through photosynthesis and began the transformation of the atmosphere into something like today’s… Clearly life has altered our climate. We humans are merely the most recent species to do so.” Why global warming will cause more floods and droughts:

“Basic theories and models point to another consequential result of a few degrees of warming: more floods and droughts. This happens because the amount of water vapor in the air rises exponentially with temperature: a 7°F increase in temperature increases the concentration of water vapor by 25 percent.” Emmanuel says, “Certain findings are not in dispute, not even among those skeptical of climate risk:”

  1. “Carbon dioxide has increased from its pre-industrial level of about 280 parts per million to about 396 parts per million today, an increase of about 40 percent. For ice-core records, it’s evident that present leves of CO2 are higher than they have been in at least the last 650,000 years.”

  2. “The earth’s average surface temperature has risen 1.2°F in the past century, with most of the increase occurring from about 1920 to 1950, and again beginning around 1975. The year 2005 was the warmest on the instrumental record, followed closely by 2010 and 1998.”

  3. “The acidity of ocean water has increased by about 30 percent since the beginning of the industrial era.”

On free market solutions to climate change:

  1. “The U.S. government provides billions of dollars in annual subsidies to the coal, oil, and natural gas industries. Reducing or eliminating these subsidies would free up markets, make alternative energy sources more competitve, and motivate energy companies to develop cleaner alternatives.”

  2. “In a true free enterprise system, all businesses would cover their external as well as internal costs.” [i.e. an external cost would be health problems related to coal mining, which now fall on the individual and private insurance companies.] “Insisting that the energy industry do so, in addition, naturally favor cleaner alternatives.”

On placing some of the blame on environmentalists and their opposition to nuclear power:

“Environmentalists must accept some measure of responsibility for today’s most critical environmental problem. Indeed, by focusing on solar and wind power sources — whose limited potential and high costs prevent them from meeting more than a small part of our energy needs — the environmental movement is engaged in unproductive theater that detracts from serious debate about energy.” On the role of “mavericks” within the scientific community, and how they’re used by the media to create controversy:

“Within any scientific endeavor, there are always mavericks, and they play an important role in the constant introspection that helps ward off groupthink and other perils to progress. It is not difficult for extra-scientific organizations to amplify these maverick voices so as to create the illusion of serious controversy. This tactic, generally aided by journalists’ attraction to controversy, has been particularly successful in denigrating mainstream climate science.” On how the country is propagandized:

“Other components of a successful campaign to cast doubt on scientific findings include conflating uncertainty with ignorance, associating scientists with extremists and otherwise impugning their motives, and planting the romantic idea that mavericks are often right while scientific organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, are often wrong. Most people, when it comes to their personal health, would never ignore the advice of 97 doctors in favor of three. But through the wondrous alchemy of marketing, it is possible to get some people to do just that in the realm of climate science.”


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