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Best Simple Book on Climate Change

Pound for pound, I’d rate Global Weirdness, the new book from the folks at Climate Central, the best book I’ve come across for a simple, objective, science-based explanation of what climate change is and how it’s affecting the planet. [readon]

Global-Weirdness-cover-072412It brings together the essential, basic information clearly and briefly. (I finished it in about three hours.) Everything about it is designed to be easily absorbed. But don’t mistake simple for simplistic. All the key facts and figures are included, along with graphs and  other illustrations. It just doesn’t get bogged down in gobbledygook.

By the time you’ve read it, you’ll be up to speed on:

  • What’s caused climate change in the past
  • Who survived, who didn’t, and why
  • Who may survive this time … and who likely won’t
  • Whether or not we could up like Venus (who’s atmosphere can melt lead) or Mars
  • To what extent climate change is a natural, rather than human-caused, phenomenon
  • Exactly how warm could it get
  • What kinds of chain reactions climate change can cause
  • What other influence can it set in motion to affect different parts of the planet
  • What’s the bottom line in each of the main alternate sources of energy.

And, of course, the basics like what’s the difference between weather and climate, does a very cold winter mean the planet isn’t getting warmer, and how many hot summers mean the climate is changing? For example:

A string of 100 ° days in New York in July doesn’t necessarily mean the climate is getting warmer. But if New York keeps getting more record-high temperatures decade after decade and fewer record-low temperatures, that’s a hint that the climate might really be changing.

Chapter headings often summarize the whole chapter – like “The Northern Hemisphere Has Heated Up More in the Past Half Century Than in Any Similar Period Going Back Many Hundreds of Years.”

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was sometimes mocked for talking about “the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns.” But these are things we need to know. And you’ll find them here. For example, it’s a known known that any increase in the planet’s temperature is going to be disruptive:

Even the 1 ° C increase we’ve seen over the past century or so has already led to a measurable increase in droughts and heat waves in some parts of the world, to changes in ecosystems, to melting ice in Greenland and other places, and more.

And there are known unknowns like the chance that we could reach a tipping point …

… a point of no return where something really bad starts happening that will be impossible to stop. But there’s no consensus about how much warming it would take to do that; scientists do agree, however, that the risk of dangerous climate disruption keeps increasing the warmer the planet gets.

But there are things we know nothing about, to the point where we don’t even know the rights questions – including what that tipping point might be, what other influences might contribute to it, or what the effects of those might be.

Some scientists are uneasy with the whole idea of choosing a specific target number (of degrees of warming), since the available science doesn’t support a hard threshold like this. But many agree that choosing some target is better than having none. It’s something like the medical consensus on cholesterol. Doctors advise that a person’s total cholesterol shouldn’t go above 200, but it’s not as if you’ll definitely have a heart attack if you hit 210. And there’s no guarantee you’ll be safe if you stay at 190. What they do know is that the risk goes up as your cholesterol goes up.

Global Weirdness carefully avoids pointing fingers, taking political sides, being alarmist or doing anything other than laying out the science as we know it. It doesn’t need to. The simple facts are as alarming as they could possibly be. All the evidence is that climate change has already taken us deep into a Sixth Great Extinction of Species. The book explains what the previous ones were and what brought them about. One of them, way back, shifted the planet to favoring life forms that depend on oxygen. Another (the demise of the dinos) gave the mammals a break. Without that one, we humans wouldn’t have come into existence.

And now we have another one in motion. Who will survive it? Who won’t? Global Weirdness doesn’t attempt to look much beyond the end of this century, except to say that some of what’s already been set in motion will take thousands of years to play itself out, regardless of what we do now to mitigate further damage.

Global Weirdness: Severe Storms, Deadly Heat Waves, Relentless Drought, Rising Seas and the Weather of the Future is published by Random House, goes on sale today, and is widely available in print or electronically.

For a follow-up, bookmark Climate Central. Today they’re noting that water temperatures at the Great Lakes are at a record level.