The Discovery of Global Warming
By Spencer Weart
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003, 228 pp.
The Discovery of Global Warming should offer hope to humanity as well as persuasive proof to policy makers and pundits that climate change is real, is caused by humans, and deserves action. By describing carefully how scientists, and hence the press, politicians and the public have come to understand global climate change, Weart demonstrates clearly how we know that the burning of fossil fuels indeed the culprit indisputably altering our planet's climate
As a scientific principle, Weart tells us, it was only in 2001 that scientists established conclusively, in the 2nd IPCC Report put out by the world's leading climatologists, that global climate change is upon us. Hence, the title of the book and the "discovery" of climate change. But Weart means this in the very careful and narrow sense that a scientist does. There was plenty of evidence and calls for action before 2001.
Indeed, the global "greenhouse effect" was theorized as early as 1824 by the French scientist Joseph Fourier. In 1859, the British scientist John Tyndall showed in the laboratory that CO2 was not transparent to infrared radiation as had been thought, but instead blocked or trapped it leading to the greenhouse effect. By 1896, Swedish chemist Svente Arrhenius had calculated the temperature effects of a doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere (his estimates were startlingly close to modern estimates based on measurable data). By 1938, G.S. Callendar tried to convince the British Royal Academy, based on weather measurements he had gathered, that global climate change was indeed occurring. And by the late 1950s, Charles Keeling had convinced Roger Revelle (later Al Gore's professor) to establish stations atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii to get precise measurements of CO2 concentrations. This soon established that CO2 concentrations were indeed rising and that global warming would inevitably follow. Numerous conferences, papers and calls for action soon came forth.
But doubts and uncertainties remained and so Weart describes how the scientific community through constant work, theorizing, experimentation and many errors, eventually built up the theories, instruments and data to build a foolproof case. Weart lets his story unfold simply and without much narrative drama or anecdote, but it is explained reasonably and understandably so that the average educated reader will finish this book with a comprehensive overview of the stops and gos, the detours and discoveries of climate science.
I said Weart's book should give us hope because it clarifies, despite the steady rise of CO2 concentrations throughout the Industrial Age (we now know for sure), that it is only in the past twenty years or so that humanity has had the scientific tools - the satellites, deep ice core drilling, measurements of ocean temperatures and flows, accurate understanding of jet streams and the like, and the computer power -- to take this incredibly complex data and make accurate models of global climate.
Given the recency of our knowledge about climate, that we achieved a binding global climate convention in the form of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (even if it is being boycotted by the Bush Administration) is a remarkable and swift human response. And it could not have happened without the indisputable science that Weart describes. Weart does conclude with his own thoughts about policy and the need for action to curb climate change. He offers a series of sensible measures that, given the weight of the evidence he presents, seem undeniable.
The tone of this book, then, is moderate throughout as it recounts the fascinating history of one of the most important sagas in the history of science and humanity. I preferred Dale Christiansen's history of climate change which offers more intellectual history and politics and a dramatic narrative (it opens with Joseph Fourier's narrow escape from the guillotine), but given its fuller account of the science, Weart's book may do much more to educate and convince those who may still be confused by the Bush Administration and a handful of industry-paid scientists who refuse to admit or confront the full scientific reality of global climate change. The Discovery of Global Warming deserves a wide audience, a place on your climate bookshelf, and it is one of those books that you if you are looking for gifts, you will want to drop off directly at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
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Page Updated August 12, 2013