For Climate's Sake! A Visual Reader of Climate Change
by Edgar Vaid
Edgar Vaid reviews a book which aims to convey the knowledge revealed by current climate research through the power of images, graphics, and case studies.
The images lend the book an impact which words alone could never achieve
We know why the Carthaginian general Hannibal led his army (including 37 war elephants) in a legendary crossing of the Alps in October 218 BCE – it was to make a military strike at the core of the despised Roman Empire through its back door, etc, etc.
But let’s pose another question – how was such a feat achieved? The traditional answer from military historians might be Hannibal’s charismatic leadership, which of course sounds fair enough as far as it goes. However, as more mundanely explained in “For Climates Sake”, this notable event was only feasible because it took place during what climate historians call the Roman Climate Optimum, a period of about 500 years when warmer temperatures resulted in alpine passes being clear of snow all year round.
So why mention this in the 21st Century? Well, it’s relevant now as a reminder that natural fluctuations in temperature have been a feature of the Earth’s climate since pre-historic times. This is a crucial factor in the debates about how far human activities are currently driving climate change, although it’s worth confirming straight away that no attempt is made here to present some kind of spurious balance, whereby the minority of climate change deniers are dignified with equal coverage - anthropogenic global warming is accepted as apodictic.
One residual effect of this hefty guide is to leave the reader with an abiding impression that everything he thought he knew or imagined about global climate mechanisms is actually much more complex. This is especially true over the longer term, when climatologists must take into account such phenomena as Milankovic cycles, the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation, and Dansgard-Oeschger events - none of which I shall attempt to explain here.
Hence it’s little wonder that at any one time, drawn from apparently the same environmental evidence, we may hear conflicting interpretations and accompanying rudimentary predictions. Amongst the admass, it’s understandable that climate change is a subject attracting a pool of fissiparous views, punctuated only by the illuminati’s occasional island of sound knowledge.
Indeed, climatologists have wrestled for decades to explain the atmosphere’s complications. To the lay person the term ‘greenhouse effect’ may understandably have attained pejorative overtones. However, step back to 1879 and we find physicists Josef Stefan and Ludwig Bolzman calculating that without it our planet’s surface would average only about -18C.
That’s a very cold and hostile temperature for humans, and it’s thanks to greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane retaining large amounts of the planet’s thermal radiation in the atmosphere, that the Earth’s average temperature is about 15C. This pair of correlated things, (otherwise known to Scrabble aficionados as a syzygy), is fundamental to life on Earth. However, by 1896, when Svante Arrhenius described the effect of carbon dioxide on global warming, suspicions began to arise that the greenhouse effect could potentially metamorphose from planetary asset to planetary liability.
During the Holocene epoch (about the last 10,000 years) temperatures have fluctuated by one or two degrees centigrade several times, and it seems counter-intuitive that this was sufficient to drastically alter living conditions for people. But studies indicate that ostensibly small changes in global average temperatures have resulted in famines, epidemics, wars, and volkerwanderung, although they may also have led to technical and social accomplishments. In past geological epochs such climatic changes may be fairly ascribed to natural causes, eg a sudden upsurge in volcanic activity, or even an alteration in the planet’s obliquity (axial tilt) or eccentricity (orbit).
However, an exponential rise in the burning of fossil fuels since the advent of the Industrial Revolution has resulted in humankind’s activities entering the climatic equation. This has led Nobel chemistry laureate Paul Crutzen to suggest that the Holocene has ended: “Because of these anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, global climate may depart significantly from natural behaviour for many millennia to come. It seems appropriate to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present, in many ways human-dominated geological epoch”.
This is not unreasonable, given that atmospheric CO2 levels are now about 40 percent higher than in 1850 and, following the introduction of reliable measurements, the ten warmest years have occurred since 1998. Our species didn’t end when the Stone Age finished; there was plenty of stone left, but we started to make tools from other materials. By analogy, we are capable of moving on from the fossil fuel age, and simply leaving the coal, oil, and gas in the ground; we know how to produce renewable energy. Responsibility for development of our global climate rests squarely with humanity.
But how can scientists be so sure about Earth’s climatic fluctuations thousands or even millions of years ago? By using ‘proxy’ data, paleoclimatology has several irrefragable answers. Thus the type of pollen contained in a varve (single year’s sedimentary deposit) indicates what vegetation existed and hence the type of climate which prevailed at a particular time and place. Or gas bubbles trapped in ice core samples may be analysed to provide an insight to changes in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere. Other examples include measurements of the concentric rings formed in trees and stalactites.
Moving on from ‘how we know what we know’, there is a detailed exploration of risks and vulnerabilities, with an emphasis on severe weather and natural disasters as the harbingers of climate change. Interestingly, some changes do not necessarily lead where we might expect. For example, the gradual melting of large alpine glaciers owing to global warming leads to high water levels and spring-time flooding in lower river catchments. However, once these glaciers recede beyond a certain point, the water levels suddenly dwindle, seguing into a year-round phenomenon.
Unfortunately it’s wrong to assume that the slowing or even decline of greenhouse gas emissions will be apotropaic. Global warming won’t cease, as a time lag is caused by the oceans which warm up far more slowly than our atmosphere. But whatever complex mechanisms are at work, if “greenhouse gas emissions are not decisively curbed in coming decades, then the risk grows that adaptation will gradually become ineffective and the resulting damage will be overwhelming”.
It’s frustrating to be reminded that as long ago as 1972 “The Limits to Growth” report believed in the feasibility of setting up a combination of solar and nuclear power plants which would deliver the World’s required energy via hydrogen and electricity.
Although the climatic effects of burning fossil fuels such as oil are explored in detail, it is often the little known nuggets of history which attract the reader’s attention. For example, Henry Ford might be considered to qualify for a place amongst the pantheon of early 20th Century environmental villains for his enthusiastic promotion of the motor car.
In fact, it’s bitterly ironic that as late as 1925 he was urging that the internal combustion engine should run not on petroleum, but on a renewable fuel – alcohol produced from plant waste. Engines run more smoothly on alcohol and don’t emit fumes, but in a dismally familiar scenario to be repeated over the next eighty years, the oil industry’s minatory lobbying power prevailed. It seems a pity that people didn’t listen to Henry Ford. Instead, they paid attention to such figures as Thomas Midgeley, latterly responsible for developing both leaded petrol and chlorofluorocarbons – with their unpredicted adverse effects on human health and the atmosphere.
Although those historic mistakes were largely overcome by the 20th Century’s close, the century ahead seems to pose a problem for almost every solution – such as the sequacious reasoning about energy saving light bulbs. These, it is forecast, will be left on longer in winter to compensate for the warmth lost from no longer using traditional incandescent bulbs. Overall, this could lead to higher, not lower electricity consumption. Such a conundrum is perhaps a classic example of human behaviour being the great unknown when we try to predict patterns of energy consumption and their climatic effects.
Another example of a ‘problem finding a solution’ is the replacement of fossil fuel power stations by renewable energies such as wind and solar, so gradually reducing the speed of global warming. But that sounds alright though, doesn’t it? Superficially, yes, but one line of reasoning suggests that as European nations ‘green’ their energy needs, the consequent reduction in demand for oil would make the dwindling reserves more available (and hence cheaper) – resulting in the problem of allowing Americans to drive even bigger cars than they do already.
When focussing on such issues, the text is willing to adopt a gratifyingly accusatory tone, eg: “A lifestyle with huge shopping malls, large refrigerators, and all kinds of automated appliances contributes to this thirst for energy in the land of opportunity .......... most Americans are so preoccupied with their own economic advancement and their personal surroundings that they give little attention to international issues”.
Owing to the intrinsic complexity of global climatic processes, the layperson has little choice but to listen to climatologists, who may – or may not – be believed. However, as is sagely pointed out, an understandable human reaction is to suppress fears by listening to false prophets. These are the cabal of noisy spin doctors who downplay the warnings. They have teamed up with cupidity-motivated stakeholders anticipating disadvantages to their multi-national companies from efforts to mitigate anthropogenic global warming.
Fortunately the reader is offered a few glimmers of hope, such as the studies supporting the theoretical feasibility of ‘green’ economics, where “prosperity would not be defined only in terms of gross domestic product, but would encompass the idea that quality of life includes aspects beyond material factors. Our current concept of wealth is based on illusions, on the central myth of the industrial age, which is that a better life can only be had through an ever-increasing exploitation of nature”.
What renders this 570 page tome admirably exhaustive rather than terminally exhausting, is its comprehensive collection of vivid photos from around the World, which comprise almost half the contents and complement the solid text – indeed its sub-title is “A Visual Reader of Climate Change”. By turns poignant, startling, heart-rending, ominous, or despair-inducing, their cumulative effect lends the book an impact which its words alone could never achieve.
Images of pristine wilderness, felled rainforest, and irrigated monocultures jostle with views of mega-industrial complexes, vast swathes of land scarred by open-cast mining, or vehicle-clogged urban motorways – each making either a visceral impact or more subtly inducing a quiet pause for inner reflection.
Supplemented by some informative graphs, diagrams, and maps, the book also features an excellent glossary (running from advection to World Bank), and insightful case studies such as “Desert Power for Europe” and “Biofuels: A Double Edged Option”. All in all this publication represents a fine team effort in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and, for anyone with a serious interest in our climate’s past, present, and future, (plus the requisite £40), it’s a worthwhile addition to the bookshelf.
Edgar Vaid is a freelance book reviewer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
For Climate's Sake! A Visual Reader of Climate Change is Edited by René Schwarzenbach, Christian Rentsch, Klaus Lanz, and Lars Müller, in collaboration with the Department of Environmental Sciences, ETH Zürich.
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