Writing about global warming has changed a lot in the past few years. This is not because the science itself has changed – but because political reaction to it has.
It seems that we have, at long last, moved beyond denial and inertia. The time for books that explain what global warming is and why it matters has come and gone. The need now is for answers to the one question that really mattered all along: What do we do about it?
Two current books examine the evidence and come up with a series of similar proposals. Each is coauthored by a prominent scientist and an accomplished science journalist and both make worthy additions to global-warming literature. But they go about it in very different ways.
Some environmental activists may be tempted to stop and savor for a moment the fact that the Bush administration and its climate obstructionists will soon be gone. But make it a brief moment, warn Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King, authors of The Hot Topic: What We Can Do About Global Warming. The long moment we've already taken between the first realization that burning fossil fuels would cause dangerous warming and our present state of modest concern have cost us.
Thanks to political foot-dragging and ever-increasing carbon emissions, they say, the best we can hope for now is to avert worst-case scenarios.
Sir David, a chemist at Cambridge University and chief science adviser to the British government, is famous for his 2004 statement that climate change is "the most severe problem we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism." So perhaps it's not surprising that this book conveys a sense of urgency. The authors' tone is chummy, but their focus is clearly on facts, analysis, and implications.
Strategies for change
They start with a capsule review of climate-change science. Their primary focus, however, is on technological and political strategies for controlling emissions and adapting to inevitable change. The proposed solutions are numerous and not terribly new. But they are pragmatic, well described, and convincing.
If "Hot Topic" is a concise guide to the world of climate change, then Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat – And How to Counter It is a slow and gentle travelogue. Written by journalist Robert Kunzig and renowned Columbia University climate scientist Wallace Broecker, "Fixing Climate" is as much Broecker's scientific memoir as it is a call to action. (The biographical material isn't necessary to understanding global warming, but it's a wonderful look at a life in science nonetheless.)
The authors wend their way through a good deal of the history of climate-science research – a fair amount of it over the past five decades conducted by Broecker or his close associates – in a measured, graceful manner.
But in step with the intensification of global warming itself, the pace and urgency of "Fixing Climate" increases significantly toward the end.
In a chapter provocatively entitled "Green Is Not Enough," Broecker and Kunzig make a convincing case that all the energy efficiency and conservation in the world, all the biofuels and carbon trading and climate treaties we can come up with, are not going to be enough to avoid very serious climate-change impacts.
"If we are to avoid dangerously warming the planet," Broecker and Kunzig write, "we need to figure out how to build the equivalent of a sewage system for carbon dioxide."
Kunzig and Broecker spend their last several chapters discussing carbon sequestration – technology for removing CO2 from smokestacks, and from the atmosphere itself, and storing it out of harm's way, underground or in the deep sea.
No retreat from responsibility
However, "the most fundamental lesson to be drawn from the whole [global warming] episode, write Broecker and Kunzig, "is that we can no longer expect Mother Earth to take care of us – the planet is ours to run, and we can't retreat from our responsibility to run it wisely."
The precise mix of approaches used might differ somewhat between the two writing teams. But taken together, these two books move us from the debate as to whether we should take real action on global warming to a clear blueprint for doing so.