As The World Burns

Science Nonfiction

A selective roundup of books that present the facts of climate change.

Sun May 1, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, The Cover-Up, The Prescription
By Ross Gelbspan
Basic Books, 1997

Though nearly a decade old, The Heat Is On remains one of the most accessible introductions to the science and politics of global warming. When it was first published in 1997, it made a splash when it was reported that Bill Clinton was reading a copy. That the book remains as relevant today as it was then says as much about its content as it does about how little the U.S. has moved towards addressing climate change in the years since.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Ross Gelbspan’s argument is simple and direct: climate change really is happening, and those who would have us believe otherwise are deceiving us in the name of corporate greed. The Heat Is On’s most informative (and maddening) chapters focus on the “greenhouse skeptics” who have managed to stymie a constructive response to climate change while providing intellectual cover for politicians who would rather ignore the evidence. The book expands on Gelbspan’s groundbreaking reporting on how the coal industry funded prominent deniers with an account of how the fossil-fuel industry and their flunkies gained a foothold in Washington years before George W. Bush rejected Kyoto.

Gelbspan has an eye for entertaining details that expose the absurdities of global warming denial. When pressed to prove his theory of global cooling by then-Senator Al Gore, skeptic scientist Richard Linzen is forced to admit that his pet hypothesis is, in fact, unsupported by any evidence. In another amusing vignette, former House energy and the environment subcommittee chair Dana Rohrbacher publicly confuses “hydrocarbons” with “carbohydrates” during a hearing on ozone depletion. (Fortunately, Tom DeLay comes to his rescue with a clarification.) You could almost laugh off the skeptics if they didn’t continue to have such an outsized influence over Washington.

A revised edition of the book includes a useful appendix that presents scientific critiques of the greenhouse skeptics’ arguments. Gelbspan also has chapters on the observed impacts of global warming and an exploration of policy responses to the crisis. “What is needed,” he writes, “is the social counterpart to a climate snap—a rapid, intense, worldwide gathering of political will.” Until that political will fully materializes in the U.S., The Heat is On will remain a revealing snapshot of the status quo.—Dave Gilson

Feeling the Heat: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Climate Change
Edited by Jim Motavalli
Routledge, 2004

Two divers emerge from the turquoise waters of Beqa Lagoon, one of Fiji’s most popular scuba spots. One of them, journalist David Helvarg, turns to his companion and asks her if she just saw what he did: a coral reef so bleached by rising water temperatures that it “looked like a snowstorm had passed over it.” She replies, “Really? I thought they were supposed to be white like that.” Helvarg later reflects on the exchange, “If you have never seen a healthy, vibrant reef, you might not recognize one, even as you swim through it.”

Like Helvarg’s companion in this scene from Feeling the Heat, we’re passing through an environment traumatized by human-induced climate change, whether we realize it or not. That’s the message this collection of dispatches from ten global “hot spots” of climate change. The book is a peripatetic look at what the Bush administration, corporate lobbyists, and parts of the media keep insisting isn’t there: small- and large-scale evidence of what is happening to the environment (and people) as global temperatures tick upward.

The findings are not pretty--in Antarctica, Adelie penguins are facing extinction; in New York and New Jersey, rising sea levels are threatening homes and wetlands; in South Asia, a cloud of pollution stretching millions of square miles is choking children. The chapters on Antarctica and the South Pacific by Helvarg are standouts. Along with Colin Woodward’s chapter on Western Europe and a report on China by Mark Hertsgaard, the book makes a vivid case for paying attention to what were once just vague, doomy predictions.

Feeling the Heat’s strength is its accessibility--no scientific jargon or abstractions here--and its engaging tour of far-flung locales and the most populated areas on Earth. Confronted with this worldwide body of evidence, it’s hard to deny that the effects of global warming are staring us in the face. --Kate Cheney Davidson

Climate Crash: Abrupt Climate Change and What It Means for Our Future
By John D. Cox
Joseph Henry Press, 2005

In Climate Crash, John D. Cox presents a thorough and compelling account of the controversial study of the fickleness of the world’s climate. Contrary to the old geologically driven theories which held that the earth’s climate changed slowly and predictably, a series of recent discoveries has led scientists to the startling realization that the earth’s history is marked by radical shifts in climate that manifest themselves not over many millennia, but often within a matter of years. In other words, when climate change comes, it can be big and fast.

In 1992, scientists in Greenland drilled the mother of all ice cores. About a mile underfoot they found what is arguably the greatest single piece of evidence for abrupt climate change ever recovered: Around 11,600 years ago, the earth’s climate shifted from ice age to an age of warmth in the span of just 20 years. Based in part on such discoveries, scientists believe that today’s climate may be precariously perched on the edge after 10,000 years of relative stability. History has shown that rapid increases in CO2 can destabilize the climate and make it more susceptible to rapid change. Are we on the verge of tipping our climate into a new and utterly unpredictable state? What might be the consequences of such a state?

Cox’s book has striking implications. Throughout history, abrupt environmental change has laid waste to many civilizations. The Maya were wiped out by drought, as were the Anasazi of the American Southwest. Drought and famine pushed the great Akkadian Empire of Mesopotamia into total collapse. Citing the fate of the Norse Settlements in Greenland—the only Western society to collapse due to climate change—Cox writes, “European farmers were stuck in their ways, in their fixed abodes, in their property rights, in their royal taxes and church tithes, and in their belief that the way of life that had sustained them for so long would pull them through the current bad weather.” Sound familiar? —Erik Kancler

High Tide: News From a Warming Word
By Mark Lynas
Picador, 2005

In High Tide, Mark Lynas climbs 5,000-foot peaks in Peru, chases a tropical storm in North Carolina, visits Tuvalu during high tide, and hangs out on thin ice with Eskimos in Alaska. His five-continent search for the fingerprints of global warming is not quite Fear Factor, but it sure can be hair-raising.

Lynas’s one-man quest was inspired by, of all things, a family slideshow. When he sees a photo of a glacier taken by his father, he wonders what the scene might look like today. This is enough to spur Lynas, former editor of the human rights site oneworld.com, to embark on a three-year journey seeking day-to-day stories that would corroborate, and humanize, the science and sound bites surrounding global warming. “The first signs are evident to anyone who chooses to look,” he writes.

In all his travels, Lynas never encounters “a single piece of counter-evidence” that undermines the case for global warming. He does see, however, homes in Alaska sagging into the less-than-permanent permafrost. The South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is flooding from the inside out as the sea level rises around the hollow coral atoll, forcing underground water to pool on the surface. Later, perusing the plains of Inner Mongolia, Lynas gets sand-blasted by the spreading desert; local residents remember being surrounded by knee-high grass only 20 years ago.

“If you can see all this and still remain unmoved,” Lynas concludes, “then you have lost some essential part of your humanity…. If you want to remain in ignorance than that is your choice too—but do not claim to be a leader.”—Katie Renz