Sunday, February 26, 2006

Book Review - The Weather Makers

This week's book review is The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. I decided, when choosing my books for the Christmas holidays, that I really should find out what was really going on with global warming. I was sick of reading the carefully set out pro- and anti- columns in the Sydney Morning Herald. I wanted to know some facts.

I remembered, quickly, after starting the book, that Tim Flannery, while an entertaining and insightful reader, has never been known for a careful weighing up of the evidence on both sides. While he accumulates evidence carefully and scientifically for his own side, the other side usually gets short shrift. Among other things, Tim Flannery is on record as saying that Australian can only support 8 million people, which I do find hard to believe. He's definitely on one side. Global warming exists, and most of his book describes the mechanisms carefully, and how different scientists have figured out those mechanisms. It's only getting towards the middle of the book that he starts setting out some evidence for why you should believe the (many) scientists who say so as opposed to the (few) scientists who don't.

Nevertheless, even reading with a sceptical hat on, it's an excellent book. The most convincing part, to me, of the reality of global warming, was the section about quaint journals. There are many private journals of natural phenomena - for example one English family recorded the dates of the first frog and toad croaks they heard on their estate every year between 1736 and 1947. Two researches (Parmesan and Yohe) created a huge study of as many of these observations as they could find. They asked two questions - is there any underlying trend evident in all of the regions, habitats and organisms documented? And if so, is that in the general direction one would expect? They found that there is little evidence of a trend before 1950, but since then there is a poleward shift in species' distribution, of around 6 kms per decade, and an advance of sprint activity of 2.3 days per decade. One of the most remarkable examples is a shift in habitat of 35 Northern Hemisphere butterflies. This kind of evidence is convincing to me, as it is the natural world responding in sensible, selfish gene, ways, to climate change in ways that improve their likelihood of survival.

The other aspect of the politics of climate change that is only briefly mentioned in this book is how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Flannery points out that given the level of consensus required for this panel to write a report, the fact that the IPCC's assessment reports are pretty strongly pointing out that global warming is going to happen:

"There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over
the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.... Projections using the SRES emissions scenarios in a range of climate models result in an increase in globally averaged surface temperature of 1.4 to 5.8°C over the period 1990 to 2100. "
After reading the book, I found myself very angry at the way my local press (SMH and the Australian) had managed, using lazy journalistic methods of choosing opinions from each side for "balance", to keep me thinking for far too long that global warming wasn't as bad as the doomsayers were saying.

In this case, the media underplays, rather than sensationalises, the issue. Rather than doing its job of digging up the real facts, or at least weight of evidence to provide information to its readers, the media just finds an expert from each side to make a case every now and again and implies, without saying so, that each side is equally valid. I see through that strategy for intelligent design vs evolution - why didn't I see through it for this issue, which is far more important?

Not, of course that there is much I can do about this. But if I get the time, I will be researching solar electricity for our house. We'll need to replace our roof some time in the next few years. If we can make ourselves 70-80% self-sufficient, that would at least do something. It would also insulate us against what are likely to be sharply rising electricity prices, once governments do start taking this seriously.

Interesting further reading:

John Quiggin debates this issue with some hard core anti-global warming people
Real Climate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists.


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