Whose Story of Climate?April 15, 2013 at 11:46 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: "The Whole Story of Climate", Climate Change, E. Kirsten Peters., fossil fuels, greenhouse gases, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, solar and wind power, the "Roc Doc", underground coal fires
I was more or less grandmothered in to the environmental movement when I began spending time at the Grail’s organic farm and conference center outside Cincinnati in the late 1960s. Some of my readers will recall my blogpost back in 2011 about taking care of the chickens there. As a result of my training at Grailville, I have been washing, reusing and recycling plastic bags for forty-five years, more or less.
But then, a decade or so ago, I became intensely aware of the ecological crises that are imminent—the world water crisis, and climate change. So in addition to writing about Catholicism, my other mania, I also do a certain amount of writing about the environment.
Today I share with you a review of a 2012 book about the climate; it was published this month in Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the United States.
The Whole Story of Climate: What Science Reveals About the Nature of Endless Change. By E. Kirsten Peters. Prometheus Books, 2012. Hardback, 290 pp. $26.00.
At one level, The Whole Story of Climate by geologist E. Kirsten Peters of Washington State University is “a history of Earth’s climate and…of how scientists learned about climate.” Readers like me, wary of abstruse scientific writing, will be pleasantly surprised by the narrative drive of Peters’s book. Who would have thought it possible to fashion the rise and fall of temperature over millions of years into a page-turner?
An example of the author’s gift for making science accessible is her use of a football field to explain the history of climate. The far end of the gridiron represents the start of the Pleistocene Era, 1.8 million years ago, while the other end is today. Each 5.5 yards (100,000 years) there’s an Ice Age, followed by a warmer period. Six and half yards from our end zone there’s an even warmer period, followed by several yards of bitter cold, and then our own, warm but not the warmest, Holocene Epoch. The point of the football field—and the rest of the book—is to show us that over its entire history, climate has changed repeatedly, and radically. Moreover, Peters argues, it’s much more likely that we’re on the verge of another cold snap than a warm one.
At one level, then, The Whole Story of Climate is a well-written, accessible book that provides readers with a much-needed wider context for the debate over climate change currently taking place. At another level, however, there’s a good deal in this book that readers should be wary of. This is so because it’s virtually impossible to have a dispassionate scientific discussion about climate change in our time. Peters herself rails repeatedly throughout The Whole Story against the misrepresentations of climate change by “journalists” who, in her reading, fail to communicate to the public that climate change is natural, and that calls for mitigation of global warming by expensive sustainable fuels are baseless. Yet Peters herself is a journalist—her book bio mentions that she, as “the Roc Doc,” writes a syndicated newspaper column—and surely the book’s title is a journalistic, not a scientific one. No reputable scientific work is titled “The Whole Story of” anything.
I also have some concerns about the perspective geology itself brings to the dangers of climate change. Fairly early on in the book Peters states that “geologists take as a sacred responsibility the task of understanding, identifying, and providing energy sources for our societies” (89). The use of the word “sacred” is striking here, and one suspects that the fuels geologists are sacredly committed to providing are fossil fuels, a commitment that may make it difficult to advocate for solar and wind energy.
More to the point, geologists necessarily think in terms of millions, or even billions, of years, within which the extinction of species is not a big deal. Peters does admit from time to time that the increasing level of greenhouse gases could be a serious problem; that, in fact, it could precipitate the flipping of Earth’s climate into an era of either extreme heat or extreme cold. And her discussion, in the concluding chapter, of the possibility of a 3% reduction is greenhouse gases by extinguishing the thousands of underground coal fires around the world alone makes the previous 242 pages worthwhile. Why, I join her in asking, aren’t we doing something about this?
Finally, though, the harm likely to occur in the near future as a result of a warming planet concerns Peters a good deal less than the very long range climate picture and the ideological wars between geologists and other environmental scientists. At the end of the book, for example, she spends less than a page acknowledging that global warming through 2100 is likely to have many more negative consequences for the poor in places like Africa and the Middle East than for people like us in Europe and North America.
But she spends eighteen pages accusing (non-geologist) environmental scientists of dishonesty by virtue of being in the pay of big-government and comparing them to Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” based on a mistake in the 2001 Third Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I can’t help thinking that the people here in New York whose lives were upended by Hurricane Sandy, as well as the Pacific Islanders whose cultures are being washed away by sea level rise, are a lot more concerned about the “short term” implications of global warming than Peters is.