What Past Climate Changes Reveal about the Current Threat—and How To Counter It
Wallace S. Broecker
New York: Hill and Wang, 2008
This book begins with a brief memoir of Wallace Broecker's life. And it is a surprising life: Born in Oak Park, Illinois to a cheerful father who owned a gas station and a mother subject to frequent depression — parents who became born-again Christians in their thirties by virtue of a chance meeting with one Doctor Hess,1 a natrapathist — Wallace was the second of eight children. He was never much interested then in religion or science, but devoted the typical amount of attention to movies, sports and girls, along with the occasional prank. This is what makes his childhood and young adulthood surprising and interesting; it is not the pattern one expects for someone destined to become a scientist. (However, young Broecker did have a passion for building things, like model airplanes and Soap Box Derby cars; and he was a good student.)
Yet it suited me fine that the book devotes only the first two chapters to Broecker's life, making a sharp separation when he and his new wife Grace decide to stay on in Manhattan so Wallace can work at Lamont Geophysical Laboratory. The remainder of the book focuses on the science of climate change and possible methods of mitigating the worst effects resulting from a warming climate.
The authors relate a dialogue between Broecker and Hans Suess in which the latter imparts a precious secret of scientific success. (See pp. 72-73.)
"Young man," the Austrian said gravely, "a disaster happens to many, many of our best scientists. They become administrators. And the day they do that, they're lost to science. So you never want to become an administrator. You have to guard against that."
"But Dr. Suess," piped Broecker, "how do I do that?"
"Be a dynamic incompetent! Do at least three outrageous acts a year. Then no one will want you to be an administrator."
Chapters 3 through 8 cover the historical development of climate science. Each one focuses on a major aspect of the problem: glaciers, changes in Earth's orbit, ocean circulation, carbon dioxide. The next four chapters discuss the potential impacts of warming — most notably rising sea level and droughts on land. Finally, chapters 13 through 16 set forth possible methods of mitigation. The authors paint a cautiously hopeful picture, suggesting we can bring down CO2 concentration without breaking the economy. At the same time, they are skeptical that we will.
This book is a comprehensive and very readable overview of the current state of this world's climate. It's supplemented by seven illustrations, and enlivened with anecdotal details such as those pranks, or the fact that, early on at the Greenland GISP2 drill site, there was no outhouse.2 At the same time, it delivers a serious warning about the likelihood of long-term drought in the American west. It has a list of selected references and a good index. And it has my highest recommendation.