Reviewed 7/24/2012

The Global Warming Reader, by Bill McKibben

Access to this book courtesy of the
San Jose, CA Public Library
A Century of Writing about Climate Change
Bill McKibben (ed.)
New York: Penguin Books, March 2012




ISBN-13 978-0-14-312189-3
ISBN-10 0-14-312189-8 422pp. SC/GSI $18.00

Twenty-four years ago last month, a climate scientist came from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan to Washington, DC for a hearing on Capitol Hill.1 That hearing, on a sweltering June day in 1988, was when global warming first came to the attention of politicians — and the public — in a big way. For scientists, however, the subject, though newly important, was old news. They remembered the work of Svante Arrhenius and Guy Callendar, of Roger Revelle and Hans Suess, of Dave Keeling, and of many others: investigations reaching from 1896 to the present, building step by patient step the picture of how extra carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere would warm the planet. And of course they knew the work of James Hansen.

Dr. Hansen was the man who testified that day before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He was no latecomer jumping on a bandwagon; he had been modeling the physics of rising-CO2 scenarios for over a decade at GISS. His work, of course, had been reviewed by his peers and was held to pass muster. But there were those who sought to denigrate his work and downgrade its importance. They tried to alter the text of his testimony, and later to restrict his access to the press.2

Dr. Hansen would not allow this. He had toiled quietly at the Institute for decades as scientists are expected to do, and as he (like most scientists), would have preferred to do. Prior to that hearing, the public would never have recognized his name. But after 1988, seeing the serious implications of his work ignored, he decided to speak out. He is still speaking out, and more power to him. Power, it seems, is what this whole dispute is really about. On the one hand, it's about power to continue business as usual, to burn coal and oil and natural gas as usual, and to keep the usual profits flowing to the suppliers of those fuels. Perhaps the foremost exemplar of this effort in the federal government is Oklahoma senior Senator James Inhofe. The speech I reproduce at a page linked below typifies his ignorant stance. On the other hand, it's about saving civilization as it currently exists, or something close to that.

It is a political battle, and the other side is winning.

"The politics are, probably, impossible—unless somehow we can build a movement that can really push.

That movement can only come when we feel, deep down, the impact of what's happening around us. The third section of this book may be the most important, the place where writers have the most to add. So far, the literature of global warming remains fairly thin—and the reason, I think, is that the magnitude of what we're doing is so hard to take in. For all of our civilization, we've thought mostly about the relationship between human beings and human beings. That's where the conflict and the action have been. But now that's changing, and changing fast. The planet itself is becoming a key character."

– Page 15

The essays collected here convey a sense of the science behind the mainstream consensus on climate change, and of the potential impacts. Especially good in that latter area are Elizabeth Kolbert and Arundhati Roy, who describe respectively the state and prospects for the oceans, and the state of agriculture.

1 The New York Times has the story: "Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate".
2 The go-to source on this is Censoring Science by Mark Bowen. Here is my review.
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