Reviewed 7/02/2011

The Next 100 Years, by Jonathan Weiner

Access to this book courtesy of the
San Jose, CA Public Library
Shaping the Fate of our Living Earth
Jonathan Weiner
New York: Bantam Books, March 1990




ISBN-13 978-0-553-05744-7
ISBN 0-553-05744-8 312pp. HC/GSI $?

In April, 1896, a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius published a paper in the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine. Arrhenius had noted how the use of coal was increasing year by year. He wrote, "We are evaporating our coal mines into the air," and concluded that the resulting increase in carbon dioxide must be causing "a change in the transparency of the atmosphere".1 The paper contained a prediction that if the amount of airborne carbon dioxide were to double, Earth's average temperature would rise by an amount somewhere between 5 and 6°C.2

Published in 1990, this book perforce misses a great deal of the growth in our scientific understanding of climate change. But of course the basics were understood long before 1990, and the author presents them accurately and clearly. The book has the additional advantage of presenting the historical background of that science, from the discoveries of Arrhenius, Black, von Helmont, and other early workers through the career of Charles David Keeling. It was Keeling who in March 1958, after several years of work developing instruments of sufficient accuracy and perfecting the technique of using them in field work all over the world, began constant measurements of the concentration of carbon dioxide at a site high up on the side of Hawaii's Mauna Loa. Those measurements immediately showed a baseline concentration of 315 parts per million (ppm), contrary to Keeling's expectations (and the expectations of everyone else.) As they proceeded from year to year, they revealed the now-famous Keeling Curve — a steadily rising concentration, modulated by a drop in summer and a corresponding rise in winter: the slow breathing of Earth's biosphere.

That biosphere has a remarkable ability to sequester carbon. Weiner points out that planting just 100 fast-growing trees per year for every human on Earth in 1990 would have stopped the worldwide increase in CO2 concentration. Unfortunately, although new trees were planted in places, nothing like this level of effort took place. And since farming began in Iraq's "Fertile Crescent" some 10,000 years ago, the planet has lost 15 to 20 percent of its forest cover to human activities.

Weiner is very concerned for our future, given the human propensity to respond to events rather than to processes. We support relief provided by the government for, say, the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and gladly donate still more in private charity to aid them. But nothing was done to raise the levees at New Orleans before Katrina, to improve the pumps or to restore the wetlands that would have blunted the storm surge — aside from incessant squabbles over funding those projects.

Yet his outlook is cautiously hopeful. He describes the battle over the ozone hole in detail, and points to the success of the Montreal Protocol as a reason for optimism. Dealing with climate change is a much more difficult problem, since it requires action on the widest possible scope for a much longer term. However, nothing says dealing with climate change is either so technically difficult or so costly that it should not be attempted. Weiner makes that point well in these pages. His warning, rather is against putting too much hope on geoengineering: modifying the climate by such means as injecting large quantities of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to form reflective droplets of sulfuric acid. These would have to be renewed constantly, meanwhile acting as substrates to catalyze further loss of ozone. And this would do nothing about ocean acidification.

1 Arrhenius felt that this extra CO2 would be a boon to mankind, making agriculture more productive. Today we know that the outlook for crop yields is far more cloudy.
2 Current estimates of sensitivity to a greenhouse-gas doubling fall within this range.
3 CO2 concentration had been measured before. But these were intermittent, local measurements, and they often showed variations ranging from high values down to almost zero, as rudimentary equipment and the vagaries of shifting winds dictated.
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