Reviewed 9/20/2007

With Speed and Violence, by Fred Pearce

Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change
Fred Pearce
Boston: Beacon Press, March 2007




ISBN-13 978-0-8070-8576-9
ISBN-10 0-8070-8576-6 278pp. HC $24.95

The debate over climate change has skeptics arguing that the science is not sound: that action is not justified with so many questions still unanswered. What they mean is that as long as any aspect of the problem is not completely understood, they can claim it's better to stick with the status quo.

The skeptics are correct in their major premise: Earth's climate system is not completely understood. Unfortunately for the status quo, this means that an even more abrupt and catastrophic change than the IPCC predicts is as likely as a mild, gradual and even beneficial change.

The whole point of this book is how evidence for that possible abrupt and catastrophic change is building up. Like most books about climate change I've read, it is a fascinating account of scientific detective work — with the possibility that newly discovered thresholds may send the situation lurching out of control adding a sense of urgency.

Fred Pearce has a gift for explaining climate phenomena like El Niño in clear terms, and in each of the book's 37 chapters he focuses on one aspect of the complex system. He draws on interviews with researchers at the cutting edges of climatology to show us what remains to be puzzled out and how much has already been learned. A good deal of what has been learned has to do with those tipping points mentioned in the book's subtitle: hints and suggestions that we may be seeing the beginnings of natural processes that will greatly amplify any changes we have set in motion.

Nature is fragile, environmentalists often tell us. But the lesson of this book is that it is not so. The truth is far more worrying. Nature is strong and packs a serious counterpunch. Its revenge for global warming will probably unleash unstoppable planetary forces. And they will not be gradual. The history of our planet's climate shows that it does not do gradual change. Under pressure, whether from sunspots or orbital wobbles or the depredations of humans, it lurches—virtually overnight. We humans have spent 400 generations building our current civilization in an era of climatic stability—a long, generally balmy spring that has endured since the last ice age. But this tranquility looks like the exception rather than the rule in nature. And if its end is inevitable one day, we seem to be triggering its imminent collapse. Our world may be blown away in the process.

– Page xxiv

Pearce devotes little attention in his main text to the contentious politics of climate change, deferring that discussion to an appendix. Though he feels urgent action is warranted, there is nothing alarmist about his writing — alarming, yes; but not alarmist.1 Readers will find a sober assessment of the challenges to full knowledge of the climate system on which we all depend, as well as a deeper understanding of some of the people striving to bring us that knowledge. A timeline of climate change and a glossary of terms augment the text. Pearce provides notes on his references, and the book is well indexed. It will amply repay the reader's time. However, because the state of knowledge of climate-system thresholds is so transient, I cannot recommend it for everyone's library.

1 I admit this is a subtle distinction. Some would judge a call for any sort of action alarmist. I differ with that view.
Errata for With Speed and Violence Living with Climate Caprice
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