F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
January 2007 
Vol. 36, No. 1



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An Inconvenient Truth:  The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It, By Al Gore (Rodale, Emmaus, 2006) ISBN 1-59486-567-1.  $21.95 (paper). 328 pp. 

Before seeing the movie of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's film about the dangers of global warming, I had caught a fleeting glance at the book version.  Noting that the graphical displays I had espied in the book were also shown in the movie, it occurred to me that the book would provide opportunity for greater reflection on the movie, so I bought a copy of the book the next day.  There I learned that profits from both the book and the film are being contributed "to a nonprofit, bipartisan effort to move public opinion in the United States to support bold action to confront global warming."

The book indeed gave me a wonderful opportunity to reflect further on the film.  The graphics of the film are colorfully displayed in the book, and this makes it a quick read.  In fact, it would be ideally published in an enlarged, hardbound, cocktail table version.  I was particularly struck by how Gore framed the issue:  "Global warming is not just about science and..not just a political issue," he writes in his introduction. "It is really a moral issue."

"The relationship we have to the natural world is not a relationship between 'us' and 'it.'  It is us and we are of it.  Our capacity for consciousness and abstract thought in no way separates us from nature.  Our capacity for analysis sometimes leads us to an arrogant illusion that we're so special and unique that nature isn't connected to us." (p. 161)  "We have a moral obligation to take into account . . . the relationship between our species and the planet." (p. 216)

"The fundamental relationship between our civilization and the ecological system of the Earth has been utterly and radically transformed due to the powerful convergence of three factors," Gore points out (p. 216):  (1) the population explosion, (2) the scientific and technological revolution, and (3) our fundamental way of thinking about the climate crisis. 

"Many of our new technologies confer upon us new power without automatically giving us new wisdom" he adds, "and those with the most technology have the greatest moral obligation to use it wisely."  Gore notes that the U.S. accounts for 30.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Using his sister's death from cigarette smoking-related lung cancer as an example, Gore likens coal and oil company "hype" about uncertainty about the relationship between carbon dioxide emission and global warming to hype from tobacco companies about uncertainty between smoking and lung cancer.  He uses this to deflate the first of the 10 most common misconceptions about global warming, namely the notion that scientists disagree about whether humans are causing the Earth's climate to change.

He acknowledges the following problems in thinking about the climate crisis:

1.  It seems easier not to think about it at all, like a frog in water that is gradually heating up.

2.  There is a disconnect between the consensus of scientists according to peer-reviewed journals, and the publicly-perceived uncertainty (according to newspapers) which give skeptics equal coverage in reporting of a science story as if it's a "debate."

3.  "We have a false belief that we have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment."

4.  We feel that we're helpless, so that we might as well throw up our hands-- a feeling which Gore cites as moving directly from the denial in problem #1 (which he notes is "not a river in Egypt") to despair (which he notes is "not a tire in the trunk").

In spite of all these problems, he also acknowledges the basis for the title of his book:  "The truth about the climate crisis is an inconvenient one that means we are going to have to change the way we live our lives. ...There's already enough data, enough damage, to know without question that we're in trouble. ...There is only one Earth, and all of us who live on it share a common future.  Right now we are facing a planetary emergency and it is time for action."

The last pages are headed "What you personally can do to help solve the climate crisis," with many suggestions listed under the headings of "Save energy at home," "Get around on less," "Consume less, conserve more," and "Be a catalyst for change."  This advice clearly shows that the key to controlling global warming is changing our present energy diet of fossil fuels. 

In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman writes that by changing our energy diet, President Bush could "dry up revenue for terrorism, force Iran, Russia, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia onto the path of reform -- which they will never do with $50-a-barrel oil -- strengthen the dollar, and improve his own standing in Europe by doing something huge to reduce global warming."  If President Bush doesn't do it, Friedman has clearly spelled out a platform of important political issues for 2008, and in An Inconvenient Truth Al Gore has clearly placed his feet firmly on that platform.

[This review was originally written for the Fall 2006 issue of the Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter.  It is reprinted here with permission.] 

John L. Roeder
Physics instructor
The Calhoun School, New York City


The Revenge of Gaia:  Earth’s Climate Crisis & the Fate of Humanity By James Lovelock, Basic Books,2006, xvii + 177pp., hard cover, $25, ISBN-13:978-0-465-04168-8

The very word Gaia may be sufficient to scare away prospective readers of this book. To me it conveyed a mystical entity which would be used by New Agers and not by respectable scientists.  So my first task is to dispel such illusions and point out that the Gaia theory is the product of scientific observation, and like good scientific theories is subject to test and also bears predictive fruit.  It comes from a scientist who is the author of about 200 scientific papers distributed almost equally among topics in Medicine, Biology, Instrument Science and Geophysiology.  He has filed more than 50 patents mostly in detectors for chemical analysis.  These have been important in pesticide research, the presence of PCBs in the natural environment, the global distribution of nitrous oxide and the chlorofluorocarbons and their application to the stratospheric chemistry of ozone. Some have been adopted by NASA in planetary exploration. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and received numerous awards and prizes.

Dr Lovelock’s latest book summarizes his life’s work, primarily on global warming, but including many other environmental subjects.  He is an excellent writer and the intelligent lay man or woman will find the book a very readable introduction to climate change and more incidentally to several other environmental problems.  Considering the breadth of material covered, it is a short book and it cannot be expected to delve into the detail that a more specialized mind will demand.  But, for these people there are novel ideas which will act as a great stimulus for further understanding.

After an introductory chapter titled the State of the Earth, Dr. Lovelock follows with two chapters explaining what Gaia is and the history of its evolution.  An important step in the latter is the recognition that there are severe constraints on the conditions for life.  Notably among these are temperature and the ambient chemical composition.  What amazed Dr. Lovelock was that the Earth system had the capacity to stay close to the right temperature and the right chemical composition for life to thrive for over three billion years.  From this came the Gaian hypothesis that views the biosphere as an active, adaptive control system able to maintain Earth in homeostasis.  Next was the recognition that Gaia was the whole system--organisms (including humans) and material environment coupled together--and it was this huge Earth system that evolved self-regulation, not life or the material environment alone.  It works through a system of feedback mechanisms between the living and the non living environment.

There is another aspect of the Gaia nomenclature which results from Dr. Lovelock’s first experience in serious science as a graduate student in physiology followed by twenty three years of medical research.  This taught him to think like a physician or a surgeon and from this it was easy and fruitful to think of the Earth system, Gaia, metaphorically as a patient.  The message is that the patient is ill and in urgent need of care.   So ill, that unless we cease abusing Earth it may revert to the hot state it was in fifty five million years ago, resulting in the death of most of us and our descendants. 

Dr. Lovelock estimates that this will happen when the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere reaches ~500ppm, as it did 55 million years ago when similar CO2 concentrations were present.  Drastic action is called for now if we are not to inherit disaster.  However Dr. Lovelock declares that he is not a pessimist and constantly imagines that good will ultimately  prevail.  His analysis will no doubt be hotly debated as it has been in the past.  However many prominent climatologists are now making similar predictions. Articles in the September (2006) issue of Scientific American are accepting a critical CO2 concentration ~500ppm and suggesting ways in which this may be averted.  And even the political world is waking up as witnessed by Tony Blair’s call to action stating that “We must pay more to avoid climate disaster”, and headlines such as “Major Warning Sounded on Climate change,” both stimulated by the recent Stern Report on the Economics of Climate Change.

Is there hope in the alternative sources of energy?  In Chapter 5, he analyses critically the situation for many systems.  He comes to the conclusion that all the non-carbon sources are essential but insufficient unless nuclear energy plays a major role in the mix.  This nuclear contribution could be temporary as more advanced green sources come into existence.  His insistence on nuclear energy is a most controversial item and where he departs company with many environmentalists.  To set the nuclear waste situation in a different perspective he notes that burning fossil fuels produces 27,000 million tons of CO2 yearly--enough, if solidified, to make a mountain nearly one mile high and with a base 12 miles in circumference.  This he compares with the 16 meter cube of waste accumulating from nuclear fission giving the equivalent energy.  The danger associated with nuclear waste is firmly established in the public mind.  Not so the invisible CO2 which is deadly if its emissions go unchecked.  Furthermore if his homeland, the United Kingdom, closed down all its commercial nuclear reactors and replaced them with one-megawatt wind turbines, 56,000 of them would be required and they would need to be backed up by 10 gigawatts of fossil fuel generators (~10 major power stations) for the occasions when the wind was too weak or too strong.

A chapter titled Chemicals, Food and Raw Materials looks at some of the blunders and successes made in the name of environmentalism during the 40 years since Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring.  This is an interlude in the general theme of global warming, with many novel (to me anyway) and controversial ideas.  For example his assertions that natural carcinogens made by vegetable life are present at thousands of times higher abundances than were those from the chemical industry, or that the oxygen of the air is the dominant carcinogen of our environment, or that the all-pervading European atmospheric haze is a sulfate aerosol which reflects sunlight back into space thereby producing a substantial cooling effect on Earth.  Overall he emphasizes that Gaia is an intricately complex system which cannot be grossly manipulated to feed an ever-increasing burden of humans without consequences. 

The next chapter on the technology for a sustainable retreat discusses some conceivable technical fixes in the future.  Nuclear fusion is treated in an earlier chapter, and here he discusses the possibility of putting a sunshade between sun and Earth.  This would decrease the amount of energy from the sun reaching Earth, but would not decrease the build up of the atmospheric abundance of CO2 which eventually would increase the acidity of the oceans.  There is evidence that this would be disastrous to ocean productivity.  Then the problem is the sequestration of CO2 which is difficult and very expensive because of its vast quantity.  He envisages dense compact cities reducing the use of fuels for traveling, and for longer distances high-tech automatic sailing vessels and giant sailing airships riding on the trade winds.  He also speculates on the possibility that we could synthesize all the food needed by eight billion people and thereby abandon agriculture, giving a third of Earth’s surface entirely to Gaia, to be left to evolve wholly without interference or management.

He ends his book with his personal views of Environmentalism and what must be done to nurse Gaia to health.  His whole book is bubbling over with exciting ideas.  I have only been able to select  a few.   The reader will find many more.

James Lovelock has long been a voice crying in the wilderness.  His genius and the general validity of his message are clearly evident in this highly recommended book.

Peter Schroeder
Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Michigan State University




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