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By Joseph Romm
Reviewed by Peter Schroeder
(William Morrow. 2007) ISBN:978-0-06-117212-0, 292pp
AUX ARMES! Be worried, be very worried! But there is a glimmering of hope that ultimate disaster will be avoided-if we act fast. This is Joseph Romm's message. This is not the scream of an ignorant doomsayer, but the rational analysis of the current global warming scene by a Ph.D physicist from MIT with a remarkable background, both scientific and political, in climate knowledge. Romm has seen service at the U.S. Department of Energy; he was the principal investigator of the National Science Foundation project, "Future Directions for Hydrogen Energy Research and Education"(2004); at present he is Executive Director and founder of the non-profit Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, an organisation that helps businesses and states adopt high leverage strategies for saving energy and cutting pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
There is minimal history of the evolution of the science of climate change in this book. Instead it is primarily concerned with our present predicament and a prognosis of the future.
A major contribution of this book is Dr. Romm's clear answers to many continually recurring questions which are asked by the public and politicians, and which are not readily accessible. The absence of answers to these questions is frequently used by those who would deny the effects of global warming. These questions include: Why do climatologists believe that global warming is due to human inducement rather than natural cycles (Ch. 2)? The vast majority of climatic scientists agree on the key issues and are very concerned about the situation and yet the full impact of the seriousness of the situation has not yet penetrated into the minds of the public and the politicians. Why (Ch. 5)? Most of the scenario painted by Dr. Romm comes from computer modelling. Is this a reliable source of information (Ch. 4)? Can we not put our faith in technological breakthroughs in the future to pull us through a difficult period (Ch. 6)? One of the reasons that the US rejected the Kyoto agreement was that it set targets and timetables for the emissions from rich countries only. In more recent guise why should the US make cuts while China continues unabated to spew pollution (Ch. 9)?
To get a focus on our present situation I concentrate on one of several aspects namely the inherent rise in sea levels. On our current greenhouse gas emissions path, the Earth's average temperature will probably rise another 1.5 oC by mid century. The last time Earth was 1 oC warmer than today, sea levels were 20 feet higher. If we stopped increasing the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere right now, Earth would still warm another 0.6 oC, well on the way to 1 oC and the 20 feet rise in sea level. But emissions are at present rising ~2% per year! So we might anticipate rises in sea level to much greater heights. How can we alleviate a potentially disastrous situation? Romm's answer uses ideas expressed in 2004 and 2006 papers of Stephan Pacala and Robert Sokolow (Science 305, 968-972, 2004; Scientific American 295 , 50-57,2006) which show that humanity already has the fundamental scientific, technical and industrial know-how to solve the climate problem. For the next 50 years, eight truly monumental efforts are required. For example, in one such effort we need to build, throughout the world, 50 times our current wind-electric generating capacity. Even if we succeeded in eight such efforts and then were able to decrease global emissions in 2061, the temperature would still rise by ~1.5 oC by 2100. The sea level would rise by ~20 feet or more but a more catastrophic rise of 40 to 80 feet might be avoided.
Dr. Romm divides his analysis into 3 periods. The first is "Reap the Whirlwind, 2000-2025." Katrina, forest fires, and floods are already symptoms of wild weather resulting from human produced greenhouse gas warming of the oceans. During this period we can expect stronger hurricanes farther north along the US Atlantic coast and more intense storms earlier and later in the season.
Next, "Planetary Purgatory, 2025-2050." This is a period of extreme drought and gross shortages of water. If we start the eight monumental efforts mentioned above in 2010, then we can live through this period with hope that the apocalypse can be avoided. If we continue our current path until 2025, the "easy" technology-based strategy will not be enough. A much greater and more expensive effort will be necessary to avoiding a grim fate for the next 50 generations.
Third, "Hell and High Water, 2050-2100." Sea-level rise of 20-80 feet will be all but unstoppable by mid-century if current emission trends continue. Some 100 million people will be displaced. All the US gulf and Atlantic coast cities will be below sea level and facing super hurricanes.
With the grim situation described above what hope is there? Certainly the world must push on in its quest for green energy in all its forms, but while these are being developed, Dr. Romm asserts we must use the little time available to use energy more efficiently, thus avoiding the need to build more coal-fired plants. One major recommendation is that other states and countries emulate California's energy efficiency programs which lead to a flat consumption per capita over the past 25 years during which US consumption per capita almost doubled. This whole question is studied in detail in Chapter 7.
In parallel with the fight against greenhouse warming is the question of energy security in the US and elsewhere. In Chapter eight possible green fuels are discussed. His overall conclusion is that plug in hybrid cars operating largely on green electricity will be the predominant way for some time.
Dr. Romm is well aware of the political problems in putting his program into operation. Indeed he calls his scenario The Two Political Miracles because it requires a radical conversion of American Conservative leaders-first to completely accept climate science, and second, to strongly embrace climate solutions that they clearly view as anathema.
The book gives a very readable, graphic and timely warning of things to come unless the world acts now. I highly recommend it.
Emeritus Professor of Physics
Michigan State University