Climate Change: What it Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren

Edited by Joseph F. C. DiMento and Pamela Doughman, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, Second Edition 2014, 343 pages.

Mark Twain said “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” I look back over the past two centuries of the industrial revolution, during which we poured huge quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and think “we are doing something about the weather — we’re making it worse!” But my retort misses the important distinction, made in the Introduction by DiMento and Doughman. They carefully distinguish between day to day “weather” and its average over a long time, called “climate”. Weather fluctuates and cannot be predicted accurately for weeks into the future. Climate changes gradually and, they argue, can be predicted.

Almost two centuries ago Fourier asked why Earth’s average temperature is 15oC, far above the freezing -18oC expected from the balance between solar radiation we receive and energy radiated by Earth (Chapter 2). Fourier's answer to his question was the "greenhouse effect." He also coined that expression. Since Fourier’s work the greenhouse effect has intensified: Carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has doubled from about 200 parts per million to the current 400 ppm. The authors point out the huge greenhouse effect on Venus, and contrast it with the negligible greenhouse effect on Mars.

In Chapter 4 Naomi Oreskes — a professor in the history of science and author of the well-known book Merchants of Doubt — discusses in detail “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong.” I found her careful analysis convincing. All experts on our climate agree that our temperature has increased some 1oC, caused by a doubling of carbon dioxide, with further increases in temperature and in carbon dioxide anticipated. Among the serious effects are severe flooding and storm surges.

Let’s modernize Mark Twain’s epigram to read “Everyone talks about climate change, but nobody does anything about it.” In Chapter 5 DiMento and Doughman tell us about the multitude of international conferences in the last third of a century, with no binding agreements. Why have we failed? How can we reach agreements between industrialized countries which have polluted the atmosphere and underdeveloped countries striving to catch up. There has been some progress, by a few countries and in some states. In the U.S., California and New York have indeed “done something about it.” As I write this review, I hear on PBS that the U.S. and China just agreed to do something about Climate Change.

This book is a good survey of greenhouse gas production, and resulting problems of climate change. My one objection is that it omits one significant source of greenhouse gases: the rapid increase in population. The industrial revolution led both to an increase in the per capita production of greenhouse gases, and to an increase the number of people. Both must be controlled.

Joe Levinger
Department of Physics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.