Preparing for Climate Change

By Michael D. Mastrandrea and Stephen H. Schneider, A Boston Review Book (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 2010), 104 pp., hardcover $14.95, ISBN 978-0-262-01488-5.

Reviewed by Don Lichtenberg

This slim volume (less than 100 pages of main text) was written by two authors with much knowledge and experience in climate science. Mastrandrea is Deputy Director, Science, at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II, and assistant consulting professor at Stanford University. Schneider, who died suddenly in July, 2010, was the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies in the Department of Biology at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. He was also a lead author of the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.

As stated in the book's introduction, “Every five to six years, the IPCC publishes its peer-reviewed, world governments-approved Assessment Report, which presents the best approximation of a global consensus on climate-change science.'' As a result of these reports, the IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

This little book's aim is to briefly present some of the main possible deleterious effects of climate change and to suggest what we can do to prevent them and adapt to those we cannot prevent. The book succeeds very well in that task, but does not adequately address the problem of how to get the world to meet the difficult challenge before it is too late. Perhaps that problem is insoluble, as I have not seen a convincing suggestion anywhere.

The book stresses that the course of climate change is uncertain, but that among the possible outcomes are some so dangerous for mankind that we should do our best to reduce the dangers. The best strategy for doing so is a combination of mitigation and adaptation. The authors argue that our efforts at mitigation, which consists in reducing human-caused greenhouse emissions to the atmosphere, will not by itself be sufficient to solve the problem, so that adaptation to the effects of climate change will also be necessary. A third approach to climate change is geoengineering, such as seeding the ocean with iron to promote the growth of carbon-consuming algae, and placing dust in the atmosphere to reflect solar energy. However, the authors caution that geoengineering schemes may have unknown and serious side effects, and therefore they concentrate on mitigation and adaptation.

An important part of the effort to reduce the effects of climate change is assessment of vulnerability of different regions to its effects. The authors point out that assessing vulnerability is a complex task. They say that, so far, most efforts have been “top-down,'' primarily the result of global climate models. They argue that a better way would be to combine top-down approaches with “bottom-up'' efforts which emphasize social concerns at the local level.

The book concludes by saying that the present global challenge is to “reduce considerably the rate at which we add to atmospheric greenhouse gas levels.'' The developed countries should lead the effort both because they have contributed most to the problem and because they have a greater ability to do the job. Also, the developed countries should not neglect the needs of developing countries, both in mitigation and adaptation. The whole world should make a strenuous effort to reduce and to adapt to  climate change, as, in my opinion, it may be the most serious long-term problem facing humanity.

In summary, the book provides a short overview of the problem of climate change and what can be done to reduce its severity and lessen its bad effects. For those interested in the subject, it is an excellent place to begin. For those who wish to explore the problem in more detail, references are given.

Don Lichtenberg
Department of Physics
Indiana University Bloomington

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