Taking the Temperature on Global Warming Books

I take a look at two new books on global warming in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. The International Herald Tribune has already posted it on their site (which has no subscription wall to boot). (Update: NYTBR link.) The books are The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery and Field Notes From a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert. Both are very good (though not perfect) books, and I suspect that they may have a noticeable effect on the discourse about global warming. I will be curious (in a kind of staring-at-a-car-wreck way) to watch the reaction of the global warming denial crowd. Flannery’s book has already been out for a while in Australia, and he’s already been the subject of many a nasty newspaper column. Tim Lambert has already fact-checked them to pieces. As I make clear in the review, I think there are some significant problems in both books, particularly in Flannery’s penchant for trying to make associations sound like causations. But that doesn’t change the scientific consensus on global warming–it’s here, it’s real, it’s going to get hotter–and it doesn’t take away from the overall strengths of these books.

Update, 3.11.06, 8 am: Thanks to a couple readers for pointing out the glaring temperture conversion error in the piece. It’s not in the NYTBR version. I guess some IHT editor thought they were being helpful by turning Fahrenheit to Celsius. Unfortunately he or she didn’t understand that a change of 9 to 12 degrees does not equal a change of “minus 12 to mius 7” degrees celsius.

8 thoughts on “Taking the Temperature on Global Warming Books

  1. Comment on an error in your article in the IHT. An interesting error I might say!

    “Flannery writes, a surge of carbon dioxide and methane (another greenhouse gas) flooded the atmosphere, raising the average surface temperature of the earth by 9 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 12 to minus 7 Celsius)”

    In showing the conversion you have just used the conversion formula (F-32)/9 = C/5

    When analyzing changes in temp on these different scales, you need to work with the ‘differential of above formula — this gives the change in Celsius for a given change in Fahrenheit. Hence: Delta(C) = Delta(F)* 5/9. The drop in temp in C is therefore roughly half its value on the F scale – I have taken 5/9 as approx 0.5

    Isa Daudpota
    Air University
    Islamabad, Pakistan.

  2. From the article “raising the average surface temperature of the earth by 9 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 12 to minus 7 Celsius)”

    I don’t think so…

  3. A rather bad arithmetic error, agreed.

    I predict these two books will have the same impact as the few dozen global warming books before them: none. The only book that’s had any influence, I think, is Ross Gelbspan’s “The Heat is On.” And that only on the left side of the political spectrum. The rest of the books just come and go.

  4. You should check out “The science and politics of global warming: A guide to the debate” by Dessler and Parson. I found it to be an excellent book.

  5. Mr. Zimmer,

    In your review, you wrote: “FNFC would have benefited from a deeper exploration of the science of global warming.” As I recall, Kolbert dedicated a great of text to climate science (greenhouse effect, feedback loops, computer modeling, paleoclimatology, ecology, energy solutions) and she did so in a way that was technically accurate, concise, and also interesting to a general audience. It’s clear that she was not trying to write an academic text book. Since you were not specific in your review, I am left wondering: what aspects of the climate science do you think Kolbert should have explored more deeply? You do not say.

    Both in your review and in this blog post you suggest that both books [by Flannery and Kolbert] are flawed in some way. You provide some details regarding weaknesses in Flannery’s book, but you provide nothing to support this view of Kolbert’s book. As a result — and with all due respect — it is my feeling that you really shortchanged Kolbert in your review. From a climate scientist’s perspective, I enjoyed her New Yorker articles very much and I hope the book is widely read… it deserves much more credit than you gave it.

    Also, I think the 650,000 year-long ice core record of CO2, to which you refer at the beginning of your review, was from Antarctica… not Greenland. AFAIK, the oldest ice on Greenland is less than half this age.

  6. Re #5 — Yes, the 600,000+ year ice core record is from Antarctica. The Greenland ice core records become quite hard to read at about 110,000 years ago. Vastly more about climate, but not politics, can be found at

    Two good books on climate, both by the now-retired paleoclimatolgist W.F. Ruddiman are

    “Plows, Plagues and Petroleum: how humans took control of the climate” — intended for a general audience.

    “Earth’s Climate: past and future” — a college textbook intended for students from all majors. I’m now making my way through a third book on climatology and Ruddiman’s is certainly the best one to start with.

    I found Carl Zimmer’s point in the review that one ought to do “better” than blaim humans, but rather encorporate humans as one of the biological drivers of climate, a wise and throught-provoking idea. Too bad there wasn’t more room in the review to expand on this… but in The Loom there is plenty of space. Please, Carl.

  7. F.Y.I. Carl, re: NYT review

    There are two Antarctic ice cores now. The first, finished several years ago, is from the Russian Vostok station far inland. The second one, just recently announced [via scientific publication, I think] is from the Antarctic Peninsula, done by either British or American or both if my memory is right.

    The Vostok core is roughly 750,000 years long and the Peninsula core is roughly 650,000. Vostok shows the very warm interglacial of 650,000 years ago you mention. I’m not certain if that also appears on the other core, but I think not. It should be noted that CO2 peak is roughly where we are now, so we’re tied.

    An interesting related item is that the Russian core was drilled down to a lake that’s 6 or 7 [?] kilometers down. They got close and stopped. Lake Vostok holds as much water as one of the Great Lakes! It’s kept liquid by heat coming up through a thinning crust beneath it, but there has probably always been water there. That means if there is life in it, which means an ecosystem, it’s been isolated from the rest of the biosphere for 30+ million years by the ice. They’ve found viable microorganisms in the last ice they drilled, but I don’t remember the details.

    Researchers are trying to figure out how to sample the lake without contaminating it.

    Also, your description of the continental shelf methane hydrate deposits isn’t exactly right. The methane is produced by bacteria but stored in ice. [Which makes the ice flammable. Cool, huh?] I posted a more detailed comment about methane hydrates on a Cognitive Daily review of Flannery’s book.

    A candidate site for the methane hydrate release has been proposed off Scandinavia. Earthquake- or volcanic-induced landslide is one possibility for cause of the release. The open question is we don’t know what keeps these underwater fields stable and we be messin’ with the ocean.

  8. A nice review, and I thank you for writing it.

    The piece (at least the NYTRB version) does have another error of some significance. Wood is not a fossil fuel. Whatever the various other pros/cons of burning wood, wood is a carbon-neutral energy source. Burning wood releases carbon to be sure, but all of the carbon in the tree was fixed from the atomosphere as the tree grew, i.e., it is just part of the natural carbon cycle. I have even heard it said that allowing wood to release its carbon by rotting is worse than burning it, because rotting wood also releases methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than the CO and CO2 released by burning.

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