12 April 2012

Climate change books: fact & fiction

Posted by Callan Bentley

In the past month, I’ve read two books that deal with very different aspects of climate change. The first was Michael Mann’s memoir of his life so far in climate science (and Fox news cross-hairs): The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. The second is Tobias Buckell’s adventure novel Arctic Rising.

Michael Mann is a professor of meteorology at Penn State University. He was lead author on a pair of famous papers (Mann, Bradley, & Hughes 1998 and Mann, Bradley, & Hughes, 1999) that used a variety of paleoclimate proxies to determine the temperature trends of the past millennium. He featured a graph from that work in a chapter of the IPCC report in 2001, and that graph provided a very stark visual representation of the anomalous nature of modern global warming: it bucks the cooling trend seen through recent history, and it does so with a rate of change that it unprecedented in human history:

This graph is such a powerful image that it basically made Mann public enemy #2 in the eyes of climate change denialists (second only to Al Gore). He’s been attacked regularly for his work, and thankfully had the good sense to keep lots of notes about what was happening while it happened. The new book is a summary of his experiences being a climate scientist in the cross-hairs.

I asked Dr. Mann for a review copy on Twitter, and he was kind enough to forward my request on to his publishers. I had a copy in my mailbox the next week. It’s an intriguing read. It includes sections devoted to explaining the science of Mann’s work (principal component analysis) that read like an introductory textbook might, but most of the book is more documentation of the sequence of events that have transpired through Mann’s career. It begins with his childhood interests in computers, and that leads to college and then grad school, and how he would up in climate research, and how he was clearly a rising star, picked to be lead author on an IPCC chapter at a relatively young age. It also details a sadder, more disturbing saga: the politicization of Mann’s work, and the tremendous volume of negative attention that climate change denialists focused on him. Not all conservative politicians deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but those that do seem to have the loudest voices. Amplified by the Fox News propaganda machine, these criticisms morphed into character attacks and physical threats against Mann. What he describes in this book is downright scary: that a person can conduct science and then be intentionally vilified for it. He goes into great detail with the “ClimateGate” e-mail hack, and patiently explains the matters in question.

I sometimes try to imagine what it must be like to be a climate scientist in the present political climate. What if it were not climate scientists but structural geologists at the heart of this controversy? What if there was a major political party that denied the reality of tectonically-induced folding? What if those of us who study mountain belts had our character besmirched, and rumors circulated that compressional folding was just a big scam so that we could get grant money? Imagine the e-mails of structural geologists being hacked, then mined for quotes that sounded particularly sinister once surgically extracted from their context? Imagine the fold denialist websites’ shrill rejoinders: “These idiots think that rocks can be folded! It’s astonishing that these jerks are so deluded to think something as strong as a rock would be so easily influenced by stress conditions! This is junk science! God is in control of rock strength, and he would never let crystal lattices deform the way these people think.” Imagine students asking their professors, “So… do you believe in that rocks can actually fold? I heard on the radio that there’s a real scientific controversy about it…” I see Michael Mann as the poster boy for exactly this sort of ridiculous attack. He is doing his job, quantifying and explaining reality, and is surrounded by a maelstrom of gabbling voices, questioning that reality. It’s surreal, and though he’s weathered it amazingly well, it is shameful that any person who is doing their job (and doing it well) is subject to such harsh treatment by society.

Speaking of imagination, let’s turn to lighter fare. I heard about the second book via a book report by Alan Cheuse on NPR’s All Things Considered one day when I was driving home. It caught my attention because of its fresh imagining of the Arctic of the not-so-distant future. I thought, “Ooh. I should read that!” When I was flying out to California over spring break, I was hanging out in Minneapolis waiting for my connecting flight, and I got hankering for a good airplane read. I remembered Arctic Rising. I used my phone to look up the publishers and email them to ask for a review copy. They responded a week or so later, and I was pleased to have had the book as escapist indulgence last week, during a particularly busy week at work.

The novel is set perhaps 50 years in the future, in an Arctic dramatically transformed by global warming. The sea ice has mostly melted, the Northwest Passage has become a major new trade route, and piracy, resource extraction, illegal dumping, and the anything-goes culture of “Wild West” boom-towns now all flourish in this treeless land. A major new bout of intrigue opens up when a UN team on an observational blimp gets shot down by a ship toting something radioactive. One of those on board survives, and soon she finds herself being hunted by a vast conspiracy of thugs, spies, and other stereotypes of nefarious corporate machination. When you throw a Nigerian lesbian in with Eskimos, drug-runners, and the world’s largest “green” corporation, you get a fresh mix of character interactions that drive the novel forward, along with its rapid pacing. The climactic (not climatic) scenes take place in Thule, a brave new nation built on the principles of self-determination and artificial land: it’s basically a series of linked aircraft carriers and ice floes linked together and floating at the North Pole.

But the thing that really sticks with me after reading Arctic Rising isn’t so much the protagonist or the plot (a race to save the world – how many times have we been down that road?) but the setting. The Arctic is an otherworldly place to most people, with its lack of trees and development and its weather extremes. But the Arctic of this novel is a doubly weird place, with bunkhouses painted in Caribbean pastels, naval warships aplenty, and a ragtag society that is nonetheless thoroughly connected through the internet and mobile phones. While the plot didn’t particularly light my fire, I think the novel is worth reading just so you can join Buckell in contemplating the possible Arctic landscape of the future.