The Discovery of Global Warming
The Discovery of Global Warming, the book, is a compact 200-page summary of what I learned from my research for this Website, woven into a single narrative. It begins as a sort of detective story, describing how a few scientists got obsessed with the mysteries of climate change. By the end it has become an epic tale where entire governments, national publics, and communities of scientists press upon one another. Visit the web site…
More Reviews from Alternatives Journal:
The Discovery of Global Warming, Spencer R. Weart, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Reviewed by Paul A. Kay
We seem so aware of global climate change as the big environmental issue; it is already difficult to recall a time when we were not. A moment?s reflection would show, however, that our preoccupation with climate change is in fact a very recent phenomenon.
The lay view of science history ? that scientific progress is ?a stately parade advancing according to plan? ? might suggest that our awareness should have grown incrementally along with our knowledge. Thomas Kuhn, however, taught us more than 40 years ago that the structure of scientific revolutions was step-wise. Most scientists work most of the time within a governing paradigm, adding to the stockpile of knowledge with little effect on producing radically new ideas.
New ideas appear suddenly. Their adoption is slow at first but rapidly accelerates so that after a short time there are only a few holdouts; it is difficult to imagine how anyone could think otherwise.
Weart is director of the Center for the History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics; he is thus both scientist and historian. His highly readable book suggests that we are passing through such a paradigm shift with respect to global climate change. He adds to our understanding of how science works, proposing that the concept of global warming was discovered in three stages.
First, the concept that climate could change due to human alteration of atmospheric chemistry had to be theorized. It was by the Swedish scientist Arrhenius in the 1890s. But as a theory without empirical test, it languished neglected for decades.
Second, the distinct possibility of the theory?s consequences had to be discovered. Geophysicists in the 1950s trying to understand the causes of the great ice ages showed that atmospheric composition was indeed being altered by human activity during the industrial age. Detailed and continuous sampling of carbon dioxide in the air over Hawaii has shown a growth in CO2 concentrations of nearly 20 percent since the record began in 1958. Within just a few years of the beginning of that sampling program, it was already clear that the human-caused trend was upward.
The third stage of discovery was of global warming?s measurable effects on climate and weather patterns. The highly political nature of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change process creates ?not mainstream science ? [but] conservative, lowest-common-denominator science.?
Nevertheless, the Third Assessment Report (2001) stated that the evidence for human-induced change was clear. Of course there are skeptics and dissenters among the scientists. Weart says of them: ?The few who contest [that global warming is very likely] are either ignorant or so committed to their viewpoint [that nature is inherently stable and benevolent] that they will seize on any excuse to deny the danger.? The scientific discovery of global warming, Weart says, is essentially complete.
Two ideas recur mantra-like in the book. Numerous times, Weart notes that a particular interpretation was later found to be in error, but error leads to the advance of science. The other idea is that ?more money should be spent on research;? Weart calls this the traditional principle of science. Given the importance of that Hawaiian CO2 record, it is unnerving to read how its continuation was threatened by the removal of funding. There is, still, a need for accruing and archiving basic data, so that we may monitor long-term changes.
Weart shows how a few ingenious, persistent, even lucky researchers came to understand the problem before its effects were manifest. One might even argue that our ability to recognize the evidence of global-warming induced change was heightened by their work. Moreover, many researchers devoted themselves to working towards solutions rather than procrastinating until the situation was irretrievable. Weart therefore says his is ?a hopeful book.?
Weart concludes with reflections about action to avoid warming while protecting the economy. He says the ball has moved from the science to the policy court. This last section of the book, however, is weak. The book is about the history of science, not policy, and these last reflections are not well supported by the main body of Weart?s presentation.
Weart?s contribution does not end with this book. A website has been established with about three times the amount of material he was able to include in the book, including parallel essays and more than one thousand references to the literature. See . Together, the book and the website should be the primary starting point for any student of climate change.
Paul A. Kay is an associate professor in Environment and Resource Studies at the University of Waterloo, Ontario.