Below are two climate change book reviews by me; I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

I’ve provided an Amazon link to one and a Book Depository link to another — because I’m not out to promote any particular online bookstore (although I tend to find the latter cheapest, and as to the former, well, I love my Kindle 3G DX [I'm reading Weinberg on it right now])… Oh, and for Australians, never go past the Booko website!

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Volk, T. (2008). CO2 Rising: The World’s Greatest Environmental Challenge. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. ISBN 978-0-262-22083-5.

Carbon atoms with personality. That’s the interesting literary device biochemist Tyler Volk uses to illustrate the fantastic convolutions that define the many and varied pathways of the carbon cycle. ‘CO2 Rising‘ tracks the fate of atoms ‘Dave’, ‘Coalleen’, ‘Oiliver’ and others, as they wend their waythrough the Earth’s crust, oceans, biosphere and atmosphere – indeed, all of the reservoirs of carbon on the planet.

In an entertaining way, the reader learns to appreciate the transience of some states of carbon (such as the brief moments an atom is bound up in a molecule of CO2 in a glass of beer, only to be later measured by the instruments of Dave Keeling on the peak of Mauna Loa), and the timelessness of others (such as the subterreanean lumps of coal and pools of oil, sequestering atoms for eons in dark geological vaults).

Understanding the dynamics of different carbon reservoirs is fundamental to appreciating the overarching premise of the book: most carbon is ‘out of action’ in limestones, ocean ooze or buried fossil fuels, for most of time. But as greater and greater quantities of ‘old carbon’ are unearthed to stoke the fires and cement kilns of modern industry, a long-balanced equilibria is disrupted. On a planetary scale, with global consequences.

The public hears a lot about climate change, but too little about just why too much CO2 – a natural part of our atmosphere – is bad news. Volk does an impressive job of illustrating, in engaging prose, the dangers to humanity of pushing the carbon cycle too hard, too fast. His bottom line? Natural systems have all the time in the world to re-adjust, dispassionately, to a disturbance like the recent pulse of fossil carbon. But for we fleeting beings, the way we manage carbon now, during this short century, will define us – or haunt us – forever.

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Mathez, Edmond A. 2009. Climate Change: The Science of Global Warming and Our Energy Future. Columbia University Press, NY. 318 p. ISBN: 978-0231146425

“Not another book about climate change!”.

That was my immediate reaction on first seeing Edmond A. Mathez’s new work. After all, there has been a swag of recent books on this general topic, ranging from the highly technical to those pitched very much at a popular audience. So a quite fair question to ask is whether this book adds anything useful. I can answer with a resounding yes – a few caveats notwithstanding.

The book surveys a broad and varied intellectual terrain – everything from the basic chemistry and physics of the atmosphere, oceans and ice caps, to the functioning of the carbon cycle and its links with the geology in deep time, to the scientific method and a reflection on how it structures thinking within such a multidisciplinary arena, to the projected geophysical, biological, socioeconomic impacts of a future century of global warming, and finally to the raft of possible solutions on offer.

The book is aimed at an intelligent lay audience, drawing its inspiration from a popular exhibition, curated by the author, at the American Museum of Natural History. In his ability to convey complex and often technically challenging science to a popular audience, in an engaging and accurate manner (yet replete with unobtrusively numbered references to the key peer-reviewed literature), Mathez has succeeded admirably. Indeed, it might well be the best of its kind out there at present.

Where it fell a little short was in the final chapter on energy and the future. The information on individual energy technologies, including the full mix of renewables and fossil fuel with carbon sequestration was accurate and well covered. But the section on nuclear power failed to ever mention integral fast spectrum reactors, which make huge strides in solving the very problems Mathez fretted about, such as limited uranium supplies, safety, proliferation, and management of high level waste. This is a critical oversight, because the scale of the carbon mitigation and energy replacement problem is so enormous that no useful technology can be disregarded.

Mathez clearly articulates the scale of the climate problem. Now we need clearer thinking and better communication on solutions that can solve it fully. After all, this is not a battle we can afford to lose.


Filed under: Climate change Q&A, Ecological impacts, Emissions reduction