Knowing some context and history helps make sense of climate science

I have been reading Robert Kunzig & Wallace Broeker, Fixing Climate: The Story of Climate Science and how to Stop Global Warming (2009). The “how to” part commends a technological fix I am not so sure about, but the major part of the book is excellent and very readable. Its great virtue is that by focussing on the career of one pioneer in the field (Broeker) and his work the whole topic is humanised, and further those cavils about the motives of climate scientists are revealed as the distractions they are.

Doc Snow from Atlanta gives a good idea of what to expect.

Dr. “Wally” Broecker is no fan of large bureaucracies, which is why, though he is a “grand old man” of contemporary climate science, he has never participated in the International Panel on Climate Change.  Yet he can scarcely be called unconcerned about the issue of climate disruption:  it was Broecker who created the image of the climate “beast,” which humanity is now collectively prodding with the “sharp stick” of greenhouse gases.  This concern also explains how it was that Broecker became both subject and co-author (with science writer Robert Kunzig) of  Fixing Climate:  What Past Climate Changes Reveal About The Current Threat—And How To Counter It (2008, Hill and Wang.)

Fixing Climate weaves together scientific biography and science reporting in an engaging, if sometimes slightly elliptical manner.  Opening with a biographical sketch of Broecker—who, we learn, was born to an Evangelical suburban Chicago family, and initially drifted into his scientific vocation via a summer job in a radiocarbon dating lab—the book explains the currently-accepted Milankovitch theory of Ice Age glaciation; proceeds to an account of the Dr. David Keeling’s measurements atmospheric CO2; continues with a summary of research work on glacial ice cores, sediments, and fossil pollen from around the world showing startlingly abrupt prehistoric climate changes; and moves on to the possible consequences of continued warming, closing with an account of the prospects of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

See also Calling All Mad Scientists.

…If anyone should be taken seriously on the topic of climate change, it is Wallace Broecker, who has spent more than 50 years studying the climate of the past 200,000 years, and who was one of the first to warn, more than three decades ago, of the dangers of global warming. Born in 1931 ("the same year as Twinkies," the book points out), he arrived in 1952 at what is now Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. He has spent his entire career there, publishing more than 400 papers and winning numerous prizes, including the National Medal of Science. Over the years, Broecker has developed ways to calculate the rate of gas exchange between the atmosphere and the ocean — in particular, oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide — and devised what is known as Broecker’s Conveyor Belt, a global scheme of ocean circulation that is thought to drive climate patterns the world over.

As background to their proposal, Broecker and Kunzig devote about a third of their book to explaining the complex history of climate change science; a laudable effort, though at times my eyelids did begin to droop. To their credit, they enliven the text with asides on the notable figures who first figured out the science at hand (among them the Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius, whose "ravishing young wife, Sophia" deserted him in 1894 after a year of marriage in the midst of his calculations on planet-warming carbon dioxide)…

A thorough if  less entertaining account of how the science has developed and what it is may be found on Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming. 

This is mounted on the Website of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of PhysicsDiscovery of Global Warming site created by Spencer Weart with support from the American Institute of Physics, the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The statements on this site represent the views of the author and are not positions endorsed by the American Institute of Physics. Two of the Institute’s Member Societies have taken positions on climate change; see the American Physical Society’s statement and the American Geophysical Union’s statement.

In marked contrast to all of the above we have the Global Warming Blindfolders. Regina’s Prairie Dog Magazine (Canada) has just posted an excellent article on that: Why They Deny: What’s going on in climate skeptics’ deluded heads?

declaration Oh, you climate deniers have been on a tear lately. You’re all puffed up with self-importance. Bloated by a few victories.

Bravo, gentlemen!

Thanks to your efforts, support for climate science is sliding and the hopes that there’ll be any global action in time to slow the planet’s heating are all but lost. Good thing I’m heavily invested in hip waders.

Nice work! But I have to ask: why’d you do it?

Why do all you climate deniers risk your reputations defending positions utterly at odds with science and reason?

Much has been made of your ties to the oil and coal lobbies, but can you really be doing it just for the money?

George Marshall, the founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, the UK’s leading climate communications charity, doesn’t think so.

“To say these people are paid for by the oil industry is rather ignoring the point there’s a lot of environmental organizations that take money from oil companies,” says Marshall.

“The fact that people take money from oil companies does not in itself make them corrupt. There’s lots of reasons why you might want to work with corporations.”

He suspects your motivations are less venal and may be related to a kind of deranged careerism. Marshall notes that the most prominent of your kind are almost all men — men whose careers weren’t terribly noteworthy until you threw in with the adoring denialist hordes.

Alternately, some of you are men who are nearing (or at) retirement and looking for a way to stay in the game…

Particularly make sure you download that declaration from the source article.


Expert credibility in climate change PDF from the US National Academy of Sciences.