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The Discovery of Global Warming

The Discovery of Global Warming: Revised and Expanded Edition

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  • Book Info
    The Discovery of Global Warming
    Book Description:

    In 2001 an international panel of climate scientists announced that the world was warming at a rate without precedent during at least the last two millennia. The story of how scientists reached that conclusion was the story Weart told in The Discovery of Global Warming. The award-winning book is now revised and expanded to reflect the latest science. The award-winning book is now revised and expanded. In 2001 an international panel of distinguished climate scientists announced that the world was warming at a rate without precedent during at least the last two millennia, and that warming was caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases from human activity. The story of how scientists reached that conclusion—by way of unexpected twists and turns—was the story Spencer Weart told in The Discovery of Global Warming. Now he brings his award-winning account up to date, revised throughout to reflect the latest science and with a new conclusion that shows how the scientific consensus caught fire among the general world public, and how a new understanding of the human meaning of climate change spurred individuals and governments to action. "Charting the evolution and confirmation of the theory [of global warming], Weart dissects the interwoven threads of research and reveals the political and societal subtexts that colored scientists' views and the public reception their work ­received." —Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times Book Review

    eISBN: 978-0-674-41755-7
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Physics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. 1-18)

    People have always talked about the weather, but in the 1930s the talk took an unusual turn. Old folks began to insist that the weather truly wasn’t what it used to be. The daunting blizzards they remembered from their childhoods back in the 1890s, the freezing of lakes in early fall, all that had ended—the younger generation had it easy. The popular press began to run articles that claimed winters really had gotten milder. Meteorologists scrutinized their records and confirmed it: a warming trend was under way. Experts told science reporters that frosts were coming later, and that wheat...

    (pp. 19-37)

    Charles David Keeling—Dave to his friends—loved chemistry, and he loved the outdoors. As a postdoctoral student at the California Institute of Technology in the mid-1950s, he was committed to the sterile stinks of the laboratory, but he spent all the time he could spare traveling mountains and woodland rivers. He chose research topics that would keep him in direct contact with wild nature. Monitoring the level of CO2in the open air would do just that. Keeling’s work was one example of how geophysics research often rested on love of the true world itself. When scientists on a...

    (pp. 38-62)

    The weather means a lot to people in Boulder, Colorado, a city of mountaineers and skiers, including not a few scientists. The winter winds there can nudge cars off the road, and in summer you can sit in the hills above town to watch thunderstorms sail across the high plains, churning with lightning. One of the most striking sights in Boulder is the sandstone-red towers of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Created by Congress in 1960 under pressure from scientists seeking a way around the Weather Bureau’s cobwebs, NCAR was dedicated to the scientific study of everything in the...

    (pp. 63-85)

    Walter Orr Roberts, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado, noticed that something was changing in the broad and sparkling skies above Boulder. One morning in 1963, as he was talking with a journalist, he pointed out the jet airplane contrails overhead. He predicted that by mid-afternoon they would spread and thin until you couldn’t tell the contrails from cirrus clouds. They did, and you couldn’t. Roberts suspected that the airplanes were introducing enough additional cloudiness to affect climate in heavily traveled regions. The human impact on the atmosphere was becoming visible to the discerning naked eye.

    Around the same...

    (pp. 86-113)

    The politics of science came up briefly at a 1972 symposium where scientists were discussing the rising level of CO2in the atmosphere. Should they make a statement calling for some kind of action? “I guess I am rather conservative,” one expert remarked. “I really would like to see a better integration of knowledge and better data before I would personally be willing to play a role in saying something political about this.” A colleague replied: “To do nothing when the situation is changing very rapidly is not a conservative thing to do.”¹

    Most scientists felt they were already doing...

    (pp. 114-137)

    Ed Lorenz thought the climate might move in any direction, with little warning. His work in meteorology had helped lay the foundation of the newly fashionable chaos theory, and he continued to take the lead in studying how tiny initial variations could tilt a complex system this way or that. At a 1979 meeting he asked a famous question: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” His answer—perhaps it could—became part of the common understanding of educated people.¹

    Climate change had once seemed a simple enough concept, a gradual evolution...

    (pp. 138-154)

    Around 1966 Roger Revelle gave a lecture about the Earth’s future to students at Harvard University. Among the undergraduates was a senator’s son: Albert Gore Jr. The prospect of greenhouse warming came as a shock, Gore later recalled, exploding his childhood assumption that “the Earth is so vast and nature so powerful that nothing we do can have any major or lasting effect on the normal functioning of its natural systems.”¹

    By 1981 Al Gore was a representative in Congress and better prepared than anyone to haul climate change from the halls of scientific discussion onto the stage of political...

    (pp. 155-176)

    When a nation’s leaders face a hostile foreign power or an economic crisis, they will act. However imperfect the policy makers’ information about the risk, they know that to do nothing is itself a choice among actions, and seldom the best choice. The risk of climate change brought a different response. Here was an altogether unfamiliar type of danger, a danger that would have remained hidden but for a few scientists whose names hardly anybody knew, a danger described only by computer programs that hardly anybody understood.

    For decades, policy makers had responded simply by spending money on research (if...

    (pp. 177-196)

    “Some ecological systems, particularly forests … may be unable to adapt quickly enough to a rapid increase in temperature … most of the nation’s coastal marshes and swamps would be inundated by salt water … an earlier snowmelt and runoff could disrupt water management systems … Diseases borne by insects, including malaria and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, could spread as warmer weather expanded the range of the insects.”¹ Those were only some of the threats suggested already in 1988 by a newspaper account of a U.S. government study. Like most reports on the impacts of climate change, it was speckled...

    (pp. 197-204)

    When should we believe that scientists are giving us reliable information about the world? Most stories of the “advance” of science evoke a picture of people marching resolutely ahead. A scientist “discovers” something, like an explorer of old who first comes into an unknown valley. Other explorers push onward, each taking knowledge a step forward. That would be “progress” in the old meaning of the word, a stately parade advancing according to plan. But in reality, after a scientist publishes a paper with a new idea or observation, other scientists usually look on it with justifiable suspicion. Many papers, perhaps...

    (pp. 205-212)
  15. NOTES
    (pp. 213-224)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 225-230)