Climate Change Starter Books

Climate change can be a daunting topic, particularly if you have a limited science background. Several introductory books on the topic help fill the void. I’d like to review two I’ve read recently.

The first is Orrin and Keith Pilkey’s Global Climate Change: A PrimerPilkey, an accomplished earth scientist, writes in a relatively straightforward style tuned for readers with minimal science backgrounds. The “primer” in the title means just that: the book covers the topic completely in layman’s terms, using little scientific terminology. The book makes sparse use of tables and graphs; you mostly have to accept what the Pilkey’s state as the scientific consensus — which is true. The book supplies some backup sources, but not as much as I’d like. The artwork by Mary Edna Fraser is lovely but somewhat abstract. If you have no background in science, this book may be a good place to start. My only real beef is when the Pilkeys write about climate change denialism. While it’s important to rebut climate change denialists, the writing takes an extremely defensive tone, which may put some people off.

My only real beef is when the Pilkeys write about climate change denialism. While it’s important to rebut climate change denialists, the writing takes an extremely defensive tone, which may put some readers off, particularly if they lack knowledge of the topic, but lean towards the denial side.

The second book, Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change, is authored by Michael E. Mann (of the global warming “hockey stick” fame) and Lee R. Kump. Mann’s background includes both geophysics and climatology, and he heads the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State. The book itself, published by DK, receives the publishers usual lavish graphic design treatment, which makes the relatively complex material much more readable than a wall of text. Each page usually contains a discrete chunk of information, illustrated with graphs and charts. Each section ramps up complexity gradually, as does the book as a whole. If you have any science background at all, it’s a highly digestible work.

One aspect of breaking up the topic matter into small chunks is how you can read it in small chunks. Unlike similar texts, you don’t need to allocate an hour or two for a single chapter. Instead, you can read a few pages and glean key information nuggets, which build up into subsequent sections. I particularly like the way the book approaches topics which are often targeted by climate change critics. Instead of defensively responding, a section might ask a question which highlights a potential critique, then describe how the conclusions were reached. I also like the way Mann and Kump don’t avoid scientific disagreements, instead highlighting them as normal science at work.

Dire Predictions makes heavy use of charts, graphs, photos, and other data-heavy elements, but the graphic design of the text and straightforward writing makes all this data much more approachable. The book also poses issues as questions, then answering with data, on topics which readers may have seen in other contexts. One good example is how the snows of Kilimanjaro, made famous by Hemingway, have been diminishing over the years. Note both the use of comparison photos shot over many years and the accompanying infographic.

Of the two books, I found Dire Predictions much more useful. Although I have a graduate degree in chemistry, my science chops have become a little rusty after decades of writing about high technology. I re-learned a lot of stuff I’d forgotten, and learned something new. I also appreciated the use of data and description of technique to back up the subject matter. At the same time, the book remains approachable for a more lay audience willing to put a little time and effort into reading. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

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