Monday, December 7, 2009

Book Review – Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate by Stephen H. Schneider

Read this book. Seriously. Read it. Those who are familiar with the IPCC and with the climate change discussions will have heard of Stephen H. Schneider. Not only did he receive the collective 2007 Nobel Peace Prize as a member of the IPCC (along with Al Gore), Schneider has played an important and often pivotal role in the development of the science over the last four decades. He has also been the focus of much of the climate denialist attacks.

In Science as a Contact Sport, Schneider gives us a reasoned, informative and insightful look into both the history of climate change science and the inner workings of the IPCC process in developing the first four Assessment Reports. Essentially this is a memoir, and through his personal experiences from the center of the scientific debate Schneider opens a window into how the scientific consensus was developed over more than forty years of focused research, as well as glimpses into the initial discovery of the role of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in causing a warming of the earth.

In a writing style that mirrors his real-life tendency of being both in-your-face and humorous, his use of anecdote and metaphor are instrumental in getting the point across and tunneling into the real issues. Climate deniers, as he calls them, have used his earlier work on the cooling of the atmosphere due to aerosol releases to suggest that he is a scientist for any temperature. This is just one example of the way denialists misrepresent his work and the work of others to push their free market agendas. He addresses some of these willful distortions in chapters on how the companies who are most affected by possible policy options “heat up” the debate and in a chapter called “Media Wars: The Stories Behind Persistent Distortion.” He coins the term “mediarology” to define how difficult it is to communicate honestly complex science through the media. And he talks about other tactics used to distort the discussion, where the deniers goal isn’t to inform the truth but to be victorious (defined as “delaying” action). Schneider notes that even though such obvious denier fraud as the “Great Global Warming Swindle,” which was thoroughly debunked as garbage at the time it was released (hundreds of errors and a willful attempt to mislead), is still used by denialists to “support” their charade.

But the main benefit of the book is the “history-in-the-making” aspect of the process. From the inside Schneider relates how scientists first came to suspect that the world was getting warmer, the investigations that were undertaken, the honest disagreements between scientists as they tried to understand what they were observing, how increasing technological and computing capability from the 1970s through the present day allowed greater and more accurate modeling, and how the IPCC process works to develop a consensus. This last part is particularly revealing, as the IPCC insists that there be 100% consensus on the final work product. All parties argue for days to come up with just the right wording, and since the IPCC consists of representatives from the governments of all parts of the world, there were many cases where countries like Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia pushed for more moderate language than the scientists felt was warranted by their review of the scientific literature. The result is two-fold. First, that no one can claim their views went unheard. And second, the final conclusions in the IPCC reports are clearly much more moderated than the science would have predicted. In other words, the IPCC reports are more likely to be underestimating the problem rather than overestimating it. Having followed the process in Schneider’s book, it is easy to see why more recent science tends to show the problem is getting worse, faster than the IPCC predicted.

I recommend this book to everyone looking to get an insider’s view of the history and process of the development of our understanding of climate change.

Other science book reviews.

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