Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Madhouse Effect by Michael Mann and Tom Toles

This is a book every American should read, and read now. The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy sports a "Global Warming Meets Edvard Munch" cover, but that shouldn't be taken as a lack of seriousness. The book's authors - award-winning climate scientist Michael Mann and Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Tom Toles - have attempted to bring both climate science and climate denial to the forefront. Using Toles's creative genius and Mann's scientific depth, and more than a smidgen of subtle humor, the two have succeeded masterfully.

This short book is a quick read and written in a style that is accessible to everyone. In short, it's the book I planned to write but never got around to. The eight chapters are easy to breeze through, but when you reach the end you realize you've learned a lot more than you anticipated.

It begins with a chapter on how science works, a topic that it appears most of the public hasn't yet grasped. It's also an introduction of sorts to how lobbyists and hired guns intentionally distort the science (but more on that later). Mann and Toles note that science is unique in that it is "self-correcting" by its very nature. Scientists publish their research, and other scientists challenge it. If someone got something wrong, the process is designed to find that out and correct the misconception. The chapter also clarifies the idea of skepticism. Scientists are inherently skeptical; it's what makes us tick. But most of the people who claim to be skeptical when they deny the science aren't skeptical at all.

The second chapter provides some of the basics of climate science. The first paragraph puts it all in context:

"The basics of climate science are actually very simple and always have been. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat, and we are adding more CO2 to the atmosphere. The rest is details."

They then go on to explain in general terms the "Physics and Chemistry 101" of climate change, plus some of the effects such as more extremes, rising sea levels, warmer atmosphere, ocean acidification, and melting ice. The chapter ends with a discussion of tipping points, an area of both great uncertainty and grave ramification.

Chapter 3 is perhaps the most important chapter: "Why Should I give a Damn?" In it they discuss the effects of climate change on national security, food production, water supplies, energy resources, land use, human health, and ecosystem disruptions. If none of that concerns you, how about the massive negative effect on the economy resulting from not doing anything? In short, you better give a damn because this is your life being impacted, and your children's and grandchildren's lives.

The next three chapters address the actions of climate deniers. Chapter 4 outlines the six stages of denial; Chapter 5 the war on climate science (here are those lobbyists and hired gun men mentioned earlier); Chapter 6 on the hypocrisy of climate denial. These are important chapters for anyone who believes Fox News and the conspiracy/white supremacy blog Breitbart are somehow "science" while NOAA, NASA, IPCC, and WMO are "in it for the money."

Chapter 7 hits on geoengineering, the idea that somehow we can find some technological fix. In short, it's akin to trying to find ways of keeping a bathtub from overflowing by throwing in toasters or blasting the rising water with a propane torch in an effort to evaporate it. These ideas are likely to 1) not work, and 2) have unintended consequences. Of course, the alternative is to turn off the tap and pull the plug. Duh.

The book ends on a more hopeful tone, as Chapter 8 delves into a path forward. What may come as a surprise to many folks is that we've already been working to reduce carbon emissions and shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. The world, through the leadership of the Obama administration, has taken significant steps toward righting the ship. More needs to occur.

Throughout the book are the cartoons of Tom Toles. Toles has an exceptional knack for taking the key points and boiling them down into an easily understood comic drawing. The cartoons heighten the value of the book tremendously. And don't miss the teeny toons in the bottom right corner of every cartoon; they too exquisitely capture the important moments.

This book is especially important given that the apparent incoming administration (this review was published on 12/15/16, a month or so after the 2016 election) has said it will make Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil and a long-time funder of climate denial front groups, as the next Secretary of State.

So read this book. It reads fast. It provides excellent information. And it is necessary for all Americans to understand what we are up against.

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