Denis Hayes

The Eternal Summer Reading List

Here at Grist, we tend to be good at detecting extremely subtle patterns. Like, say, the way certain politicians keep trying to drill in certain areas. Or the way love letters inevitably come after we publish a striking photo that might portray Umbra Fisk. Or the number of rainy days in a row outside our Seattle office.

Lately, we've noticed a whole mess of books emerging about climate change. If the whims of publishers are any indication, this climate thing might just be real. We hereby review a few of the shiniest tomes coming out this spring -- and if our keen insights on other matters are any indication, this won't be the last of them. Stay tuned.

Weather or not

Australian scientist Tim Flannery is on a mission. His new book "The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means For Life on Earth" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), published in his home country this past fall, appears to have softened his government's longstanding skepticism about climate change. "If it has a similar effect in the U.S., I'll die a happy man," Flannery recently told an interviewer.

The renowned mammalogist and conservationist is a fine writer; he is the author of "The Future Eaters" and "The Eternal Frontier," among many other popular-science books. "The Weather Makers," released in the United States this month, translates and summarizes an enormous swath of climate research, covering dozens of disciplines and centuries of painstaking work. Flannery throws in enough asides and anecdotes to keep the science lively, but doesn't skimp on the meaty details: If you want to know why the zooxanthellae of the world are suffering, or what the acronym TRIFFID has to do with the forests of the future, this is the book for you.

Flannery opens with a primer on the general workings of the atmosphere -- "the great aerial ocean," in the words of Alfred Russel Wallace -- and the intricacies of the greenhouse effect, including a close look at when and how humanity started heating up the planet. He follows this introduction with an efficient tour of the thawing poles, the dying corals of the Great Barrier Reef, the cloud-deprived cloud forests of Costa Rica and the world's expanding deserts. He then describes the science of climate modeling -- a fearsome topic for any popular-science writer -- and expertly navigates a sea of acronyms, technicalities and frightening forecasts.

In his final chapters, Flannery sums up the solutions available to humanity. "If everyone who has the means to do so takes concerted action to rid atmospheric carbon emissions from their lives, I believe we can stabilize and then save the cryosphere," he writes. "We could save around nine out of every 10 species currently under threat, [and] limit the extent of extreme weather events so that losses of both human life and investments are a fraction of those being predicted." To accomplish this, he calls for a "linked lifeline to climate safety," with individual purchases of renewable energy by affluent consumers driving down overall costs, in turn making clean power affordable to the developing world. Only with the sustained effort of individuals and governments, he says, can we avoid what he calls "the full carbon catastrophe."

Flannery intends "The Weather Makers" to be a "manual on the use of the Earth's thermostat," and it is an extremely knowledgeable -- and sobering -- overview of our disruption of the global climate. Yet the view he provides is a somewhat distant one. Because of his broad scope, he skims across oceans and continents at breakneck speed, pausing for only a few descriptive paragraphs in any one place.

Perhaps the thing to do is to read "The Weather Makers," then get up off the couch and take a long walk outside. Global warming means something different for each of us, something very particular to our lives and our places, and it's worthwhile to ponder those varied implications. The more clearly we envision our own future, the more easily we can share Flannery's well-founded sense of urgency.

--Michelle Nijhuis

Not-so-great moments in global warming

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