The climate of Earth is changing—indisputably, incontestably, incontrovertibly—though there are many who argue the proposition all the same. Against them comes Richard Alley’s Earth: The Operator's Manual, a companion volume to the PBS series of the same name, in which the professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University offers a user-friendly distillation of the vast body of science surrounding climate change and how we cope with it, willingly or not.
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This book offers lots of evidence for climate change. For readers in a hurry, what’s the single most compelling argument?
The mass of evidence. Pick one glacier, one thermometer, one data set, and you might find many ways to explain its changes. But look at all the thermometers, or just the thermometers outside of cities, or in the ground, or in the ocean, or looking down from space, as analyzed by NOAA or NASA or other groups, and you get the same answer from all of them—which agrees with the glaciers and the plants and the animals and more.
Of all the data that you present in your book, does anything lend itself to being, well, open to interpretation by skeptics and doubters?
We live with weather that is wonderfully variable. And with enough variability, enough complexity, people who want to argue can always find new material. You know how this works if you have ever discussed the outcome of a big game with someone who is sure that their team would have won if only the referee hadn’t made those bad calls, and the other team hadn’t been pushing, and the crowd hadn’t been throwing things, and the field hadn’t been so slippery...
A story in The Economist suggested that changing the term from “global warming” to “climate change” would generate less opposition.
The Economist is probably right. Climate has always changed, so “climate change” is not especially threatening. But people may not feel threatened by “climate change” because they don’t see implications for their future. If our use of fossil fuels continues to grow as it has over recent decades, we will be pushing the climate very hard compared to most natural changes, at a time when almost 7 billion of us depend on things that were built for the climate we have. We are turning up the globe’s thermostat, so “global warming” seems more apt, even if some people don’t like the implications.
Who benefits from dismissing the fact of climate change?
All of us might feel better if we didn’t need to worry about climate change. Beyond that, any bloggers or other communicators who are paid to dismiss climate change may benefit from doing so. I suspect that most of the concern comes from people whose jobs or investments are most directly linked to getting and using fossil fuels, and who fear that accepting the reality of climate change will lead to policies that shift us away from use of fossil fuels. Even if alternative energy sources produce more jobs than fossil fuels, as seems likely, the people who will get the new jobs may not know who they are, whereas the people worried about losing their jobs do know who they are. This is not a new problem: when European cities installed sewers for human waste, Joe the Night-Soil Hauler lost his job and probably wasn’t too happy about it, even though new careers opened up in plumbing and civil engineering.
How do you want readers to come away from your book? Alarmed? Gloomy? Optimistic?
Optimistic. We can reach a sustainable future with more jobs, a better economy, increased national security, and less pollution, without firing coal miners and oil-field workers.
Assuming that you and we survive the superstorms, intense extremes of weather, and famines that climate change will bring: What’s your next book going to be?
I don’t know. Maybe something about glaciers and ice sheets—I’ve spent more than 30 enjoyable years trying to understand them, and I hope I’m gaining!