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The Discovery of Global Warming: Revised and Expanded Edition Paperback – Nov 30 2008
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Charting the evolution and confirmation of the theory [of global warming], Weart dissects the interwoven threads of research and reveals the political and societal subtexts that colored scientists’ views and the public reception their work received. (Andrew C. Revkin New York Times Book Review)
About the Author
Spencer R. Weart is Director Emeritus of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics.
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Top Customer Reviews
The Discovery of Global Warming, by Spencer Weart, had all of these qualities and more: It contained as much information as a textbook, even if it didn't read like one. That, I think, is the benefit of science history. It can be written in a way that is compelling as fiction, but it's all true.
I think I will place this book near the top of my list of resources for concerned citizens who are looking for more information on climate change. It is so helpful because, instead of saying 'scientists are confident that humans are causing the Earth to warm', it traces back through history and follows this discovery all the way through, from Fourier to the AR4. We see the top of the credibility spectrum in action, and examine exactly where the conclusions of the scientific community came from.
There are lots of great details in this book to sink your teeth into. How did the Cold War pave the way for much of our knowledge about the atmosphere? Why does chaos theory apply to weather models much more than climate models? And, of course, my very favourite ' the 1970s aerosol debate. How did scientists realize that the warming force of greenhouse gases would overpower the cooling force of aerosols, long before the warming was actually observed?
All of this is written in an incredibly elegant and engaging tone.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I'm a scientist, and I use this book in a course that teaches different approaches to complex problems. Climate science is one heck of a complex problem, and the history of its science presents a fascinating introduction to how interdisciplinarity is necessary in some cases. Most of my students, many of whom are science phobic, enjoy the book and find it eye opening.
Pros: Really well written, accessible, easy to follow, and tells a fascinating history.
Cons: It may be a little dry to someone not that interested in science.
Bottom line: great intro to climate change science history.
Notwithstanding such difficulties, the process moved forward and the result was a resulting portrait of vast, chaotic weather systems that over time yielded an understanding of climate chance on Earth. He author insists that through concerted efforts over more than 150 years scientists came to a consensus that a number of human interventions, including the burning of carbon fuels and the use of aerosols, have created the current situation and some among them have been clamoring for a public policy response since the 1980s.
This only came about because of a long process of incremental research rather than through dramatic discovery. Weart quotes one climate scientist involved in this process as characterizing climate science as a "capricious beast" and "we were poking it with a sharp stick" (p. 141). It was much harder to understand and more wily than they first realized. He also pursues the standard historian objecting of seeking "to help the reader understand our predicament by explaining how we got here," rather than seeking to mobilize readers to a specific position (p. viii).
While not seeking to enter the political process, Weart reflected in his work the consensus of the scientific community seeking to understand this phenomenon. This is a superb study of the history of scientific inquiry and understanding written by an outstanding historian in a highly engaging style.
The Discovery of Global Warming is a well-written, concise history of the science of climate change and the resulting discovery of global warming. From Arrhenius in 1896 breaking with the assumption of an unchanging Earth climate through to the politics of the Kyoto accords and New York Times headlines, Spencer Weart's book traces how science, often esoteric science, combines and builds a consistent overall view. Climate can and does change, and not merely over geological time scales but over the scale of a human lifetime. Understanding both the data and the models required to connect the data with natural processes has not been easy. The subtlety of data from ice cores, lakebeds, stratospheric winds, and local weather stations ultimately yields the punch line of "global warming" but it's the chase, not the capture, that is the heart of this book.
This chase has turned out to have far more twists, turns, and blind alleys than most would have guessed at the time. What controls the climate? Is it the variation of the Sun, as noted by Herschel in the eighteenth century? Is it the stability of the cold deep waters of the ocean? Or the transformation of old growth forests to grazing land? Greenhouse gases trapped in tropical forests? Or hidden away in blue-green algae? And what of the petrochemical haze of Los Angeles and the killing fog of London? What is a symptom and what is a cause? And further, what do the symptoms truly imply?
It might be glib to talk today about the good that might come of global warming--perhaps my Minneapolis winters won't be quite as harsh--but that is just one more lesson that we have learned, or are learning. Advances in modeling and in analyzing the data proceeded hand-in-hand. Atmospheric CO2 measurements (the "poster child" for global warming is the graph of Keeling's Mauna Loa CO2 measurements, see [...] could be explained by sufficiently complex simulations, but those computer models had to incorporate atmospheric methane, deal with the changing solar illumination, correct for the aerosols from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, and be written by increasing large and sophisticated (and better funded) groups of scientists.
Combining information from disparate fields such as meteorology, vulcanology, atmospheric chemistry, and planetary science made the discovery of global warming difficult, and probably also prevented the history of the discovery from culminating in one single, glorious epiphany. Instead we find the gradual accumulation of knowledge and understanding with the occasional misstep or red herring, and with the background of political reluctance to act. There is no Moses, and no Newton, in this tale. Instead we have a succession of interesting characters, for instance Ed Lorenz and his butterfly wings, Nick Shackleton's million-year old deep-sea core, and Spencer Weart pulling it all together onto the page for you.
Weart, the director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, has also made sure that the book will not quickly become out of date by producing a set of web pages (see top of article), which both go into additional depth and allow for updated information to be added. In fact, the web "book" adds many more layers, including technical ones, to the paper book. The online text is searchable and very well referenced through bibliographies sorted by both author and by year. The contrast between the two works, and the two media, is considerable. The 200-page (plus chronology and notes) book that I read on a couple of domestic airplane flights is a beautifully written, smooth narrative while the web pages have had me jumping around, following interesting leads, for several evenings in my office. It's hard to think of a pairing of book and web material that more clearly illustrates the relative advantages of the two media. Although the book is readable on its own, I suspect that the Physics and Society readership will feel the need to track at least a few of the historical or scientific developments through the web pages.
As physicists, the details of the history of climate change studies are likely to be as interesting as the broad storyline. These details, which make The Discovery of Global Warming a wonderful exercise in the "how science is actually done" school of the philosophy of science, also make for entertaining reading. The pumping of greenhouses gases into the atmosphere is, after all, a very human story and one whose importance will only grow with time.
Michael DuVernois, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Minnesota
One of the more interesting aspects Weart brings out is how early items such as soot, water vapor, climate cycles, sun spots, etc. were recognized as contributing elements and addressed.
CS began as an attempt to explain the ice ages, but early on CO2 was identified as a wild card that may affect the earth's climate. Weart identifies the various players in the early science, and the contributions of each.
CS picked up in the 1950's as a scientific field, and Weart covers this very well. It is interesting to learn that so much of CS was due to military research on climate and weather, stemming from the WWII experiences, and an appreciation of how a better understanding of how weather works could help shipping and possible military operations. Early attempts at climate modeling are covered, along with the struggle to determine causes of differing weather effects, and which agents would have a greater effect over the long term.
Overall, Weart covers CS from it's inception to the present, describing the major players, how the science evolved, how it became international in scope, and a broad look at political reaction. This is a good history that will inform on how climate science has developed. This book does not concentrate at all on the deniers, and the efforts by industry and some politicians, think tanks, etc. to subvert the consensus on global warming. Descriptions of the science are necessarily broad, this is not a technical manual on how the science works. If you want a book that will cover the overall arc of CS, from the beginning glimmers of an idea to the present, this is a well worthwhile acquisition.
Excerpt from review by Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times Sunday Book Review, 10/5/2003:
"Debate persists over the extent of human-driven warming and what to do about it. But recognition that in a short span our species has nudged the thermostat of the planet remains a momentous, and sobering, finding. "The Discovery of Global Warming" describes the intellectual journey toward that conclusion, with all of its false starts, flawed hypotheses, inventiveness and persistent uncertainties. It reveals the effort as one of the great exercises in collective sleuthing, with pivotal insights provided by experts in fields as varied as glaciology, physics and even plankton paleontology."
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