Saturday, August 31, 2013

Book Review: The Impact of Climate Change by Carolyn Fry

The Impact of Climate Change: The World's Greatest Challenge in the Twenty-first Century by Carolyn Fry

I choose this book because I wanted a science-heavy read on climate change. Don't pull any punches trying to write to the laity. Lay it on me. That, of course, is going to mean I don't understand ALL of the science laid out in the book, but it was just what I was looking for. Fry goes through the basic science of climatology then goes on to show the data that has led to the consensus on anthropogenic climate change. She, thankfully, does not spend too much time providing data to counter the skeptics/deniers. For that type, there's plenty of evidence to convince them -- they just choose to remain skeptics.

The first four chapters are excellent. The last, on personal responsibility, left me a bit indifferent. This is mainly because of how Fry uses science and scientific models. Before I get into that, it's important to say that I liked this book and highly recommend it. My issues with the last chapter are important, but should not take away from how good the first four chapters are.

In discussing the environment and past effects, the science is near certain. With each step we take outside of empirical data and into scientific models (such as attempting to predict future scenarios), the certainty decreases. Fry is careful in her use of language in these situations, but I would like it to be made even more clear. Her assertion of the near certainty that humankind has affected the environment should also be balanced with the uncertainty (I would say "skepticism" but that word is loaded with meanings when it comes to climate) of scientific models that attempt to mimic the infinity complex nature of our world.

This difference is most apparent in the last chapter which deals will ways we can, as individuals and as a society, cut back our carbon footprint. She begins the chapter pointing out how we are increasingly giving up rural living for urban living. When stated positively that's fine. But there is a normative bent to her statement that makes it sound like giving up the country for the city is a bad thing. It is not. Urban living is GOOD for the environment. This is do to the benefits of economies of scale and is best spelled out by David Owen in Green Metropolis and The Conundrum.

While Fry's nuanced scientific language in the first four chapters is accurate, her choice of words in the last chapter is problematic. At one point she says that the wealthy would "rather pay more for flights than change their travel habits." The environment IS economics and all climate scientists should be more adept at using economic language. Surely there is a price at which even wealthy people will change their travel habits. What Fry meant to say was the amount airfare increased was not enough to change their habits. At some higher point, however, it would be.

The anti-plane bias also brings about another point, influenced by Owen: which is more efficient? Fry mentions how much CO2 is added to the climate by commercial flight and then says it's better to travel by train or bus. But she provides no data to back this up. As I said initially, I wanted a science heavy book. The data I would really love to see to answer this transportation question would not be absolute CO2 emissions by industry, but rather CO2 emissions per mile per person. Surely if I'm traveling to a conference in Chicago it would be better for the environment for me to fly than to drive. Economy of scale being the main factor. So instead of thinking about miles per gallon and absolutes so much, we should begin talking about travel in the sense of mile per ton carbon or some similar factor. Doing so would not only allow us to compare air travel to car travel, but also compare gas engine car travel to electric car travel.

Although I'm critical of the last chapter, however, I highly suggest this book for those looking for a pretty tough read that includes quite a bit of science.

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