Review: The Global Warming Reader, edited and introduced by Bill McKibben

September 26, 2011

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedThe Global Warming Reader
Edited and introduced by Bill McKibben
424 pp. OR Books – Sept. 2011. $22.00.

With his much-touted list of prominent scientists who dispute global warming, Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) is a leading voice in climate skepticism. Yet some diligent sleuths, as well as other scientists, have uncovered awkward facts about his list (now in its fourth year and third iteration). First, Inhofe has received at least a million dollars in campaign contributions from big oil and gas; and to take the original list as an example, 84 of his 400 skeptics likewise have industry ties. Equally awkward are these people’s questionable credentials: 44 are TV weathercasters, 20 economists and 70 simply experts in nothing germane to climatology. Worst of all, increasing numbers of Inhofe’s skeptics have turned out to be climate change believers, and despite repeatedly trying to dissociate themselves from the list and asking to be removed from it, remain on it anyway.*

Just as the scientific consensus on climate change is well-established, so too the reasons for the denial are clear. Our civilization runs on the fuels causing climate change, so there are many vested interests that will do their utmost to suppress information about these fuels’ harmful effects. Deniers may relish the chance to attack the scruples of climate scientists in the wake of ClimateGate (never mind that these scientists were subsequently cleared of any unscrupulousness), but the example of Senator Inhofe and many others show that the deniers have committed their own share of fraud. They also represent a tiny minority view that has been granted grossly disproportionate airtime, receive their funding from oil companies and keep repeating the same old arguments in broken-record style.

Author Bill McKibben is a foremost authority on climate change and the machinations of those who so vehemently refute it. His latest book, The Global Warming Reader, is a well-chosen and arranged collection of climate-related writings by the likes of James Hansen, Al Gore and George Monbiot, which McKibben edits and introduces. Significantly, the book contains writings by Inhofe and his ilk as well, the better to understand “the lines of attack climate deniers have used over and over,” in McKibben’s words.

McKibben is as engaging an editor as he is a writer, and despite its hefty size The Global Warming Reader zips by as quickly as a thriller by—well, by the late Michael Crichton, who appears in it as well. (McKibben excerpts a scene from Crichton’s 2004 novel State of Fear, which is veiled propaganda for dismissing climate science.) Part one goes the fastest, with its brief but telling selections from the scientific literature. It begins with an 1896 article by Svante Arrhenius, who first made the fossil fuel burning-atmospheric warming connection. Arrhenius predicted an ultimate temperature increase of five or six degrees Celsius, which McKibben notes is consistent with projections by today’s supercomputers.

Since the debate over global warming’s reality and anthropogenic nature dominates its politics, McKibben goes to great lengths to show how unfounded the debate is. He cites a study from the December 2004 issue of Science that examined 928 recent scientific papers on human-caused climate change and found that none of them questioned its reality. Al Gore also referenced this study in An Inconvenient Truth: it was the linchpin in his argument that the perception of disagreement among experts is pure fabrication by oil interests. However, because a documentary can cover only so much ground, Gore wasn’t able to get into the sordid details of these propaganda campaigns. But this book does, with some fine investigative reporting by veteran journalist Ross Gelbspan.

Gelbspan’s piece, titled “The Battle for Control of Reality,” appeared in 1998 and uncovered how oil companies were spending undisclosed millions to sway opinion on global warming. Their strategy was to fund research by the half-dozen or so skeptics, buy the media access needed to give these individuals prominent airtime under the pretext of balanced journalism, quote legitimate climatologists out of context and cunningly exploit the truism that there’s no absolute certainty in science. A report by Western Fuels explained with remarkable candor that “scientists were found who are skeptical about much of what seemed generally accepted about the potential for climate change.” One short-lived campaign, involving the creation of something called The Information Council on the Environment (ICE), caused embarrassment for all involved when its chicanery was publicly revealed. On the whole, however, these campaigns obviously haven’t been flops.

In addition to its exposé of skeptics, this book also offers a snapshot of recent developments in climate science. One of these, having to do with the role of the oceans, is ironic. Climate change is fundamentally about heat becoming trapped in the atmosphere, but it turns out that oceans may be a bigger driver than previously thought. Water has a high thermal inertia, meaning that it heats up more slowly than the air or land. And the growing temperature disparity between the sea and air seems to be driving much of the recent freakish weather. The oceans’ thermal inertia also means that atmospheric temperature will rise well beyond 2100 even if CO2 concentrations are stabilized by then, because it will take many decades for an equilibrium temperature to be reached between the air and the sea.

Two other worrying topics related to the oceans are seawater acidification and a potential breakdown in the thermohaline circulation, which currently keeps northern Europe from freezing. Seawater acidification threatens to eradicate entire ecosystems by dissolving the skeletal structures of coral. Biologist Thomas Lovejoy is aptly but chillingly quoted as calling its effects like “running the course of evolution in reverse.” Research shows that almost half of all human-caused CO2 emissions have been absorbed into the sea, with the result that the naturally alkaline oceans are now a staggering thirty percent less so. As for the possibility of a thermohaline collapse, it remains an uncertain but nonetheless apocalyptic scenario.

No book on climate change could neglect China, and this book paints a vivid portrait of the country’s breakneck, coal-fueled growth, its environmental crisis and the social and political forces that put it on a collision course with the developed world over remaining fossil fuel resources. Indeed, one Chinese energy expert is quoted as saying that “after many decades of turbulence, civil war, revolution, political instability, and other difficulties, we finally have the chance to develop the country again. And we will not lose that chance.”

There may be nothing so important, albeit uncomfortable, in this book as its indictment of the affluent West. The West contributes the vast majority of humans’ total climate impact and foists some of its direst consequences (such as drought, crop failures and flooding) on a destitute, beleaguered third world. As George Monbiot observes in a penetrating essay toward the book’s end, there’s a much stronger correlation between global warming and wealth than there is between global warming and population.

Bill McKibben’s career as a climate change author and activist began in 1989 with his first book, The End of Nature. That book’s premise is that nature as we once knew it no longer exists. Decades of human impacts, of which climate change is the outstanding exponent, have eliminated any spot on Earth where one can still find solace from humans’ touch. Since his first book’s release, McKibben has written more than a dozen others and founded, a campaign to reduce atmospheric CO2 from 390 parts per million (ppm) to the safe upper limit of 350 ppm. He’s arguably the most formidable voice in the climate debate, and he’s doubtless the most fitting editor for The Global Warming Reader.

Yet in all frankness, it’s hard to see how catastrophe can still be averted. Developed economies must grow, and their growth produces more climate-changing emissions. Moreover, the destabilization may already be well beyond a point of no return, even if we were to somehow magically do away with the need for economic growth tomorrow. Nor can oil companies be blamed entirely for our inaction. They may have done their level best to trick us, but as McKibben often points out, we were trickable: we all wanted to believe their lies rather than the inconvenient truth. We collectively made the bed in which we lie.

* U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, “Over 400 Prominent Scientists Disputed Man-Made Global Warming Claims in 2007,” Dec. 20, 2007,> (accessed Sept. 10, 2011); CSR Summary of Federal Election Commission Data, “Top Industries – Senator James M. Inhofe 2005 – 2010” (Washington: Center for Responsive Politics, Aug. 9, 2009),… (accessed Sept. 10, 2011); Mark V. Johnson, “Inhofe’s 400 Global Warming Deniers Debunked,” The Daily Green, Jan. 11, 2008,… (accessed Sept. 10, 2011); Johnson, “Who’s Who on Inhofe’s List of 400 Global Warming Deniers,” Daily Green, Jan. 11, 2008,… (accessed Sept. 10, 2011); Andrew Dessler, “The ‘Inhofe 400’: Busting the ‘consensus busters,'” Grist, Dec. 27, 2007,… (accessed Sept. 10, 2011).

Frank Kaminski is an ardent Seattle peak oiler, a connoisseur of post-oil novels and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. Email him at frank.kaminski AT; visit his site here.

Frank Kaminski

Frank Kaminski is an ardent reader and reviewer of books related to natural resource depletion, climate change and other issues affecting the fate of industrial civilization. He lives in southwestern Washington state near the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  

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