Book review

Introduction to Modern Climate Change


Andrew E. Dessler

Cambridge University Press, 2011

Paperback $50

252 pp

ISBN 978–0521173155

This book presents the big climate issues, ranging from climate physics to politics, and emission scenarios to mitigation policies. From the author's credentials and the glowing reviews, I anticipated a well-written, thoroughly researched and enlightening read.

Aimed squarely at non-science undergraduate students, each chapter has a brief introduction and is liberally illustrated. Various issues are raised, including the significance of the carbon cycle and plate tectonics, the effects of abrupt climatic changes, and the significance of economics in adaptation and mitigation measures. Additionally, the author's use of analogies to clarify various concepts can be beneficial to the reader. The chapters then conclude with a useful summary, a selection of further reading sources, a list of scientific terms and some problem-solving exercises (though, strangely for a text book, I couldn't find any answers with which to check my level of understanding).

Unusually, I thought, in the Introduction the author goes to great lengths to explain why the reader should believe this book – based on the fact that, because the science on which the book is based is compiled by climate change ‘experts’ (in this case the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)), it should be wholly believable. In Chapter 2 we are even boldly instructed that there should be no question in your mind that the Earth's climate is warming.

Now, whilst I am not a climate change sceptic, we all know the ‘experts’ sometimes get it wrong, as indeed the IPCC has done at times of its own admission. But then this is the way that science progresses: by theories being proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, challenged and revised as new discoveries are made, or simply corrected when questions have been asked and mistakes have been highlighted.

So, as a questioning student reading An Introduction to Climate Change, you may not necessarily agree that ice melts reliably at 0°C, if we include sea water, or that ice sheets are so big that they will likely take centuries … to significantly respond to a change in temperature if you then read about on-going research into the possible collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. You may even challenge the very definition of ‘climate change’ itself that is referenced in this book – a change in average weather conditions over a period of several decades – when you have also read about the sudden climatic effects of El Niño events, major volcanic eruptions, or, the fortunately quite rare, major impact events.

Ironically, in some ways I feel the style and content of Andrew Dessler's book typifies the history of controversy surrounding the subject about which it is written. This is perhaps unfortunate, because I think writing a book with the explicit intention of educating and encouraging the next generation of scientists and decision-makers is wholly commendable and a very worthy cause. I just believe that we should be actively encouraged to question, not just because occasionally there may be valid reasons to doubt, but also because there is probably still a heck of a lot to discover!

Nige Emery

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