Visualization of Climate-Change Basics


The Atlas of Climate Change. Mapping the World's Greatest Challenge. Dow, K. and T. E. Downing . 2006 . Produced for the University of California Press by Myriad Editions Limited , Brighton , United Kingdom . 112 pp. $19.95 (paperback). ISBN 0-520-25023-0 .

Written in a popular style, this book is a thoroughly enjoyable read for anyone interested in getting a good foundation on global warming. The topics are comprehensive, ranging from the signs of climate change to projections for agriculture and human health and to policy issues. The book ends with a nice, succinct summary of what the average person can do to help. As its name implies, the forte of this book is its many colorful and informative maps of impacts, projections, and policies on climate change across the world. The maps alone could be used by parents to show their children what is happening and where. The style is much like a series of glossy brochures, but with far more content. On most pages, beautifully designed visuals outweigh text, which makes this an engaging and approachable overview of global warming.

Because its intended audience appears to be fairly broad—from the lay public to the educators—it is not an in-depth review of climate change and its impacts. It complements detailed syntheses found in reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and several scientific books. The detailed resources are not very accessible to the lay public, and certainly not to people without a university education. Dow and Downing were very successful in writing simple text that distills key points, making it more broadly accessible, in my opinion, than other summaries, even those such as the IPCC summaries for policy makers. Although their distillation is better than others, Dow and Downing still use too many specialized phrases, such as “radiative forcing” and “mid-latitude high pressures,” that will render some of the text portions of the book obscure to a large number of people.

The Atlas explains the meat of the main concepts underlying global warming, its impacts, and associated local and global policies. Each section occupies just 1 or 2 pages, summarizing one issue in the global warming domain and highlighting a few examples. Each issue is dominated by a large map (sometimes a chart) that illustrates how that issue plays across the different nations of the world. Examples were clearly chosen to emphasize the geographic extent of phenomena and to show the range of variation of data within any given issue. Sources are included at the very end of the book, which leaves the main text uncluttered and easy to read.

I was pleased to see that the authors made an effort to clarify which examples are generally accepted by the scientific community and which are controversial. For example, on the map of “warning signs,” they state that the numbers of intense hurricanes in the Atlantic broke records in 2005, but admit that scientists debate whether this is linked to general global warming. This level of care is extremely important for a book that is likely to be used as a reference for many people who might weigh in on policy decisions that relate to climate change (including voters).

The Atlas contains some real gems. The text on projected impacts on food security is the best summary I have read—succinct yet balanced. In just 3 paragraphs, Dow and Downing manage to convey the complexity of a shifting pattern of global agricultural production driven by climate change. Their brilliant map of projected production overlaid onto current nutritional status of nations visually explains the apparent paradox: that global agricultural production is likely to increase even as many agro-based nations that already suffer from malnutrition are likely to lose the ability to feed themselves. The section on health impacts of global warming is also notably good. The authors highlight the major health concerns (e.g., expected increases in intestinal diseases with altered rain patterns, changes in geographic ranges, and abundances of vectors), but are appropriately cautious in their wording of projected impacts. I found the “Disappearing Islands” map a very effective way to convey the impacts of rising sea levels.

A few topics fell short of the general high quality of this book. One shortcoming stems from the authors’ use of sources of data that are frequently 4–7 years older than the book itself. In most cases, this is not an issue of clarity or accuracy. Nevertheless, for data that are rapidly changing, this choice of cut-off dates alters some of the messages. For example, the maps and graphs of overall carbon emissions are spotty in their current accuracy. The map on global emissions between 1950 and 2000 shows the United States emitting 27%, with the whole of eastern Asia emitting only 11%. By 2007, however, China alone had surpassed the United States in total emissions. Although the older data do give a good picture of past culpability, they do not convey the shift in balance. An astute reader can deduce this shift from the map that follows that shows changes in emissions from 1975 to 2000, which clearly identifies China's 300% increase in emissions as a cause for alarm. Nevertheless, the casual reader may not gain an understanding of the urgent need to get China on board a global emissions–reduction agreement from these figures.

Compared with the impeccable balance on the issues of agricultural and health projections, the discussion of renewable energy presented only the pros and none of the cons. It is well documented, for example, that many of these green energies have had drastic impacts on native biodiversity, perhaps the worst of these being the mass destruction of primary rainforest in Indonesia to plant oil palms for export of biodiesel to Europe. I recognize that it is essential to continue to develop renewable energy, but implementation should consider biodiversity consequences as well as human energy needs. There are good solutions under specific circumstances, but blind, rampant conversion to alternative energies could wind up being yet another major conservation crises.

In terms of audiences, The Atlas is an excellent introduction and general reference for people involved in policy at any level (local to international) and for any lay person simply interested in being better informed. The various maps would make excellent stand-alone handouts for educators at all levels (from middle school through university). Primary and high school educators will find this a useful reference and should be able to use carefully selected excerpts as handouts for high school science courses. The visuals (maps and graphs) and accompanying text are very accessible for nonscience majors courses, whereas the text in its entirety would make good required reading for introductory courses in geology, biology, geography, and meteorology for science majors. The relatively low level of detail makes it less useful for advanced science courses and graduate-level courses, but even there, the maps and graphs would be a useful resource.