Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Book Review: 'Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change' by Michael E. Mann and Lee R. Kump

Review by Stephen Andrew

Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change
By Michael E. Mann and Lee R. Kump
DK Publishing, $ 25.00 US or less, Available Now

We gave two opposable primate digits way up to our last review of Dire Predictions by Michael Mann and Lee Kump. Today I'm pleased to announce our first positive review of a second edition of any book. Because this is one you will want as a reference guide or a last minute stocking stuffing for that budding scientist in your life.
The authors stuck with the useful organizational format of sections, allowing readers to easily access portions of the book quickly. Very handy when arguing with the usual RWNJ climate change denier or for whipping out a high school or college undergrad book report. But the book has been updated with new data, an earlier issue has been improved, and several excellent new illustrations added to the artwork since the first edition.

One of the most enjoyable for me, and critical to Michael Mann's research such as the Hockey Stick diagram, is the sections on proxies. Dive below the Great Orange fold to see why this is important to understanding climate from the vantage point of historical and deep time.
The Earth has been around a long time. Based on radioisotope dating, about 4.53 billion years to be precise, the comical claims of Young Earth Creationists notwithstanding. Our planet has undergone massive changes in everything from biomass to the make up of the atmosphere to climate. How do scientists determine past temperatures accurately and what do those figures tell us?
That's exactly what the first parts of the book are all about. The short story is there are proxies for climate engraved in fossils written in the language of geochemistry, if you are clever enough to know where to look and how to read them. There are several proxies used in climate research and more are being developed every year. One such proxy are fossilized leaves. Plants ingest carbon dioxide (CO2). In some plants, the number of microscopic pores increase or decrease based on how much available CO2 is in the air while they lived. In some very good specimens, these tiny pores are preserved when those leaves fossilize, allowing scientists to compare and contrast the amount of CO2 that must have been present.
Taken together, the geologic records of climate and atmospheric CO2levels reveal an unexpected relationship: when carbon-dioxide levels were high, the climate was warm; when CO2 levels were low, climate was cooler. The correlation isn't perfect, and mismatches are areas of current research.
That kind of lesson lends you, the reader, a basic fluency in the jargon of climate change and proxies not easily found in other popular books. And the text is laid over a gorgeous picture of leaves with detailed breakouts in full color showing the delicate structures being referenced. This is a theme throughout the book, it is beautifully, functionally illustrated with text overlays that keep it slimmer and visually appealing all the way through.  

As before, what sets the book apart in my mind is the extraordinary scientific accuracy. Official reports, peer reviewed papers, and IPCC analysis can be an ordeal for the layman to slog through. That immense body of work is translated into a well organized overview composed of readable chunks flowing along at a brisk pace, each with just the right touch of technical detail for readers with a reasonably good understanding of basic physical science. An important feature in our short-attention span, 140-character digital new world.
But these authors aren't interested onlookers into the scientific process: they're two of the scientists who helped create a significant quantity of the original material under discussion and who understand the whole of it to a degree most of us could never fathom -- if not for their remarkable, reader-friendly effort under review today.
In fact the only mild criticism I had for the first edition was a few instances where the text vs image effect was overdone and text bled onto background colors that got a little bit confusing. In the second edition, I was unable to find a single instance of that. The two images here of polar bears with the earlier edition above left and the newer one lower right, provides a good illustration of how this was addressed in the second edition.

I'll leave the enjoyment of experiencing the art and writing to buyers of the book and conclude by noting, near the end, the authors tie past material into a dire warning and go on to make the (hopeful) case for why climate change must be addressed now.
Climate change is the greatest challenge ever faced by human society. But it is a challenge that we must confront now, for the alternative is a future that is unpalatable, and potentially unlivable. Whnile it is quite clear that inaction will have dire consequences, it is likewise certain that a concerted effort on the part of humanity to act in its own best interests has great potential to result in success.
Dr. Michael Mann serves as the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. Co-author Dr. Lee Kump is a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University and a fellow of the American Geophysical Union.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.