Business, Finance & Economics

The science of climate change, for public consumption


Shortly after moviegoers watched images of New York City fall to what can only be described as flash glaciation in the movie "The Day After Tomorrow," a group of climate scientists launched a blog called RealClimate.

The blog’s founders were shocked not so much by the 2004 film’s completely unrealistic depiction of catastrophic climate change as by their colleagues’ response to it: silence.

“It could have been a great teaching moment,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and one of the founders of RealClimate.

For Schmidt, the editor of a new book about the science of climate change, it was a wake-up call. When scientists confined their debate to academic journals, he realized, they turned over the public sphere to those who either knew little about the intricacies of the earth’s climate or, worse yet, actually intended to spread misinformation.

“By conceding that playing field I think we collectively let the science down,” Schmidt said.

 Since then, RealClimate has become one of the most important voices on the science of climate change. In a typical month it offers a mix of technical explanations, discussions of journal articles and media commentary — all the while exploring the interaction between the scientific and public discourse.

“If a reading of the published scientific literature paints such a frightening picture of the future … are we being too provocative in the way we write our scientific papers?” writes Eric Steig, a geochemist at the University of Washington, in a typical book review on the site. “Or are we being too cautious in the way we talk about the implications of the results?”

But if RealClimate is a response to the failings of the public discourse, Schmidt’s new project might be described as a reaction to the limitations of his blog — its focus on what’s in the news today.

“The bit on which everybody agrees, which is a huge majority of the information, gets 1 percent of the coverage,” Schmidt said. “But the stuff that’s more controversial, the stuff that might disappear very quickly, gets 90 percent of the coverage.”

The new book, "Climate Change: Picturing the Science," edited by Schmidt and the photographer Joshua Wolfe, attempts to redress that balance and provide an overview of the science as it is known to date for readers who are interested in the subject, but haven’t had the opportunity to delve into an overview.

“This is stuff that wasn’t in the textbooks 30 years ago,” Schmidt said.

Regular readers of RealClimate won’t be surprised that Schmidt opens the book with the basics: a discussion of the scientific method and the role of scientists in public debate.

The politicization of science in a subject like climate change, he says, can be a problem. But it also offers scientists “an open door to the public and a chance to demonstrate why [they] have come to the conclusions that they have.”

The books’ governing analogy is medical. Its chapters — written by contributing scientists — are grouped under the titles Symptoms, Diagnosis and Possible Cures.

Chapters range from surveys of the world’s rising temperature to discussions of climate models and lists of possible solutions.

But while the book consciously avoids advocating for a prescription, it ultimately makes the case that something must be done.

After all, argues Schmidt, quoting the Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland, “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true.”

"Climate Change: Picturing the Science" by Gavin Schmidt and Joshua Wolfe was published in April 2009 by W.W. Norton & Co. 320 pages. $24.95.