Book Review: The Last Generation by Fred Pearce (2006)

Short review

Quick romp through history of cllimate science up to 2006 with intresting annecdotes and interviews, though relatively light on the science.

Longer review

I finally got round to reading this after someone gave it to me years ago. For some reason, despite knowing it was by Fred Pearce (long time environment journalist), I thought it was a fiction book based on climate change. (Feel free to look a-hever so clever by commenting that “the book is fiction, haven’t you read Watts Up With That?” or the like.)

I think it was the cover image that did it for me – it doesn’t really look like a science book – but you know what they say about judging books by their covers…

So, here are my thoughts.

Plus points

Having studied and worked on climate science for a few years now I knew most of the content material pretty well. The fact that the book didn’t bore me says a lot about Pearce’s writing style: lots of short, well structured chapters that not only feel self contained but also flow with the overall thesis of the book.

A couple of bits that were new to me, and interesting, were the stories behind Arrhenius and Croll. I knew what they’d done but Pearce describes nicely just how unlikely their contributions were.

The El Nino chapter was also a bit of a highlight for me. I usually struggle to describe what it is and what it does but I felt that Pearce’s description was “right enough” to be a nice, simple introduction to the phenomenon. It was also the case with his nice chapter on atmospheric circulation changes in the high-latitudes. I certainly plan to borrow some of his images and ideas!

Style

The book involves a lot of short interviews with scientists to give interpretations of the topic at hand. This felt like a compromise between a full on journalistic style on the one hand and including citations to the scientific literature on the other. It gave a feel for the characters at work though. Wally Broecker didn’t seem to come out of the book too well; he sounds like quite an ego. Lonnie Thompson seems universally reveered. Overall, though, Richard Alley came across best in this format – he gives good quote and has a good grasp of the big picture. (I’d also recommend his book – The Two Mile Time Machine – which has a wonderful analogy about temperature propagation using a roast turkey.)

Not so great points

I think Pearce overplayed the “battle” between polar and tropical climatologist. I don’t really know any of the people he interviewed that gave him the impression that these two groups are in conflict but it struck me as the most “journalisty” part of the writing i.e. manufacture a conflict to keep people reading. Of course everyone thinks that their field is more important than everyone else’s but that’s only because they work on it.

The real low point was the Glossary, which was rubbish and didn’t even seem to have been proof read. This is nitpicking I guess.

Context

Books about developing fields are never going to be timeless and this book suffers a little from what was going on at the time Pearce was writing: abrupt climate change was the research theme du jour and that probably gets more coverage then it would if he wrote the book now. That said, I’m surpised that Pearce picked so many issues that are still relevant and some of the context leading up to the IPCC AR4 report was quite interesting despite being out of date.

Pearce also described his partial loss of optimism for a good solution to the climate change issue since the publication of his first book on this subject in 1989. Indeed, since 2006, the Copenhagen summit came and went without significant progress being made. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been the case if all the delegates there had read Pearce’s wonderfully clear chapter on the potential political solutions to climate change. Probably not. Perhaps I still have too much optimism!

I also got to thinking about what Pearce would change if he was writing it now. Perhaps the big development, for better or worse, since 2007 was the UEA CRU email theft/hack/leak. Since then, Pearce has gone a little off the boil (I’ve not read his latest book – expect a review in 4 years time 😉 – but his “major investigation” in The Gaurdian certainly wasn’t his best work). In the book he shows a lot respect for what Steve McIntyre was doing at the time. That’s fair enough – McIntyre’s probably the most credible of the “Skeptics”, whatever that means – but I suspect that this is the area Pearce would update first, not least because his Hockey Stick chapter seemed to contain lots of little errors. Phil Jones was also notable by his absence in the book, which is strange given his big role in the story that Pearce was telling.

Keith Briffa

One of Jones’ colleagues, though, does pop up. Briffa, a tree ring climate reconstruction guy, makes a wonderful point on page 309. Many of the “skeptic” blogs focus on a period called the Medieval Warm Period (900-1300 AD ish). As climate science has developed the MWP seems to have become less important – we know about it because it was important in Northern Europe where a lot of early climate science developed. If climate science developed somewhere else first then it probably wouldn’t have been called the “warm” period as it was not warm everywhere, although there was something going on globally so it is now more accurately referred to as the Medieval Climate Anomaly.

Anyway, one of the key “skeptic” arguments seems to be that climate scientists downplay the MWP to make current warming look more important. However, if the MWP was a bigger and more widespread positive anomaly then this means that Earth’s climate is even more sensitive than we now think to forcing changes, whether natural or not. In this respect, we should be even more worried about greenhouse gas changes as they would have an even greater impact than currently projected. That is, of course, unless you reject the Radiative Forcing literature as well as the Palaeoclimate literature. That would be risking a lot on the unevidenced assumption that there are a high concentration of innept or corrupt scientists working in the two closely related fields.

Overall…

…a nice reminder of why Pearce is one of the leading environmental journalists that we have.

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