Learning from climates past

Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat — and How to Counter It

Hill and Wang: 2008. 272 pp. $25 080904501X 9780809045013 | ISBN: 0-809-04501-X

As we are alerted to the perils of climate change, we need a long-term perspective to understand the capabilities of Earth's climate. Looking to the past can help us evaluate the risks and judge the best way to manage them.

Fixing Climate gives a personal account of scientific endeavours to understand past, present and future climate change. Geoscientist Wallace Broecker at the Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, New York, has teamed up with journalist Robert Kunzig to argue that the current crisis is urgent but not insurmountable, requiring technological development and political leadership. The authors use the analogy that dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is akin to the sewage problem faced in the nineteenth century, an issue that also invited vehement debate at the time.

Few scientists have been as active in their work and outreach as Broecker. Starting with his upbringing and early career, Broecker explains what inspired him and outlines his tremendous contributions to climate science. Describing in an accessible way how Earth's climate system worked in the past, Broecker and Kunzig look at future climate predictions and the technological developments that may help to scrub the air clean.

Along the way, we meet some extraordinary characters. In 1896, the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius proposed that a doubling of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would drive global temperatures up by nearly 6 °C — close to the predictions made by today's climate models. Arrhenius did not foresee how quickly we would pump greenhouse gases into the air and took a benign (if naive) view of climate-change effects: “Our descendants, albeit after many generations, might live under a milder sky and in less barren natural surroundings than is our lot at present.”

The broad topical coverage of Fixing Climate is admirable, yet there is a strong US emphasis. Climate-change adaptation and mitigation are not easily covered in a single popular text, as the authors admit. The book describes promising developments for stripping the air of excess carbon dioxide, but other avenues are less thoroughly explored. Little is made of the underlying problem that we are hooked on a high-energy lifestyle. Sustainable energy sources are underplayed despite the recent advances made, for example, with biofuels produced from algae and thin-film solar-power cells that are cutting the cost of these technologies.

There are some intriguing omissions from the book, notably the idea that humans may have influenced the climate for longer than we thought. In 2003, William Ruddiman of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, proposed that more than 8,000 years of agriculture have raised atmospheric greenhouse-gas levels, warming the atmosphere by some 0.8 °C. This work is not discussed, even though it supports the underlying thesis of Fixing Climate that the past is the key to the future.

The book is a call to arms for us to take responsibility for our fossil-fuel dependency. The climate has changed; now let's fix this open sewer of the twenty-first century.

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Turney, C. Learning from climates past. Nature 453, 158 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/453158a

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