April 25, 2013

The Discovery of Global Warming

The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer R. Weart (Harvard University Press, 2003)

The Discovery of Global Warming (2003) takes a historical perspective in presenting the global warming theory. First proposed in 1896, the idea of a warming atmosphere gradually evolved from a crude speculation to a generally accepted scientific possibility and lately to a controversial and significant international political issue. In between were protracted discussions, consensus building efforts, and compromises among climate scientists.

The book systematically teases out the emergence of global warming and climate change and the revolutionary shift in scientific thinking that these made to bear on scientists. Knowledge about the subject has been greatly extended by debates among competing hypotheses and evidences. The ingenuity of scientists was only matched by the technological advances and their greater cooperation. It is notable how one scientific issue became an avenue for the collaboration of scientists from such diverse fields as oceanography, meteorology, biology, geochemistry and geophysics. Who would have thought that the clues to understanding the climate of the earth are hidden in the ice cores, in the drilled columns from deep ocean, and in coral reefs and tree rings?

The book presents a lively narrative of bickering scientists. It is full of momentous scientific incidents and discovery and wide historical analyses and perspectives. It sustains an enthusiasm in a subject that is gaining more and more import as new researches and global computer models give uncomfortable predictions about the future of humankind. Even as the book discusses complex concepts from seemingly disparate but actually well connected scientific disciplines, it successfully lays down the historical basis for climate change and makes convincing arguments for the present peoples to act on the issue at hand.

In the middle of the book, the author Spencer R. Weart of the American Institute of Physics made a good observation about the lack of significant imaginative works on the subject.

The world's image makers had failed to give the public a vivid picture of what climate change might truly mean. There was nothing like the response to the threat of nuclear war in earlier decades, when first-class novels and movies had commanded everyone's attention. Global warming featured in a bare handful of science fiction paperbacks and shoddy movies, where scientifically dubious monster storms or radical sea-level rise served as a background for hackneyed action plots. The general public was never offered convincing and humanized tales of travails that might realistically beset us: the squalid ruin of the world's mountain meadows and coral reefs, the mounting impoverishment due to crop failures, the invasions of tropical diseases, the press of millions of refugees from drowned coastal regions.

Indeed, despite the increased awareness about the phenomenon of global warming and climate change, their scientific basis has failed to colonize the imagination of many writers of fiction. The disaster movies generated by Hollywood are populated by characters wallowing in their shallowness and who were so overwhelmed by noise and special effects around them that the disaster itself seemed to consume them, the whole film, and the hapless audience. After watching these movies I always leave the theater in low spirits, as if my very humanity was violated by nature.

Decent fiction and films about global warming and climate change must be rare because the science behind them can be complex and technical. Too many natural variables are involved: wind, currents, ice sheets, clouds, aerosols, emissions, deforestation, etc. And it is hard to imagine what really is happening as the warming process is taking place far above us, in a blanket of gases surrounding the earth. Carbon dioxide from a variety of human and industrial sources is steadily accumulating in the atmosphere, trapping heat along with other greenhouse gases. In recent decades, the greenhouse effect is pulling up and up the global average temperature, with each decade breaking the previous one's hottest record.

A sure way to effectively dramatize the subject is to humanize it: to depict the adverse impacts of climate change to human society. But the drama, though loud in films, seems muted in fiction. The subject seems to naturally resist storytelling techniques. The subject matter simply upsets our conception of a perfect world order. Weart is spot on when he acknowledges that the theory on global warming subverts the deeply-ingrained cultural/religious worldview of many of us. Even early scientists, along with the skeptics of today, resist the idea that something seemingly benign and invisible can overhaul the balance of the natural world. The idea just runs counter to our ideal sense of a self-regulating world.

In this view, the way cloudiness rose or fell to stabilize temperature, or the way the oceans maintained a fixed level of gases in the atmosphere, were examples of a universal principle: the Balance of Nature. Hardly anyone imagined that human actions, so puny among the vast natural powers, could upset the balance that governed the planet as a whole. This view of Nature—suprahuman, benevolent, and inherently stable—lay deep in most human cultures. It was traditionally tied up with a religious faith in the God-given order of the universe, a flawless and imperturbable harmony. Such was the public belief, and scientists are members of the public, sharing most of the assumptions of their culture. Once scientists found plausible arguments explaining that the atmosphere and climate would remain unchanged within a human timescale—just as everyone expected—they stopped looking for possible counter-arguments.

Focusing on adverse natural, social, economic, and political impacts of global warming seems to be the default solution to the failure of literary imagination. But still, it will be hard to assign the roles of hero and villain in na increasingly hot world where highly industrialized nations are not ready to curb their parasitic dependence on energy. Plus, there's also the danger for the writer of being labeled an alarmist, if not a doomsday prophet or a madman. He will have to skirt the sentimental traps of the material.

I hope to see a reading list of novels on the subject. The closest books I have read about it are Frank Herbert's Dune trilogy, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and Kristine Ong Muslim's poetry chapbook Night Fish.
Inter Ice Age 4 (1959) by Abé Kobo, about the melting of polar ice caps, sounds like a good one. The novel Bundu by Chris Barnard, about threats of famine and drought in a South African society, has been shortlisted in this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It, however, received mixed reviews from my favorite blogs (see the IFFP Shadow Panel's take: Winstonsdad's Blog, The Parrish Lantern, Tony's Reading List). I would like to think that the judges recognized the importance of the book's topic.

A quick Google search yields many promising fiction titles on climate change (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here). So, there are novels being written about the subject. But are these works good enough to give justice to the subject? Which ones are most likely lasting contributions to the emerging genre? Must investigate further.

What I'd like to see in these books is how characters cope with and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Given the inherent uncertainties about what exact effects climate change have in store for us, I'd like to see how writers balance the unequivocal warming of the climate system with the speculative nature of the subject. I'd like to see how fiction will be used to explore the scientific ideas while at the same remaining sensitive to human struggles. In short, I'd like to see fiction itself as a strategy for dealing with the issues of climate change.

A specter is haunting the Earth's atmosphere. Scientists have risen to the challenge and are able to explain most of the uncertainties behind human-induced global warming and the prospects for the future. Yet it remains a challenge to producers of literary fiction and popular films to come up with serious works about the subject, works that will galvanize readers and give them hope.


  1. That's an interesting point, the failure of fiction to humanize global warming for the public. Perhaps it's also because large segments continue to doubt the truth of global warming. Nuclear war seemed more immediate, perhaps, because of Iroshima and Nagasaki. But the effects of global warming are slower and usually unseen in society. Plus, altough politicians can't make people believe nuclear devastation isn't possible, because Iroshima shows it is, vested interests continue to belittle the consequences of global warming.

  2. I think though that the global warming theory will be generally accepted soon enough, when the predictions of scientists start to come true. There will always be doubters, like those who still doubt Darwin's theory of evolution despite the evidence. Totally agree with you about vested interests. There's a part in the book that describes how some scientists who deny the theory are paid by fossil fuel companies as consultants. It's a different case with ozone depletion where nations act together to ban CFCs. In this case, energy from fossil fuels is a basic need of nations, the backbone of economies, and it will be hard to curb its usage.

  3. The "vested interests" Miguel mentions are, I think, almost as worthy of writers' attention as climate change itself. The New York Times a few years ago ran an article concerning why the public seemed so incapable of reacting to the threat it poses, and ran down a laundry list of possible explanations. But they omitted what is certainly one of the most significant ones: the intentional efforts by industry to discourage people from taking action.

    It's certainly surprising that there's not more about climate change in today's literature. C. F. Ramuz's novel The End of All Men still remains for me the best novel I've read about climate change, and it was written long before our contemporary conception of global warming existed. I'll be very curious to see if anything remotely as good as the many post-Hiroshima nuclear-threat novels - Hiroshima, Black Rain, On the Beach, etc. etc. - emerges.

  4. Scott, indeed, the PR machine of the industry has done so much to mislead the public.

    I'm very interested Ramuz's novel since reading your review of it.

    I hope a publisher will reprint it. It's a pioneer in the genre.

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