Tag Archives: book reviews

Joe Romm on Climate

I’ve finally found the climate change book that I can recommend widely: Hell and High Water by Joseph Romm, 2006. I urge you to read it, as soon as you can.

Why do I recommend this particular book?

  1. Clear and accessible. A wide audience can appreciate this book: the language is simple, the opening sections are organized into a story arc, and the numbers and scientific details are kept to a minimum.
  2. Smart science and smart politics. There are dozens of excellent books on the science alone, and a few good political ones, but very few that really understand both.
  3. Solutions, not just problems. If you’re going to paint a picture of a monumental challenge to humanity, have the grace to show how we might solve it.
  4. Alarming, but not alarmist. The problem is a daunting one, but Romm does not exaggerate it or lend any more terror to the issue than warranted by the science.
  5. Urgency. The problem is truly urgent, and demands immediate action within the next decade. The reasons for this are challenging to explain, but absolutely necessary.
  6. Achievable fixes, not impossible dreams and moral lessons. This isn’t an environmentalist’s rant about the evils of consumerism. Romm spares us the sermons and gives a clear illustration of the way forward, without requiring massive change from hundreds of millions of unwilling people.
  7. Good references. The book itself is not complete, but Romm’s blog answered many of my follow-on questions after I finished the book.

Joe Romm has a blog (ClimateProgress), but I really recommend reading his book first. The blog is more technical, but it’s also less suitable just because it’s a blog and not a book: less structured, more opinionated, and including news that is often depressing. That said, it’s a great place to continue learning about the subject after you finish the book. The package of policies he proposes in the book for 2010-2060 are part of path leading to 550ppm CO2, based on the 2006 consensus. Since then, a number of scientific findings have pushed Romm to prefer a 450ppm target, and he has put forward a series of posts on the subject; I’d suggest starting with the [Updated:] climate change impacts discussion, then the full solutions package [updated March 2009] and then reading the rest of the series. But really, get the book first.

If you’re a climate skeptic who is willing to be persuaded by good arguments, please give the book a try. You may need to suspend the disbelief for a while, and particularly forget some of the disinformation you’ve likely absorbed from the popular media. Keep the skepticism—it’s healthy!—hear the argument out, and then follow up with one of the dozens of books on the science itself, or one of the documentaries showing how the climate denial industry has waged a relentless P.R. campaign to prevent action on this issue. If you’re a science major or researcher, you can probably understand how the IPCC process works, and can dig deep into the IPCC reports themselves and inspect the arguments first-hand. If you’re not a science major, the whole process is much more opaque and the denial industry arguments can sound persuasive; I don’t have a good book to make the case to skeptical non-scientists yet.

Coming up soon: a review of the urgency, and a look at the transportation component of Romm’s plan.

Monbiot & Climate Mitigation

Book cover

I’ve recently finished reading George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. It’s an interesting piece from a widely-syndicated journalist, and it left me both alarmed and unsatisfied. I’ve held back on writing about it until I had a chance to read up a bit more on the underlying science and discuss the topic with more knowledgeable types, but I think I’m ready to comment.

For the anonymous visitors to this page, let me preface this by saying that I have zero expertise in this topic; I have no climate science training, and this represents my first stab at investigating the area. I am interested in this subject largely in terms of its implications for transportation/land use policy: to decide suitable long-term policies, I need a reasonable idea of the likely long-term acceptable level of carbon emissions.

At its heart, I think the book must be understood in terms of its intended audience: the environmental movement. Monbiot’s book is a call-to-reason for the movement, a plea to avoid the “aesthetic fallacy” of pleasing but impractical solutions: think high-speed rail, biofuels, voluntary conservation, or exclusive reliance on solar/wind power. He also urges some revisiting of traditionally demonised technologies, such as nuclear power and carbon sequestration. On these terms, the book is a valuable shaking-up of traditional environmental viewpoints. After establishing a target for emissions cuts, he devotes most of his book to investigations of the feasibility of current technologies for achieving these targets. His discussion of air travel and “love miles” is particularly prescient. The context for his book is exclusively the United Kingdom, and the solutions he proposed cannot necessarily be directly transferred elsewhere.

In this posting, I want to focus more on Monbiot’s target. He based the book on a simple argument, originally published in a 2006 column he wrote for The Guardian, which you can read yourself.

  1. A global temperature rise higher than 2°C would likely mean runaway positive feedbacks and unstoppable large amounts of warming.
  2. If we want mean global temperature rises no higher than 2°C (with 70% probability), we need to aim for atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to stabilise at ~380ppm (or CO2-equivalent gases at 450ppm).
  3. Stabilisation requires emissions (sources) to equal absorptions (sinks). Land-based ecosystems’ ability to absorb carbon drops at higher temperatures. This will reduce the total land+ocean sink from past levels (4 GtC/year) to 2.7 GtC/year. Note: 1 GtC means “Giga-tonne of carbon”.
  4. Therefore, we need to cut annual global emissions by 60% to 2.7 GtC/year.
  5. Furthermore, this cut needs to be completed by 2030.
  6. Finally, if emissions are to be fairly distributed to individual nations on a per capita basis, then the UK needs to cut its emissions by 90%. Monbiot argues in favour of a carbon rationing system with an equal emission entitlement for each individual.

I’ve dug around a little to see how valid these assumptions are. Continue reading Monbiot & Climate Mitigation

Annotated Readings

Almost all of these readings are old, dating back to my initial forays into understanding transportation. They’re listed in the order I read them, from newest to oldest. Most of the content is just quotations I found interesting, with a few comments. Many of the comments no longer reflect my current thinking; take it with a big grain of salt. If you’re an author of one of these publications and object to the (admittedly extensive) quotations I’ve included here, please let me know.

Planning for Cycling

For some time, I’ve been curious to learn more about European approaches to designing bicycle routes. I’d heard the statistics: over 30% of all trips are made on bicycle in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and even more in some Asian cities like Shanghai. But how did they make bike routes that were safe enough for so many people to feel comfortable doing that? Unfortunately, they publish mostly in Dutch or Danish, not English. The English-language publications I’ve seen have been dominated by American designs, which tend to be either a) stone age; or b) trying to reach the bronze age. (That’s just the state of transportation issues in the U.S., I’m afraid…)

So I was pleased to find Planning for Cycling by Hugh McClintock of the University of Nottingham. It’s a collection of chapters from a UK perspective, including chapters from several European jurisdictions. A few interesting bits of trivia from the book:

  • In Denmark, all taxis must be able to carry bicycles
  • The Dutch really hate bicycle helmets. While they may help with cyclists who fall off their bikes, they don’t help much in car collisions, and they’re really uncomfortable and unfashionable.
  • 42% of the streets in Copenhagen have “cycle tracks” (sidewalk-level bicycle paths).
  • 30% of the traffic signals in Copenhagen give cyclists priority over motor vehicles (an early green)
  • Both the Danish and the Dutch acknowledge the typical factors for their success (flat terrain, “cultural” tendencies, dense cities), but also emphasize that their explicit policies supporting bicycles have been decisive influences.
  • Bike-ride-bike (”sandwich”) travel is common in both Denmark and the Netherlands, where the traveller combines a transit/train ride with a bike stored at either end.
  • A survey of several thousand children in the UK found that many would vastly prefer to be able to travel by bike. Over 50% of 11 year olds preferred bicycles (compared to 16% who preferred cars). I think that children really lose a lot in terms of independence and self-reliance when forced to live in car-dependent areas.
  • Despite increasing federal funding by a factor of 10 between 1990 and 2000, the U.S. has only seen a 10% increase in cycling.

I’ve got quite a few notes on the book, available here.