A Climate Change Reading List For Laypeople

The Copenhagen conference on climate change is set to begin Monday, December 7. Both the policy and science aspects of the issue can be overwhelming.

NPR science correspondent Richard Harris offers a suggested reading list to help shed some light on the climate change debate.

Break Through by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger
Earth: The Sequel by Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn
Storms Of My Grandchildren by James Hansen
The Great Warming by Brian Fagan
What's The Worst That Could Happen? by Greg Craven
Global Warming, Looking Beyond Kyoto edited by Ernesto Zedillo
Consumer Guide To Home Energy Savings by Jennifer Thorne Amann, Alex Wilson and Katie Ackerly

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

But now, the climate change summit we've all been hearing about kicks off on Monday in Copenhagen, which gives you just a few days to read up on the science, policy and practical effect of climate change.

Fortunately, NPR science correspondent Richard Harris has put together a reading list on climate change. And we also want to hear from you. What have you read that's helped you understand the issue? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also head to our Web site, where you can find Richard Harris' list, along with book suggestions and links to his stories - npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Richard Harris is here with us in Studio 3A. Thank you so much for coming in.

RICHARD HARRIS: My pleasure to be here.

ROBERTS: So, let's start with some basic reading. For understanding the science, there's a brand new book - I'm not even sure it's out yet -called "Storms of My Grandchildren." Why that one?

HARRIS: Why that one? That's written by James Hansen, who is one of the most famous climate scientists. The science of the book is a little tough sledding, but he actually is sort of helpful in the book. He actually says, I know this is going to be a little complicated. If you want, you can skip on to page 51 and I'll pick up (unintelligible)�

ROBERTS: Oh, really? That's handy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: So he sort of acknowledges that even, you know, that not everyone's going to be able to get through the book, but - in terms of the science. But it is a - it's a very scary view of climate change. He is one of the scientists who most is - who's most concerned about climate change and actually thinks that the status quo, that the scientific consensus isn't scary enough. His book raises the possibility that Earth could turn into Venus, essentially, which is so hot that the oceans boiled away on Venus.

And he says if we don't - if we're not careful, that could happen on Earth. And he's got some fairly radical ideas about what to do about it, a lot of things critical about how we're acting now. And he also says, really, the solution is to start building massively and rapidly a whole bunch of nuclear reactors as fast as we possibly can to get rid of the coal-fired power plants that are now contributing so much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

So it's not a middle-of-the-road kind of book, but it's a book that sort of lays things out in the view of a person who's been thinking about this for a long time, and who is most scared than your average scientist.

ROBERTS: Well, also, in his rhetoric - at least in speeches he's given -he's incredibly critical of government response to climate change, to the point of suggesting people be put in jail.

HARRIS: Which�

ROBERTS: Does it veer into polemics as well?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: I thought - well, he, actually, has been arrested a couple of times himself. So he's a - but it is a - he is very critical of the way we're doing things. He actually think that the Kyoto Protocol, that whole approach to pledging climate is really not effective, he says that Kyoto was a failure, and he actually hopes that the Copenhagen talks will fail because he thinks they're just completely headed in the wrong direction.

He was very critical of President Bush. He supported Mr. Obama in his presidency, but he's now sort of disillusioned with the Obama administration, as well. And it's sort of - I mean, in some ways what this book underlies is there are - things are happening in two different paces on the planet. One thing is the climate is heating up fairly rapidly as carbon dioxide is building up.

It takes a long time to change the energy systems around our planet. And he says we just don't have the time. And so he is just from saying, we have to act faster than basically the political process will work. So it is - it - a fundamental conundrum of climate change that, basically, politics moves at one speed, and the climate's moving at another, unfortunately.

ROBERTS: So for a look at sort of within a more conventional political, practical, policy atmosphere, you recommend a book called "Breakthrough" by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.

HARRIS: Well, this is also a little controversial book, too. It's a -the subhead of this - I've actually brought these books in. I have - just have a stack of them that�

ROBERTS: Yes, you've got quite a stack here.

HARRIS: �at my desk. They just - they come in by the truckload. And I must say that I have not read all of them, by any means�

ROBERTS: Has anyone suggested that perhaps not printing all these books might help global warming?

HARRIS: Well, yeah. But this is actually another book that looks at things very differently. And you can see the subhead on the book, as is it's called "Breakthrough," and the subhead is "Why We Can't Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists." And these guys basically argued - this is a couple of years old, but I think the argument still stands very well.

They argue that, basically, global warming is not an environmental issue. We shouldn't think of it that way. It's a - it is an issue. It is - we basically need to transform the technology in the world. And ultimately, what we need to do is figure out how to make clean energy cheaper than dirty energy. And the conventional wisdom is just make dirty energy more and more expensive, which they say that - you'll never get everyone buying into doing that.

So they're - they basically say we need a crash program. We need the government to be pouring tens of billions of dollars into energy research, and let's see if we can't come up with something that would actually displace coal. If you can invent something that's cheaper than coal, then people will adopt it. And that's their - it's a long shot, but they say everything's a long shot.

So it's a little controversial over (unintelligible) because, you know, they are - they started out as environmentalists, and they still consider themselves environmentalists, but, in fact, they are - they're taking some potshots at the people in the world of environmentalism along the way.

ROBERTS: We are hearing from NPR science correspondent Richard Harris about his reading list for understanding climate change. You can join us with your suggestions, if there are books you've read that have really crystallized the whole issue for you, 800-989-8255. Or send us email: talk@npr.org.

You also include - and I'm delighted that you included this - the �Consumer Guide to Home Energy Saving.�

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Yes. This is a how-to-book, and basically - it doesn't really deal that much with global warming. But one of the real issues about global warming is that as people learn more and more about it, I think there's often a sense of hopelessness that comes in with this.

I've been talking to some psychologists about this. And basically, once people say, okay, it's too big a problem, I can't do think anything, they turn away from it and they stop thinking about it. And so the psychologists say what we really need to do is give people a sense that there actually are things they can do. You're not going to solve the problem by making changes around your house, but you'll feel better about it - about your own lifestyle. And you'll be more aware of where you fit into the overall picture.

And this little book is put out by one of the organizations that looks -about energy efficiency. And they basically go through your house in a very simple way and talk about how your, you know, your cooling systems, your water heater, dishwasher, your refrigerator, to help us to sort out where energy is used and more importantly where it's wasted, because it's - we waste an enormous amount of energy in this country. And you can save money if you, in many cases, if you insulate your homes and do some very basic things.

And so this is a - this is just sort of, you know, I picked this up, I read through it, and I used some of the tips in my own house. And, you know, I ended up feeling better. My energy bills went down. And it's just, you know, it's, you know, how-to for the tinkering sort, like me.

ROBERTS: And sort of a stop beyond just change your light bulbs.

HARRIS: Oh, yeah. Well beyond that, because, you know, light bulbs are a very, very small fraction of energy use.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call. This is Ryan in Las Vegas. Ryan, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RYAN (Caller): How do you do?

ROBERTS: Good. How are you?

RYAN: Good. Thank you.

ROBERTS: What's your reading list suggestion?

RYAN: Well, mine is a book by Nigel Lawson called �A Cool Look at Global Warming.� And I hadn't really paid much attention to the global warming issue until a lot of the news came out about the Climactic Research Unit in the East Anglia University. And with all the controversy over the emails that have been released, I wanted to find out more for myself. So I went down to my local library, and I checked out three books, two for, one against, you know, the, I guess, the typical view of global warming. And I think Nigel Lawson's was just the most cogent and clear of them in talking about how - there are still some doubts on the science or, perhaps not, if not on the science, but the policy approaches and how we react to them.

ROBERTS: Ryan, thanks for your call.

Richard, give us a sort of quick and dirty about he's referring to at the East Anglia University.

HARRIS: With the emails, yeah. There were some emails among climate researchers that were stolen from this research lab at the University of East Anglia. And people - some skeptics of global warming are presumably - or the suspicion is that they release them to stir up a fuss right before Copenhagen on climate science. And they were trying to argue that the emails are - you know, undercut the scientific consensus on climate change. It does - there are some behaviors that are disturbing and are being investigated right now that are revealed in these emails. But a lot of people - including the president's science advisor yesterday -make the argument that even if the worst of the allegations are true, this, you know, this casts a little bit of the data into question, but it does not - certainly does not undercut the whole underpinnings of climate change.

But the reality is climate change is a complicated issue, as all of these books help us understand a little bit better. And it's easy to misdirect people and to get - and to - there are whole books out there that purport to be big scientific arguments about why climate change is all wrong. And, you know, if you really understand the science, you kind of the understand why the books are wrong, but you also, if you look at the books on the surface, you say, well, God, this guy's got a good points. So�

ROBERTS: Well, which also brings up the book �What's the Worst That Can Happen?� by Greg Craven, which is on your list, which is sort of a let's stop fighting about who's right or wrong and just figure out how to understand the argument itself.

HARRIS: Yeah. Now, I actually have - I've just thumbed through this. I understand you have read it. I have not actually read it. But it seemed like a wonderful concept, which was - it's a high school science teacher who just basically said, you know, laid out how to think about an issue. And he spends a lot time just going through how to sort of sort things out, how to weigh plusses and minuses, how to figure out who - you know, how to weigh one expert's view versus another, and so on. And I think it's a really clever idea.

It got endorsed by a lot of high-powered people who seem to really like it, and - I don't know what your experience was with it, but I thought what a nice concept not to - I mean, obviously in the end, he says climate change is serious. We need to do something about it. But he doesn't, you know, but he doesn't to pretend to be a scientific expert. He just sort of says here's how, you know, your typical science teacher - not an expert in this field, just sort of thinks through these things. And I thought that was a really cool concept for a book.

ROBERTS: Yeah. You know, he had a video that was - it's been viewed by, like, seven million people that was very common-sensical. And I think it just struck a cord with a lot of people who saw it that there's so much rhetoric, some of it very hard to understand in this debate, and here's a guy who just seems to make some sense. And that's the tone he takes in the book, too. I'm a fan of that one.

We have an email from David, who says: The best read that I've come across regarding climate change is - that's - is easy for lay people, non-scientists, to grasp is �Field Notes From A Catastrophe� by New York Times reporter Elizabeth Kolbert. I think she's actually a New Yorker reporter.

Another interesting book that I've read is �Climate Change Begins at Home,� and the U.S. Climate Change Research Program offers many of its publications for free at its online site.

HARRIS: Yeah, there's a lot of information online. And I agree, Elizabeth Kolbert's book was - which came out several years ago, was, I think, even before Al Gore's movie, but essentially contemporaneously, was a - I think got a lot of attention, particularly as it first appeared in The New Yorker, the various segments of this. I think it made people really sit up and take notice. And I think that it's a - it certainly belongs on a bookshelf of people who are trying to collect, you know, sort of the historical important books about climate change.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Bill(ph) in Wayland, Massachusetts. Bill, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BILL (Caller): Hi, thank you very much. Nice talking to you. Say, the book that I wanted to reference was the latest issue of National Geographic, December 2009.

ROBERTS: The one with the search for other life on other planets on the cover?

BILL: Yes, it is. Yes, exactly. Yes, it says, are we alone? And the article was on pages 26 to 29, and the title of it is �The Carbon Bathtub.� But what's impressive about the article, I think, is it has a pictorial diagram along with texts. And the pictorial diagram describes exactly what the impact of all this carbon is on the earth. I think it's an excellent article.

ROBERTS: Thanks for your suggestion, Bill. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's hear from Leah(ph) in Tallahassee, Florida. Leah, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LEAH (Caller): Hi. Actually, it's really weird because what changed - well, what really made me open my eyes was a PBS �Frontline� piece called The Persuaders, which was actually not about climate change, it was about advertising. But one of the things that it pointed out was that the phrase climate change, that even journalists were using global warming and politicians were using global warming until Frank Wonts(ph), who was an adviser to the Republican Party, suggested that they switch to climate change. And that the change to climate change as a phrase, which became so popular, actually created some of the momentum for the argument against it.

And to me, that made me have to go look and look through a lot of the stories behind the global warming phenomenon. And actually, that's when I started reading the Al Gore book and some of the other books that have been mentioned today. But it was really finding about advertising that changed everything for me.

HARRIS: Huh, that's interesting. I used both terms interchangeably and many, many scientists use both terms interchangeably. And I think the reason we do is that not all of the effects certainly are global warming. The reality is there could be very severe droughts in some parts of the planet. There actually can be places of cooling as well as warming.

And you also get, you know, sea level rise and so on. So I think scientists, and journalists sort of follow what scientists do on this, I think by and large thought, okay, we should use the more - the broader more inclusive phrase. But it's interesting the power of words if that also has had an effect on making people less concerned about it, that's�

Ms. LEAH: Yeah. And it's a documentary I make my students watch every semester, even though it's now five years old, so�

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Mm, that's interesting.

FEMALE: Leah, thanks for your call. Let's hear from Rick(ph) in LaHue(ph), Hawaii. Rick, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RICK: Hi, thanks a lot. I like a lot of the points that you're making about how you can do a lot at home and that we all need to be more energy conscious at home. The stuff that I read that has most - really woke me up to what's going on is to read about what John Christie(ph) from the University of Alabama says about the original UNITCC. He was the head author of the original UNITCC. And he essentially says that it's been hijacked by people with an agenda and that it's been exaggerated and that there is no scientific consensus and that the whole idea that there's a scientific consensus is propaganda in order to get a certain set of policies to occur.

And I think that this - to minimize what happened at the CRU, and this is honestly the biggest - this is the biggest scientific scandal since (unintelligible) man and the mainstream media is continuing to ignore it. But these guys use phrases like (unintelligible) decline. It's a - we cannot account for the cooling right now and it's a travesty that we can't. I mean, there is no scientific consensus, and I think it's morally bankrupt to suggest that there is.

HARRIS: Well, I actually talked to John Christie last week. He was one of the many lead authors in one - in some of the earlier IPCC reports. And even Dr. Christie acknowledges that climate change is real and that humans are contributing to it. And I think that - I mean, there is less consensus about what pace it will happen and questions like that.

RICK: Exactly.

HARRIS: But there's no�

RICK: But everybody seems to be running at the most catastrophic thing that they can - I mean, and we just had here - I live on the island of Kaui. And we just had some scientists come here and say, Oh, your children won't have beaches because the sea levels are going to rise. There's no consensus on that.

HARRIS: Yeah.

Mr. RICK: It's just a scare tactics to get - I agree with you 100%, we need more renewable energy. It's nowhere more apparent that the island I live on where we get our electricity from (unintelligible) generation. It's horrible. We definitely - we got wind and solar on this island. We definitely should be using it. But I feel like - that there's - that the attempt to get a certain policy in order is being hijacked with an exaggeration, and it makes people who are truly scientific-minded and truth-minded�

ROBERTS: Hey, hey, Rick, we're actually starting to lose the quality of your line, so I'm going to let you go. But thank you for joining us. We did have a caller mention Al Gore's book, �An Inconvenient Truth,� which is also sitting in your stack. Quickly, would you recommend it?

HARRIS: Well, he's got a new one out, which I have not yet seen. So I think maybe there - he may have fresher things to say than this one.

ROBERTS: Richard Harris joined us here in Studio 3A. You can see his reading list on our Web site. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. RICK: My pleasure.

ROBERTS: I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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