The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet
by Heidi Cullen, HarperCollins, 329 pages
Scientists, economists, engineers, city planners, national security experts, farmers, traditional hunters, social workers, and others from Bangladesh to Greenland, San Francisco Bay to New York City are grappling with climate change now and planning for the future. In her new book, climatologist Heidi Cullen takes us to the places where these people live and work and shares their stories with us. For instance, because of already rising sea levels, the SacramentoSan Joaquin Delta, on which the Central Valley in California depends for fresh water, could be transformed within 12 hours into a saline estuary by a major storm or earthquake; similarly, a lot of New York City’s critical infrastructure, including transportation and sewer systems, would be submerged by a major storm. The United States could find itself in a territorial dispute with Canada over a Northwest Passage through an open Arctic Sea. And Albuquerque figures in a section titled “The World’s Most Vulnerable Places” because of the increasing threat of drought.
Cullen, who has a Ph.D. from Columbia University, is widely known for her work as a climate expert on The Weather Channel. She is a visiting lecturer at Princeton University and CEO of Climate Central, a nonprofit climate research organization. Besides providing a current picture of seven of the world’s most vulnerable regions and potential future situations, her book gives a history and explanation of climate science that is highly readable. It clarifies the distinction between weather and climate and takes the reader through the early days of climatology in the 19th century, when scientists — braving the derision of skeptics — showed evidence of past ice ages and sought to understand why and how the climate changes.
Cullen gives a basic, if simplistic, description of the carbon cycle and how scientists Joseph Fourier and John Tyndall in the early 19th century determined that certain gases, including carbon dioxide, act as the Earth’s thermostat. Fourier coined the terms “planetary energy balance” and “greenhouse effect” in the 1820s. Based on their work, the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius calculated how much the Earth’s temperature would drop if the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were halved and how much the temperature would increase if it were doubled. In 1896 he predicted that the burning of fossil fuels — the Earth’s stockpile of carbon — could cause global warming.
Scientists have since built on Arrhenius’ work. They have documented an unequivocal warming of the climate system. They have collected data on the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution using ice cores that provide a picture of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide for hundreds of thousands of years. “Carbon fingerprints” — the specific isotopic composition of carbon molecules — are used to identify the sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Scientists have also developed more sophisticated models of the Earth’s atmospheric processes. Cullen’s explanation of how climate models are used to make predictions and how climatologists test their predictions may serve to eliminate a variety of misconceptions about climate science.
Some media personalities present climate change as a debate. The debate, however, is primarily restricted to the American political arena. In the worldwide scientific community, 98 percent of climate researchers most actively publishing in the field are convinced of the evidence for humancaused, that is, anthropogenic climate change or ACC. Agreement among scientists that human activities are modifying the climate has been well documented. The American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all issued statements affirming ACC. In a recent House subcommittee hearing on climate science, U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, a Republican from South Carolina, used the analogy of a sick child in reference to climate, warning of the risk involved in choosing to listen to the two out of 100 doctors who disagree with the other 98 about what to do.
Cullen’s book provides an opportunity for the average person to begin to understand the basic evidence behind the scientific consensus as well as how people worldwide are responding to the changes already occurring and preparing for best-guess predictions about the implications for future weather. In her introduction, Cullen writes, “It’s a book about climate science and climate scientists, but ultimately it … illustrates that doing nothing and remaining complacent are tantamount to accepting a future forty years down the road in which your town, your neighborhood, and even your backyard will not look the same.”
— Susan Meadows