I agree that this is a brilliant book and I admire Fred Pearce's writing enormously; but I was caught out by thinking that it was a new book by Fred Pearce when it is in fact the American edition of the book "The Last Generation" which I have already bought and which has been available in the UK in paperback for some months. The Amazon entry for this book does not make it clear that this is the case.
The idea of a tipping point in climate change comes from chaos theory in which a system may change in a way that is not only not predictable, but brings about a situation very different than what existed before. A tipping point can be compared to a phase transition in physics in which, for example, liquid water becomes something strikingly different when heated to the boiling point, or lowered to the freezing point. Steam and ice are very different from liquid water in many important ways. So it might be with the earth's climate. If too much fresh water melts and pours into the North Atlantic to join the once warm water from the Gulf Stream, the composition of the water may have too little salt in it to prevent freezing and instead of sinking to return in convey belt fashion to the tropics, it may just sit there as ice. That will stop the great ocean conveyer and make much of Europe nearly as cold as Siberia.
A tipping point of great magnitude can be reached through a feedback mechanism. For example as the planet warms, ice melts. Ice is white and reflects light away from the planet. But if the ice is now darker water it will tend to absorb the radiation and heat the planet further. This will lead to more ice melting which will lead to more heat being absorbed which will lead to more ice melting, etc., which will lead to we know not where.
Science journalist Fred Pearce's intent in this book is to look at a number of these natural climate mechanisms to see if they are in danger of reaching some kind of tipping point, and what the consequences of reaching that point might be. One of the consequences may be a point of no return, such as a runaway greenhouse effect in which the worse case scenario is the earth gets as hot as Venus.
What he finds out is that climate mechanisms are interrelated and enormously complex, which is one of the reasons there is so much controversy about global warming. Is this warming a result of natural cyclic processes about which we can do little or nothing, or is something unprecedented going on because we are burning vast quantities of fossil fuels? That is one of the most important questions of our times and one of the most difficult to answer. Most scientists believe that we are contributing significantly to climate change, but there are others that think differently. See Singer, S. Fred and Dennis T. Avery Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years (2007) for a contrarian point of view.
As Pearce implies in the title, "With Speed and Violence," we may not have the luxury of a leisurely investigation into the factors that are leading to climate change because something catastrophic may happen a lot faster than was previously believed. Not only that but the change may be irreversible. What is particularly scary is that we may already be past the point of no return and not know it, or we may cross that line sometime in the near future.
One thing is clear. It's getting hotter. Whether human activities are contributing significantly to this rise in temperature, and whether that is good or bad news is uncertain. Because the stakes are so high, I believe that we must err on the side of caution and put an end to the pollution of the atmosphere with all deliberate speed. Of course that is not going to happen.
Pearce knows this, and so he advocates a more realistic goal. He begins by noting that at the start of the Industrial Revolution, there were 660 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. After a couple of centuries of burning fossil fuels we have 880 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. To prevent triggering some kind of "dangerous" climate change, he estimates we need to keep the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below one trillion tons. He believes it is "a tough call" as to whether we will make it or not (from the "Appendix: The Trillion-Ton Challenge").
Some of the 37 chapters in the book deal with other greenhouse gases, such as methane; and some of the chapters deal with the effect the shrinking Amazon forest is having on climate change, and other chapters deal with the history of various climate mechanisms. There are chapters on smoke in the air, the effect the Sahara Desert has on the Amazon jungle (it fertilizes it!), the danger in melting bogs which will release methane gas, the effect of the sun's cycles, etc. One of the problems with this book is that Pearce considers so many factors and looks at climate change from so many different perspectives, that the reader may very well come away lost in the jungle. I had the sense that Pearce himself bit off more than he could chew and ended up with a book of 278 pages that really needed to be a much larger volume or, better yet, several different volumes that he might write after further digestion of the material.
Let's faced it the climate is enormously complex and we are only beginning to make some kind of sense of it, at least in terms of being able to forecast the changes to come. Each of Pearce's chapters represents perhaps a topic for further research.
Interested in climate change for years, I found Pearce's book quite by chance. The Amazon package arrived two days ago, but I can hardly leave the book alone. As far as I am concerned, this is a page-turner par excellence. Informative, well-researched and written, and deeply disconcerting, it offers all the clues one now needs to start planning one's future beyond the next decade, as Kirkus Review praise states on the jacket. The book is a must.
Once, climate was seen like a sedate matron, ambling along at a measured pace. According to Fred Pearce, the climate is more like a drunk, lurching from one place to another in sporadic, unpredictable lunges. Rapid climate change was once considered a local phenomenon. Older, unprepared civilisations in one region staggered under shifts of weather, collapsing in the heat, but easily replaced by more efficient neighbours. Research has shown, argues Pearce, that the entire globe is interconnected through complex patterns. Even the starting points of climate changes are hidden in the mists of time. Until today. Now it's the byproducts of our society that are prompting the changes. How drastic these may be and where the changes will be most severe is the subject of this excellent, if very frightening account.
Fred Pearce has been in the climate investigation reporting business for nearly twenty years. He knows the players and he understands their work. His intimate knowledge of their views and the science behind those outlooks provide a sound foundation for his summation of how climate change is occurring. And it is occurring, he argues. It's happening so fast that he can confidently assert that this is "The Last Generation" that will enjoy anything like climate stability. That lurching drunk is more powerful and less predictable than previously imagined.
With his long experience to buttress his presentation, Pearce covers all the bases. Moving from polar ice through ocean currents to wind patterns, he provides a thorough examination of the issues and the people studying them. The eminent Wally Broecker, who proposed The Great Ocean Conveyor circulating polar water around the globe is carefully described. Pearce doesn't want to invoke Broecker's ire over a mis-statement. Lonnie Thompson, who has likely spent more time above 6000 metres altitude than any other lowlander alive, offers his critique of Broecker's model as the initiator of climate change. These men are the elder statesmen of climate investigation. The journalist has met them all, but he also introduces us to the newcomers in the field. Peter deMenocal is continuing the work of Gerard Bond on solar pulses of energy, while Mike Mann's "hockey stick" graph of temperature increase updated Charles Keeling's earlier records on carbon dioxide increase rates. In a few cases, the later worker has almost eclipsed his forbear as Milutin Milankovich is the name associated with relating climate with Earth's orbital shifts instead of that of James Croll, the crofter's son who worked that out in the late 19th Century.
New minds, asking new questions and probing with modern instruments, have produced fresh viewpoints on climate change. The most significant pattern among those views is that major climate change is in the offing. It will be likely very soon and very abrupt. Warming air and warming seas are providing lubricant for the ice caps in Greenland and the Antartic. Will these ice mountains soon slide into their neighbouring oceans? El Nino, the enigmatic countervailing wind in the Pacific Ocean is becoming more frequent in its occurrences. Are we headed for a permanent state of monsoon-inhibiting forces? Neither simple nor immediate answers are availble to answer those questions, as Pearce and his interviewees admit. That circumstance gives the climate sceptics a wedge to challenge the whole idea of climate change as a serious threat. The author draws on his resources to dismiss that objection, asserting that even the resistance to anthropogenic causes of today's climate disruptions no longer is tenable.
For Pearce, the issue isn't whether climate change is occurring - it is, and we are the cause - but rather how rapidly it will develop into a clearly visible threat. It's not important who's leading the dance, the Poles or the Tropics, it's important that we recognise that threatening change is taking place now. Since the impact is already apparent, we must undertake efforts to reduce the effects and protect ourselves. We have already created what he deems "Another Planet" by the introduction of massive use of fossil fuels. Our children will be living on that orb, and we must help safeguard their future. He adopts a list of solutions originally proposed by Robert Socolow of Princeton University. These "wedges" - so called because they will start as minimal changes, but grow in strength and effectiveness with the passage of time - will reduce the load of carbon we're placing into the environment and let us return to a more stable climate condition. If the Earth needs an AA to survive, it is these wedges that will provide the therapy. The time to apply the therapy, however, is NOW. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
One expects some honesty from science journalists, but Mr Pearce disappoints in this quarter. Although he admits that sceptics of AGW are important for producing high quality science, he coolly forgets that they have been proven right by events since this book was published. Armageddon has not occurred, no nations have been lost under the waves, hurricanes have decreased in frequency and intensity and the world is now actually cooling. So why stoke the fires of hysteria? Probably because there is money to be made by alarming people, and in this case alarming them without cause. The book was published before the notorious emails exposed by Climategate, so he was unaware of the scandal over the misuse of statistics by Mann and Jones and others, to eliminate the Medieval Warm period and the Little Ice age, both periods which are fully attested by the historical evidence. Out great cathedrals were built in the Medieval warm period, and the Vikings colonised Greenland, but Mann and Jones had a message to deliver and were willing to bias the proxy temperature data-sets to prove their point. Science? I doubt it very much. The history of science is littered with examples of charlatans trying to prove the impossible, from an earth-centric universe to eugenics and immobile continents. Galileo and Copernicus were outlawed and scorned by the consensus of their times, as was Wegener on continental drift. Eugenics had a much darker history, starting with Galton and Pearson, trying to show that the human species could be "improved|" by selection. The whole sad story gave impetus to the Holocaust, and ended only recently as so-celled advanced countries like Sweden and the USA halted their forced sterilization campaigns against the "mentally ill" or disabled people. Pearce blithely pushes the theory that the world is warming and is getting out of control, as pushed by the various IPCC reports, forgetting that they were biased from the start to prove a case rather than taking an unbiased and neutral viewpoint. James Lovelock has now as of 2012 publicly denounced his former views on the topic, but will Fred Pearce?