Book Discussion:

"The Whole Story of Climate:  What Science Reveals About the Nature of Endless Change” by E. Kirsten Peters

In “The Whole Story of Climate”, the author reviews global climate change from the perspective of a geologist.  Her discussion mostly focuses on the past, not the future.  In simpler layman’s terms, Ms. Peters describes research methods and results that describe the earth’s past climate.  Some general themes she outlines include the following:


Ø      Over the last few million years, the earth’s climate has varied greatly and has never been static.  Geologists identify overall climate time periods as “Epochs”, with each period lasting tens to hundreds of thousands of years.  Currently we live in the Holocene Epoch, a period that has been unusually warm for several thousand years.


Ø      The geologic record shows that for most of the time, the earth’s climate was bitterly cold.  The record indicates long periods of deep cold and large ice cover over much of the land masses.  These long, frigid periods were interrupted by relatively brief periods of warming.  The current Holocene Epoch, when viewed on a plot of long term climate, can be understood as one of the (relatively short) periods of warmth. 


Ø      In addition to constant long term climate variation, climate has varied greatly even during the short term.  The geologic record suggests drastic overall climate shifts in the past that occurred within decades or even years.


A key point is that the earth’s global climate has not been static but has been constantly changing.  Ms. Peters describes theories on why this change has occurred.  Some theories relate the earth’s orbital imperfections to climate change, and some of the regular orbital variations could explain variations of heating over time.  But, overall, currently there is no precise understanding of global climate change, both past and future.  Computer models overall provide results that are not repeatable.  It is possible that long term climate variation involves processes which are chaotic and not susceptible to mathematical modeling.


Most of us have a sense of the idea of naturally varying global climate from our education about the ice age and extinct creatures of the past. But this discussion has largely not been included in recent debates about global climate change and possible anthropogenic causes.  Ms. Peters does not discount concerns about manmade global warming.  But she expresses concern that the debate is not considering the bigger picture.  She writes:


“Because we know that climate is bound to evolve, it is surely past time to start new conversations not predicated on the delusional framework of somehow holding climate static through the sacrifices that would be imposed by carbon taxes or caps.  We can adopt whatever carbon policies we choose, but we also surely had better invest in tools for climate adaptation and mitigation.  It’s high time we begin to think about how we will cope with sharp changes in weather patterns, those that could be in the direction of either warmer or colder conditions and wetter or drier years.  For the important point is and will always be that if we think of climate change as our enemy, we will always be defeated.  Change is coming, and it will reshape our world.  Our goal cannot be to hold climate static.  We must understand its menacing and manic moods- and adapt as nimbly as we can to changes in whatever directions and at whatever rates they arrive.”


The debate has important implications for engineers.  In addition to our living on earth and wishing to continue to do so, engineers will be on the front line for dealing with impacts from global climate change.  Some would argue that we already are, considering the unusual fall storm that flooded parts of New York.  Global warming would lead to melting ice caps and higher sea level.  With higher seas, much infrastructure would be more susceptible to the types of devastating floods from hurricanes that inundated New Orleans and New York.

Disruption of rainfall patterns, should it occur, would impact water supplies and agriculture.  Engineers will be relied on to help problem-solve to mitigate these and other impacts.  Ms. Peters argues that a debate focusing only on global warming due potentially anthropogenic causes misses the bigger picture that global climate has always varied greatly.  The earth’s climate has, for most of the past, been inhospitable to human life and civilization.  The book suggests that we best understand that the current climate Epoch is a “Garden of Eden”, as described by the author.  Future climates may be colder or warmer and we will have to adapt.  According to the record, the only constant has been continuous change.