Media Reviews: Books of The Times: Warming Is Real. Now What?

By Michiko Kakutani

Even as Democrats abandoned efforts late last month to advance a major climate change bill through the Senate, books about global warming continue to pour forth. Two of the more interesting ones do not waste time rearguing debates over the science (in 2007 a United Nations panel, synthesizing the work of hundreds of climatologists from around the world, called evidence for global warming “unequivocal”), but instead take as a starting point the clear and present dangers posed by the greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels.

“The Climate War,” by Eric Pooley — deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek and former managing editor of Fortune — looks at the hotly contested politics of global warming, especially as it’s been played out in Washington over the last three years. “The Weather of the Future,” by Heidi Cullen — a senior research scientist with Climate Central, a nonprofit research organization — offers a scorching vision of what life might be like in the warmer world that is already on its way.

Although “Weather of the Future” sounds like an exercise in speculation, Ms. Cullen grounds her harrowing predictions — extrapolations, really — in “the best available science” derived from an array of climate models, environmental data and interviews with scientists. And her forecasts actually turn out to be an armature for discussing the fallout of climate change (from rising sea levels to more extreme weather) in an accessible, tactile fashion and for examining existing liabilities in various regions and cities, like overstretched infrastructure and dwindling water supplies.

In what will come as little surprise to Americans suffering through this summer’s persistent heat waves, Ms. Cullen notes that the average annual temperature in the United States “has risen more than two degrees F during the past 50 years, and the temperature will continue to rise, depending on the amount of heat-trapping gases we emit globally.”

By 2050, with midrange emissions, she writes, “a day so hot that it is currently experienced only once every 20 years would occur every three years over much of the continental United States”; and by the end the century, “such a day would occur every other year, or more often.”

Because a warmer climate means more evaporation of water from land and oceans, Ms. Cullen observes, it also results “in longer and more severe droughts in some areas and more flooding in others.” And because a warmer world means the continued melting of glaciers and polar ice, it leads to rising sea levels — which threaten places prone to flooding, as well as places vulnerable to sea surges during hurricanes.

In the case of New York City, hotter summers lead to a heavier reliance on air-conditioning, which leads to more stress on an already strained electrical grid. Also at risk, says Rae Zimmerman, a member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, is much of the city’s critical infrastructure, which sits less than 10 feet above sea level, including the New York entrance to the Holland Tunnel (at 9.5 feet above sea level) and La Guardia Airport (at 6.8 feet above sea level).

As for the Central Valley in California, which is the hub of that state’s water supply system, providing water for two out of three Californians, it is vulnerable to the catastrophic failure of its canals and levees, whether from an earthquake or the slowly rising sea level — much the way New Orleans was vulnerable to flooding during Hurricane Katrina. Ms. Cullen adds that global warming is also likely to affect the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which is the “true basis of California’s water system,” just as it is likely to lead to “hotter wildfires that are harder to control.”

In many parts of the world climate change will have serious geopolitical fallout as well. Droughts and floods in Bangladesh, Ms. Cullen says, could result in more and more climate refugees, even as a growing scarcity of groundwater in northern India could further exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan. National security experts, she writes, see climate change as a “threat multiplier,” leading to increased tensions between rich and poor nations, and amplifying regional political disputes over access to water and food in times of drought (as has happened, for instance, in Darfur).

Although there were hopes that last year’s United Nations talks in Copenhagen would lead to an important accord on climate change, the final document to come out of the summit was a statement of intention, not a binding pledge, to begin taking action on global warming. In the view of many scientists and politicians, the disappointing outcome stemmed partly from the failure of the United States Senate to pass legislation intended to cap American emissions before the summit — which, in turn, meant that China would not agree to an absolute reduction of its emissions.

In “The Climate War,” which ends with the Copenhagen summit, Mr. Pooley gives us a detailed, if sometimes longwinded, account of the political battle to get Congress to take legislative action on global warming. It is a depressing account of gridlock in Washington, of efforts by conservative lobbyists to deny the phenomenon altogether (and when that hasn’t worked, to delay any sort of action), and of infighting within the environmental left over whether to compromise and try to get the support of centrists and corporate interests, or whether to take a hard-line, ideological stand. It is a story about how the economic meltdown of 2008 and the ensuing recession — and concerns about job losses and other short-term costs of establishing a clean-energy economy — affected the debate over global warming and the political arithmetic that members of Congress and the Obama administration have been doing over the viability of climate change legislation.

Mr. Pooley tells this story by focusing on a couple of key people: most notably, former Vice President Al Gore, the public face of the antiglobal warming crusade; Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, who “often forged partnerships with industry and pushed for agreements that the left couldn’t stand”; and Mr. Krupp’s sometime ally Jim Rogers, chief executive of Duke Energy, who joined other business executives and the leaders of several national environmental groups to form the United States Climate Action Partnership, an organization calling for an economywide solution to global warming and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

In these pages Mr. Pooley deftly explicates the political maneuvering surrounding the controversial concept of “cap and trade” (a mandatory and declining limit on carbon emissions, combined with a system of tradable emissions permits) and does a suspenseful job of recounting the walk-up to last year’s extremely close vote in the House (219 to 212), passing a climate change bill. Because Senate Democrats decided only two weeks ago (long after this book went to press) that they did not have the votes to pass a broad energy bill including a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, Mr. Pooley’s book ends on an unfinished, cliffhanger note.

“In their least guarded moments,” Mr. Pooley writes, “the climate campaigners would tell you what they had always known in their bones: their work was necessary but not sufficient. Climate action was going to happen sooner or later, but they couldn’t make it happen. It might be inevitable — the true believers still believed it was — but it would only become real when enough people demanded it and shouted down the lobbyists and the professional deniers and demanded it again. Alexis de Tocqueville long ago said that in the United States, events ‘can move from the impossible to the inevitable without ever stopping at the probable.’ Was that still true? How bad did things need to get before the moment came? Would the prospect of a clean-energy economy, and the jobs it would bring, mobilize enough people to make a difference? Or would some sort of monstrous, galvanic weather event — epic heat and drought, Katrina on steroids — be needed to shake America fully awake?”