Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Discovery of Global Warming”

WeartThe Discovery of Global Warming. By Spencer Weart. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004, rev. ed. 2008.

A centrally important study in the vital center of debate about studies of global warming is Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming, first published in 2004 but updated in 2008. This masterful synthesis seeks to understand the manner in which scientists came to a consensus on global warming theory, and relates the internal conflicts plaguing the research community and the role government entities such as NASA and NOAA have played in fostering research and analysis.

Weart finds this a messy process, as all science is, in which researchers undertake investigations that lead in unproductive directions, insist on theories that prove incorrect, argue among themselves over points small and great, and allow egos and identities to intrude into the scientific process.

Notwithstanding such difficulties, the process moved forward and the result was a resulting portrait of vast, chaotic weather systems that over time yielded an understanding of climate chance on Earth. He author insists that through concerted efforts over more than 150 years scientists came to a consensus that a number of human interventions, including the burning of carbon fuels and the use of aerosols, have created the current situation and some among them have been clamoring for a public policy response since the 1980s.

This only came about because of a long process of incremental research rather than through dramatic discovery. Weart quotes one climate scientist involved in this process as characterizing climate science as a “capricious beast” and “we were poking it with a sharp stick” (p. 141). It was much harder to understand and more wily than they first realized. He also pursues the standard historian objecting of seeking “to help the reader understand our predicament by explaining how we got here,” rather than seeking to mobilize readers to a specific position (p. viii).

While not seeking to enter the political process, Weart reflected in his work the consensus of the scientific community seeking to understand this phenomenon. This is a superb study of the history of scientific inquiry and understanding written by an outstanding historian in a highly engaging style.

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