Wednesday’s Book Review: “Intimate Universality”

cvr-intimateIntimate Universality: Local and Global Themes in the History of Climate and Weather. Edited by James Rodger Fleming, Vladimir Jankovic, and Deborah R. Coen. Sagamore Beach: MA: Science History Publications, 2006.

Although nearly a decade old now, Intimate Universality is a collected work that James Rodger Fleming, Colby College, has edited along with Vladimir Jankovic, University of Manchester, and Deborah R. Coen, Columbia University, that still has great value. The eight chapters of this book offer a set of fascinating snapshots of historical episodes suggesting a broad perspective on the manner in which humans have understood climate since the Enlightenment. While all of the essays were quite useful I found a few of them especially provocative.

Well familiar with the work of William Herschel in astronomy, I was taken by Greg Good’s analysis in chapter 2 of Herschel’s climatic studies. Equally helpful were the two chapters by Roger Turner and Greg Cushman tying together the need for accurate weather prediction and the development of aviation in the Western Hemisphere. Cushman’s linkage of atmospheric sciences and aviation technology to American colonial aspirations in the first half of the twentieth century is an especially intriguing idea that should not be accepted blindly but offers truly exciting prospects for future historical investigation.

Then there is perhaps the signature contribution of the volume, Fleming’s “Global Climate Change and Human Agency: Inadvertent Influence and ‘Archimedean’ Interventions,” which comments on the nature of global climate change, and especially actions being debated in the public policy arena to counteract our warming planet. He discussed how some have advocated the use of giant sunshades in space or “geoengineering” with orbiting dust and other proposed countermeasures as countermeasures to the pattern of global warming that scientists warn about.

I was reminded in reading this essay of the remarks of Al Gore at the X-Prize Executive Summit that I attended on October 19, 2006. He said of these schemes, “In a word, I think it is nuts. If we don’t know enough to stop putting 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere every day, how in god’s name can we know enough to precisely counteract that?” He had even stronger words for those who denied the reality of global warming. “Our planet has a rising fever. If the crib catches fire you don’t say: ‘Hmmm, how fast is that crib going to burn? Has it ever burned before? Is my baby flame retardant?’”

I think Fleming also sees a similar danger in the public policy considerations of global climate change, noting that the proposed cure through geoengineering may be worse that the disease. Better would be invoking the first law of holes, when you are in one stop digging. As his analysis shows, continued pollution of our planet should be curtailed, stopped entirely in the near term, and counteracted in a more distant future.

This foray into public policy history and analysis is a welcome addition to an important and useful book. I congratulate all those responsible for the publication of this fine volume. I am certain that it will become an important benchmark in the historiography of climate change and weather studies.

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