The Discovery of Global Warming (New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine Series)

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A Capricious Beast

Ever since the days when he had trudged around fossil lake basins in Nevada for his doctoral thesis, Wally Broecker had been interested in sudden climate shifts. The reported sudden jumps of CO2 in Greenland ice cores stimulated him to put this interest into conjunction with his oceanographic interests. The result was a surprising and important calculation. The key was what Broecker later described as a "great conveyor belt'"of seawater carrying heat northward. . . . The energy carried to the neighborhood of Iceland was "staggering," Broecker realized, nearly a third as much as the Sun sheds upon the entire North Atlantic. If something were to shut down the conveyor, climate would change across much of the Northern Hemisphere…

There was reason to believe a shutdown could happen swiftly. In many regions the consequences for climate would be spectacular. Broecker was foremost in taking this disagreeable news to the public. In 1987 he wrote that we had been treating the greenhouse effect as a 'cocktail hour curiosity,' but now 'we must view it as a threat to human beings and wildlife.' The climate system was a capricious beast, he said, and we were poking it with a sharp stick.

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Editorial Reviews

American Scientist
This short, well-written book by a science historian at the American Institute of Physics adds a serious voice to the overheated debate about global warming and would serve as a great starting point for anyone who wants to better understand the issue.
— Maureen Christie
The Discovery of Global Warming incorporates a vast amount of information into a short, readable and punchy narrative. It is an excellent introduction to the subject for the non-specialist and the academic reader alike. In addition, the companion online project will doubtless prove an invaluable resource to the field.

— Piers J. Hale

A soberly written synthesis of science and politics.
— Gilbert Taylor
Environmental History
The evolution of the climate question from science to politics and back and forth has been the subject of surprisingly few in-depth treatments…Spencer Weart's The Discovery of Global Warming goes a long way toward rectifying this situation. Weart…is most effective at laying out the early scientific developments, and discussing how scientists moved the issue onto governmental research agendas…Weart highlights the importance of the actions of networks of scientist in constructing a bridge form science to policy on an arcane issue of no apparent urgency to the general public. He correctly points to the key leadership role of Swedish climatologist Bert Bolin in shepherding his colleagues toward consensus, beginning in the late 1960s. Weart's exploration of the science-policy interaction in the 1970s, which focused largely on increasing support for research, is thorough… One of the most useful features of this book is the timeline of events following the last chapter…The clear value of this book to scholars, reporters, and the interested public will hopefully spawn additional efforts that will fill these gaps, and lead to a greater understanding of scientists as political actors. The Discovery of Global Warming has done us all a great favor by pointing the way.
— Michael Oppenheimer
Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin
The Discovery of Global Warming…tells a marvelous story that is far more complex than the title indicates. This book is not just the history of the study of rising atmospheric [carbon dioxide] concentrations, global warming, and associated politics. In addition, it is the history of climate science in a much broader sense, and how climate science grew out of diverse fields such as meteorology, astrophysics, and oceanography. The book provides not only a superb summary of the history of this field, but also outlines the path that led the science of global change into the political arena…I have nothing but praise for The Discovery of Global Warming. It is concise, well written, and delightful to read. For the non-scientist, there is much to be gained by reading this book. At the same time, a person with a scientific background and some knowledge of this subject matter will also enjoy the book…The book is marvelously referenced, so the interested reader can easily go back into the original scientific literature and find the papers discussed here. As an added bonus (and this is a big bonus), The Discovery of Global Warming also has a phenomenal companion web site, with two-dozen essays interconnected by several hundred hyperlinks, along with over 1,000 historical and scientific references not included in the book.
— David J. Burdige
This is a terrific book...Perhaps the finest compliment I could give this book is to report that I intend to use it instead of my own book...for my climate class. The Discovery of Global Warming is more up-to-date, better balanced historically, beautifully written and, not least important, short and to the point. I think the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] needs to enlist a few good historians like Weart for its next assessment.
— Stephen H. Schneider
New York Times Book Review
Charting the evolution and confirmation of the theory [of global warming], Spencer R. Weart, director of the Center for the History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, dissects the interwoven threads of research and reveals the political and societal subtexts that colored scientists' views and the public reception their work received.
— Andrew C. Revkin
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Spencer Weart's account provides much valuable and interesting material about how the discipline developed--not just from the perspective of climate science but also within the context of the field's relation to other scientific disciplines, the media, political trends, and even 20th-century history (particularly the Cold War). In addition, Weart has done a valuable service by recording for posterity background information on some of the key discoveries and historical figures who contributed to our present understanding of the global warming problem.
— Thomas J. Crowley
The Independent
It is almost two centuries since the French mathematician Jean Baptiste Fourier discovered that the Earth was far warmer than it had any right to be, given its distance from the Sun...Spencer Weart's book about how Fourier's initially inconsequential discovery finally triggered urgent debate about the future habitability of the Earth is lucid, painstaking and commendably brief, packing everything into 200 pages.
— Fred Pearce
Times Higher Education Supplement
Weart has done us all a service by bringing the discovery of global warming into a short, compendious and persuasive book for a general readership. He is especially strong on the early days and the scientific background.
— Crispin Tickell
Times Literary Supplement
[The Discovery of Global Warming] is a well-written, well-researched and well-balanced account of the issues involved...This is not a sermon for the faithful, or verses from Revelation for the evangelicals, but a serious summary for those who like reasoned argument. Read it--and be converted.
— John Emsley
The New York Times
The Discovery of Global Warming describes the intellectual journey toward that conclusion, with all of its false starts, flawed hypotheses, inventiveness and persistent uncertainties. It reveals the effort as one of the great exercises in collective sleuthing, with pivotal insights provided by experts in fields as varied as glaciology, physics and even plankton paleontology. Charting the evolution and confirmation of the theory, Spencer R. Weart...dissects the interwoven threads of research and reveals the political and societal subtexts that colored scientists' views and the public reception their work received.—Andrew C. Revkin
The Washington Post
Humankind is smarter than the frog caught unawares in a pot of water that slowly reaches its boiling point. Weart -- whose style is dry to the point of brittle -- shows that we, unlike the frog, at least will know we're getting cooked. — Tom Graham
USA Today
This short, well-written book by a science historian at the American Institute of Physics adds a serious voice to the overheated debate about global warming and would serve as a great starting point for anyone who wants to better understand the issue. — Dan Veragno
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Spencer R. Weart is Director Emeritus of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics.

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Table of Contents


1. How Could Climate Change?

2. Discovering a Possibility

3. A Delicate System

4. A Visible Threat

5. Public Warnings

6. The Erratic Beast

7. Breaking into Politics

8. The Discovery Confirmed




Further Reading


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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2004

    A Good Overview, but Incomplete

    This book gives a good historical and scientific overview of global warming. Among the things it covers well are where the idea came from about 100 years ago, the way science now works and its unquenchable thirst for ever increasing funding, the complexity of the global climate, and how our understanding of the the global climate is basically determined by the sophistication and power of the computer programs used to model it. On the down side, little unbiased attention is given to the dissenters from the current global warming concensus, and, in the end, although the evidence is convincing that warming has occurred over the last century or so, how much of it is due human civilization (i.e., the fossil fuel economy) and how much is due to the inherent cyclicality of the global climate is not elucidated. Also, specifics are not given on the consequences of the rise in temperature. An understanding of this is necessary to determine the best approach to the problem.

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