What books should students buy? Setting up a new postgraduate course in climate change a few years ago, I yet again had to address the tricky question of course texts. The problem is that textbooks on environmental change have an extremely short shelflife. Scientific understanding is improving rapidly and public policy is evolving fast. Given, say, two years from the point when the first character is entered into the word processor to availability in the book shops, a degree of prescience is needed if any text is not to be immediately out-dated by events.
So will Human Impacts on Weather and Climate be on my recommended reading list? The authors, William Cotton and Roger Pielke of Colorado State University, have established reputations as practising scientists. The book is intended for an undergraduate and graduate audience. The coverage is wide-ranging, from local processes such as cloud seeding through the regional effects of pollution, urbanisation and land use change, to the global impacts of nuclear war, anthropogenic aerosols and greenhouse gas emissions. So far so good.
But a closer look reveals a serious problem. The latest journal articles cited were published in 1991. The only material that is more recent, from 1992, consists solely of grey literature such as conference papers and the like. The technical content of the book inevitably reflects the bibliography, a reasonably good account of the state of understanding in the late 1980s. Even by the standards of academic publishers, this book would appear to have taken a long time to get into print.
With a little detective work, the explanation can be found in the book's publication history. Originally published by *ASTeR Press of Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1992, the book has now been republished this side of the Atlantic. A valuable opportunity to update the science given the many developments since the turn of the decade? To review the policy debate on global change over the early 1990s? To give the 1992 framework convention on climate change at least a passing mention? The bibliography would suggest not.
Indeed, as far as I can tell, the text has not been revised at all since the original publication in 1992. And there is an additional clue. A book published by Cambridge University Press is cited as the source of one of the diagrams. Cambridge University Press, Massachusetts, according to the figure caption. Clearly this was originally the result of a subediting lapse on the past of *ASTeR Press. But the error has passed unnoticed through to the current publication - by Cambridge University Press of Cambridge, England. Apparently no subediting took place there, let alone revision by the authors.
Human Impacts on Weather and Climate is, then, a straight reproduction of a 1992 book. In fact, the most up-to-date aspect of the book is the photograph on the front cover, which was taken in the summer of 1994. All in all, this is a very sloppy state of affairs that does not reflect well on any of those concerned. It is clearly a good idea to check the small print when encountering what appears to be a new publication.
But to return to the question raised in the introduction to this review. For what it is worth, my solution to the problem of redundant textbooks is comprehensive course notes, revised every year, complemented by pointers to key journal articles, current issues of the major journals and a list of topical information sources on the Internet. A rather time-consuming solution given the need to for regular updating and maintenance, but one that does ensure that students are not being taught last year's science.
And there is an added advantage. Using contemporary material, however contradictory and prone to fads it may at times be, provides a far more accurate reflection of the nature of scientific endeavour than would the predigested orthodoxy of the average textbook.
My recommendation as far as the book under review is concerned? It is well past its sell-by date. Do not buy it.
Mick Kelly is a reader with the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia.
Human Impacts on Weather and Climate
Author - William R. Cotton and Roger A. Pielke
ISBN - 0 521 49592 X and 49929 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00 and £16.95
Pages - 288