Whipping up a storm for the future

April 16, 2004

This is a book I nearly wrote - but am glad I didn't. Three years ago, I was approached by a major publishing house to lead the development of an atlas of climate change covering the climates of the 20th and 21st centuries. It was to be a mixture of maps, graphs and case studies, linked by narrative text. I am glad it did not happen because I could never have competed with this splendid volume commissioned by the World Meteorological Organisation and edited by the widely experienced William Burroughs.

This is no book for weather anoraks. It is history, handbook, course text, popular science and polemic all rolled into 240 pages of beautifully illustrated narrative, everything presented in colourful and digestible two-page chunks. Could anyone communicate in just 240 pages the fascinating relationship between climate, history, science and society more clearly and boldly than this?

The evolution of this relationship forms the story of the book. Throughout it is laced with historical perspectives on how climate has changed, how society has struggled to tame the excesses and harness the attributes of climate, and how scientists have measured and sought to understand climate.

Fine pen portraits are provided of eight giants of the science - Arrhenius, Milankovitch, Walker, Murray Mitchell, Landsberg, Fujita, Stommel and Lamb -although such selection is always dangerous when the challengers to this hall of fame are so numerous.

This story demonstrates the enormous range of sciences involved in the study and management of climate. They include not only the obvious ones of meteorology, hydrology, oceanography, biology and economics, but also the less obvious ones of information science, environmental law, politics, psychology, sociology and development studies. Our new appreciation of the global interdependencies that climate introduces into the modern world and our realisation that humans are altering the functioning of the planetary climate system make it imperative that these realms of knowledge are adequately deployed to help society through the enormous management challenge that climate change presents us with.

The story also demonstrates the extent to which our perceptions of climate, and our expectation of the climatic future, are almost as important as the reality of climate. This has always been the case - in primitive as well as in modern societies - but the psychological aspect of climate is now even more important for understanding our relationship with climate, given that we are changing the characteristics of weather in ways difficult to quantify. Sections four and five, "Climate for a better society" and "The century ahead", touch on this aspect, although they leave the reader with the feeling that, even here, scientific and technological innovation will somehow overcome some of the basic contradictions of human behaviour. It would have been good to have seen one or two spreads illustrating the psychological hold that future weather has on human behaviour.

The story is also mildly polemical, as it has to be with regard to the climatic future. We entered the 21st century with an international climate change convention negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations and signed by virtually all the world's sovereign states. Even though the Kyoto Protocol has now stalled, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change provides the umbrella under which action can proceed. It is thus now impossible to think about climate without considering the politics of climate change. Such considerations take us into the murkier waters of fair trade, geopolitics and international security. Burroughs skirts these issues, but sets out the imperative by stating that "international cooperation is the only way to produce a coherent response to global climate issues". The WMO sponsors this book, so it is perhaps not surprising that the call to action is couched in more diplomatic language than that used by the UK's chief scientist, Sir David King, who said recently that, in his view, climate change was a bigger global threat than terrorism.

Burroughs, for all his writing and editing experience on weather and climate, was privileged to work under the guidance of a team of international experts chaired by WMO task team leader Mary Voice. The team developed the scope of the book and was itself ably supported by experts from around the world who critically reviewed the content and assured the integrity of the information provided. The book is a team effort, but one that is given wonderful coherence by Burroughs. It also benefits from the backing of the WMO in gaining access to pictorial, graphical and factual material that so well illustrates the core narrative. Although I am familiar with the domain covered by the book, it still threw up absorbing new nuggets of information.

One final compliment. The book leaves one with the renewed thought that climate, in all its dimensions, and with its implications for society, is a subject worthy of sustained study. It reminded me that this combination of intellectual challenge and social responsibility first lured me into the research field a quarter of a century ago. I hope the book awakens similar passions in others.

Mike Hulme is director, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia.

Climate: Into the 21st century

Editor - William Burroughs
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 240
Price - £24.99
ISBN - 0 521 79202 9

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