Book Review: Behind the Curve

Here is the latest in Mark Neely’s series of reviews of books on climate change.

Review of Joshua P. Howe, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014)
This review has benefited from discussion with Carl Evensen, Milton Cole, and Sylvia Neely.

Historian Joshua P. Howe offers readers an able narrative of the development of climate change issues in American politics and government from the Cold War to 2014, by which time, he argues, the issue had moved from a national security context to a new one more concerned with economic issues. The strength of the book lies in Howe’s ability to capture the cultures of modern reform movements. 

The climate change issue developed first in a Cold War context. Scientists drove the issue by their curiosity about the atmosphere and by their persistent quest for research funding. They grew adept at speaking to other scientists and to informed government bureaucrats. They did not develop more popular communication skills along the way.

The burgeoning environmental movement, not the same thing at all, grew in its own way. As non-government organizations, they became adept at making emotional appeals to a popular constituency of outdoorsy middle-class Americans who did not want to see their forests dismembered and their streams fouled with pollutants. They were often vaguely anti-technology, which was symbolized for them by machines like bulldozers and chainsaws. Atmospheric science was Big Science utterly dependent on technology. It required aircraft, satellites, ocean-going ships, and expensive technical equipment for monitoring the skies of the whole world. Since climate scientists talked mostly to other climate scientists and to governmental agencies, the issue of climate change did not quickly rise on the agendas of the large and successful environmental organizations.

The climate issue had then, and still has, special problems for public communication. Have you ever felt the “weight” of a ton of carbon dioxide on your head and shoulders? The problem is invisible and therefore abstract. CO2 is not a “pollutant,” in the same sense that chemical runoff is. It knows no boundaries and has no smell. The problem of CO2 in the atmosphere is ipso facto a world problem, not a local one merely requiring the cleanup of this lake or that marsh. And in substantial part, we all put it in the atmosphere, simply by running our daily errands to the grocery store and going to work.

When it became clear to scientists that CO2 in the atmosphere was a danger to the future of the planet and needed some sort of political solutions, the atmospheric scientists hadn’t the skills or habits useful in public communication. They needed what the environmental movement already had: a big following wrought by public relations, advertising, good graphics, professionally designed logos, and appeals to sentiment (rather than reason).
The great turning point was not scientific at all. It was political: the advent of Ronald Reagan to the American presidency. Of course, President Reagan did not lead a popular crusade to end global warming. On the contrary, he raced in the opposite direction, attempting to thwart environmentalism at every turn. A master of political communication, he left us the brilliant symbol of removing solar panels from the White House. Outside the realm of symbology, Reagan also dealt serious practical blows to environmental regulations and research by his appointments of impolitic extremists like Ann Gorsuch as head of the Environmental Protection Agency and James Watt as Secretary of the Interior. 

The climate scientists and the environmentalists found themselves at last united in opposition to the threats posed by the Reagan administrations. And if they were not there already, they migrated heavily to the Democratic Party. The migration was furthered by the great success of onetime Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth (brilliantly titled, though few people mention that) which, more to Howe’s point, “inserted CO2 and global warming into the consciousness of the American middle class, a group that climate scientists had largely ignored until the 1990s. This was something new” (p. 201).

I have just put together a coherent narrative of the history of climate change as an issue, and it is based entirely on what Joshua Howe describes in this book. Read the book. We need to know how we got where we are now and when it all started. We owe great thanks to the author for providing this believable and useful narrative. 

It does not constitute summer beach reading, however. The narrative is clear enough but necessarily encumbered with the initials for modern scientific and governmental organizations. The list of abbreviations at the very front of the book—from AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) to WMO (World Meteorological Organization) includes those for 32 organizations. They appear on most pages of the book and sometimes in profusion on even one page. The title of the book, incidentally, refers to a chemist names Charles Keeling. The issue of climate change would not be an issue most likely, without very recent and sophisticated devices for measurement. Keeling devised one of these and began measuring CO2 in the atmosphere in parts per million in 1957. Graphed over time, these became the familiar and essential upward curve of carbon concentration in the atmosphere, once the brief and temporary peaks and valleys of seasonal variation were straightened out by averaging.

Howe’s book is not always as clear in analyzing the history as the Keeling curve was in showing the path of CO2. He thinks that putting science first has always failed and that somehow it persisted as a nemesis to popular success even after Gore’s movie. This constitutes having it two ways—Gore did something new and yet it was also old in deferring to science. But if not science, one asks, what? The conclusion of Behind the Curve, which offers an uplifting brief for “moral engagement” (p. 207), sounds like the ending for another book to me.
I propose something different. Perhaps we need a systemic, institutional solution to the inadequacies of a “science first” approach to questions involving science at their very heart. We could surely use master’s degree programs in science communication, which would require competence in some specific scientific field, such as biology or astronomy, along with mastery of what is not customarily required in such fields, writing and knowledge of intellectually powerful scientific literature, from Darwin to Rachel Carson and beyond. A master’s program would not require a generation to give the world a supply of people who could communicate the issue to a broader public. Along with education reform, there must be journalism reform, too. Modern media should employ these future graduates and institutionalize consideration of science in our daily news.

This review is brief by design and omits detail, yet the angel in Howe’s narrative lies in those very details, a rich soup of careful references to the work of many scientific and government agencies and their leaders.

Mark E. Neely, Jr.
Member, State College Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby

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