BOOK REVIEW: Behind the Curve by Joshua P. Howe

Some 26 years ago, another State of the World Report published by the World Watch Institute hit my desk. That volume included a description of a growing concern about the world’s changing climate. About the same time, James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies made his first appearance before a major Congressional Committee. He described the natural heat-trapping characteristics of earth’s atmosphere and how the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities were resulting in increased levels of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases. The changes in atmospheric chemistry were, predictably changing the world’s climate.

As the new science and technology research director for the Michigan Legislative Service Bureau, I had been aware of this discussion, but now I was alarmed. My office completed a scan of the published research and recent reports from other organizations; then, we generated a brief for the legislature calling attention to the challenges of climate change. That research paper hit the floor with a thud.Behind_the_Curve

The fact that a legislative research paper on climate change delivered in 1990 was completely ignored would come as no surprise to Joshua P. Howe. He is the author of Behind the Curve – Science and the Politics of Global Warming (http://www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/HOWBEH.html), a new book just published by University of Washington Press. A professor of environmental studies at Reed College, Howe offers a thoroughly documented historical review of the entangling of scientific research and funding priorities with national and international politics.

The curve in this book is the plot of atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii by Charles David Keeling (and others). As part of a larger climate monitoring effort, Keeling first measured atmospheric carbon dioxide at an average of 315 parts per million (ppm) in 1958. Tracking with the increasing levels of fossil fuel use and global energy production, carbon dioxide concentrations have continued to rise since 1958, hitting 401.75 in May of this year. (For more, see: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/)

From_NOAA_co2_data_mlo

Keeling’s measurements (i.e., Keeling’s curve) and others have been gathered with the extensive climate research conducted, refined and confirmed over the past 50 years. As noted in this year’s National Climate Assessment (http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/), human-caused discharges of greenhouse gases are resulting in climate changes that threaten our way of life. And yet, a national response has been mired in political posturing, delay, and obfuscation.

Howe offers a detailed, but accessible review of how budgetary debates and political agendas dating back to the Cold War helped to polarize this topic. Ultimately, he says, the rise of economics as the key rubric for environmental decision making completely changed the discussion about climate and all environmental issues. Economic globalism has required a commitment to sustainable development or, more accurately, sustained development.

Without a doubt, Howe’s work is a valuable contribution to the history of science. Thoroughly researched and well documented, the book breaks down the interplay between the proponents of unbridled economic development and the narrow interests of bureaucrats and politicians. From Keeling’s scientific research on climate right up to today’s combative and nonsensical politics, we continue to fall behind in addressing the challenges of climate change. Perhaps by better understanding the past, we will discover ways to move beyond the politics of denial and begin the real work of adapting to a changing climate while reducing carbon emissions.

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