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Book review: The Long Thaw

David Archer’s The Long Thaw: How humans are changing the next 100,000 years of Earth’s climate [180 pages] is a must-read for anyone who cares about climate chaos and related energy use and public policy, albeit for not quite the usual reasons people recommend a book like that on a site like this.

If Archer’s name sounds familiar, you probably know it from his occasional writing on RealClimate, or perhaps from some recent news stories (Google “David Archer”). He’s a Professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, which explains a lot about the tone and style of The Long Thaw.

True to his title and subtitle, Archer takes the long view of our situation, and for the most part, the very long view. He starts with a couple of foundational chapters on the greenhouse effect and the evidence we’ve collected already that shows how the climate is warming, then spends only one relatively brief chapter on the rest of the current century before placing our present in the context of millenia past and future.

Armchair experts will see some familiar photos and graphs — the Larsen B ice shelf disintegrating, the record of CO2 observations from Moana Loa — but the majority of the non-text elements were new to me, and some of them struck me as very instructive, leading me to wonder why we don’t see them used more often online (assuming they’re not Archer’s creations, obviously).

There’s plenty of sobering-to-scary information here about the global warming that’s “already in the pipeline”, as the cliche goes, ocean acidification, sea level rise, carbon cycle feedbacks (including everyone’s favorite monster under the bed, methane hydrates), and how, depending on our future use of fossil fuels, we’ll likely prevent glaciation (i.e. an “ice age”) in 50,000 or 130,000 or 500,000 years. He even explains the derivation of the infinitely quoted “80% by 2050″ greenhouse gas reduction.

Throughout, Archer presents this material in about as calm and non-sensationalistic a way as one could imagine. There’s no hysteria, no overreaching, no politics, no claims of unwarranted certainty, and no finger pointing. He sticks to his facts and lets them tell the story, which is one reason why I called The Long Thaw a must read: Many of the people who regularly read web sites about energy and environmental issues will learn (or, at a minimum, be reminded of) the value of not turning every discussion about such topics into a cross between a formal debate and a street fight. Of course, the main reason to buy and read the book is that it’s simply very well done, and will no doubt serve as both a tutorial and a reference for concerned amateurs, like us.

One of the few places where Archer’s personality peers at us through the facts comes in the final paragraphs of the epilogue:

We will conclude by considering the awesome potential energy impacts of gasoline on Earth. When it is burned, it yields about 2500 kilocalories of energy, but this is just the beginning. Its carbon is released as CO2 to the atmosphere, trapping the Earth’s radiant energy by absorbing infrared radiation. About three-quarters of the CO2 will go away in a few centuries, but the rest will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

If we add up the total amount of energy trapped by the CO2 from the gallon of gas over its atmospheric lifetime, we find that our gallon of gasoline ultimately traps one hundred billion (100,000,000,000) kilocalories of useless and unwanted greenhouse heat. The bad energy from burning that gallon ultimately outweighs the good energy by a factor of about 40 million.

The enormous world-altering potential of that gallon of gasoline has taken the reins of Earth’s climate away from its natural stabilizing feedback systems, and given them to us. May we use our newfound powers wisely.

We can only hope that enough of us get the message.

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