Skip to main content

Heatstroke – Anthony D. Barnosky *****

I thought I knew what this book would be about as soon as I saw that subtitle ‘nature in an age of global warming’. Save the polar bear, blah, blah… pity the poor furry creature. In fact it proved to be a wonderful surprise. What hits you first is Anthony Barnosky’s excellent writing style. It’s pitched at just the right level. It draws you in, keeps you interested and never gets stuffy. There’s enough of Barnosky’s voice in there to make it personal, and he really knows how put science across with enthusiasm and to great effect.
Then there’s the content. Barnosky carefully shows us how climate change has affected nature in the past – how some species adapt or move to cope while others will inevitably be wiped out. In that, the impact of global warming on nature is a perfectly normal occurrence. But, he argues, things are different now, in part because of the different pace of change, and in part because we have chopped up nature into small chunks and pushed species so close to their limits. The result is that there can be no unaided escape for many, many species. It should be obvious really. As climates have changed in the past, a species would move with its preferred climate. But if you’re cooped up in a national park in one part of the country and need to head north (say), what can you do when there’s a city and miles of concrete roads in the way?
Even if we don’t care about the at-risk species in isolation, Barnosky points out how much we benefit from having access to nature. There’s a risk here of using the Tefal ploy. This is the spurious argument for the space programme that says it’s worth spending all those billions on it because we get all the spinoffs. Like, er, non-stick frying pans. But there is a stronger argument for the benefits of nature, whether its in medicine or Barnosky’s example of the heat resistant bacteria, without which we would never have developed any of the DNA manipulation technology we use today, from DNA fingerprinting to medical applications of being able to slice and dice DNA. This still isn’t a great argument for saving the lesser spotted snark (or whatever), but it’s fair to say we don’t know what we need to save until we find the application.
One danger with such a book is that it’s all doom and gloom and there are no solutions. That isn’t the case here. While Barnosky’s suggestions for doing our own bits to save the planet (use low energy lightbulbs etc.) are fairly trivial he’s strong on suggestions for dealing with the impact of climate change on wildlife environments with a mantra of keep, connect, create that is persuasively argued. Whether it’s possible to find funding for this in a climate of recession is a different matter – but Barnosky certainly carries the day with his arguments.
My only concern about this book is the accuracy of one crucial piece of information. It repeatedly refers to the fact that recent global warming is much faster than any natural warming, saying that we could have a rise of up to 5 °C in as little as fifty years. This is compared with a similar rise between the last ice period and the current interglacial, which took hundreds of years to happen, allowing species to adapt. Contrast this with a comment by Australian climate change expert Will Steffen who said ‘Abrupt change seems to be the norm, not the exception.’ According to him, on 23 occasions during the last ice age, air temperatures went through massive climbs, pushing temperatures up by as much as 10 °C in around 40 years. Similarly Richard Alley, in a report for the US National Academy of Sciences, concluded ‘Recent scientific evidence shows that major and widespread climate changes have occurred with startling speed… this new thinking is little known and scarcely appreciated in the wider community of natural and social scientists and policymakers.’ While this contradiction doesn’t undermine all the other great stuff in Heatstroke, it is a rather worrying contrast of information.
All in all, this is a superb book with a powerful message that we ignore at our peril. There is much more at stake than the poster-animal polar bear. It’s something we ought to hear more about. Highly recommended.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…