I wouldn't characterize "Behind the Curve" as a great summer read. But how could I ignore this book by Reed College professor Joshua P. Howe, which takes a hard look at the scientific study of global climate change and how the phenomenon has been variously interpreted, ignored and embraced by policy makers at various levels over the last half century?
The book opens with a daunting list of abbreviations - you'll recognize IMF, perhaps, and USIA - but what about ECOSOC, UNFCCC, USACDA and the like? Familiarize yourself with these - in chapter after chapter, you'll be wading through this alphabet soup.
Howe begins his narrative with a discussion of the Keeling Curve, the measurement begun in 1958 and recorded every month since then of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The line on the graph has shot steeply upward, increasing by 40 percent - with the CO2 measurement in April of this year rising to over 400 parts per million, the first time in human history that it has ever been this high.
The book points out that 50-plus years of scientific research have accompanied these measurements and anticipated the impacts of the rise in human-produced greenhouse gases - phenomena such as extreme weather, vanishing glaciers, and sea level rise. But incredibly, even as the predicted scenarios have begun to manifest in catastrophic form (recent events in the United States alone include massive hurricanes, tornado outbreaks, epic droughts and unseasonal flooding), the political will to address the problem has not been mustered.
Howe believes that the nature of scientific inquiry, which values skepticism and challenges, has in some ways contributed to the lack of decisive action. Special interest groups and their well-bankrolled media outlets and political allies have seized upon relatively minor points of dissension among scientists and cynically tried to spin that in a way to cast doubt upon the veracity of the climate change problem.
But the human costs of inaction have been enormous - we are indeed behind the curve.
This book details how climate science has been funded and prosecuted since the Cold War era, how it has interfaced with politics, economic concerns and environmental movements both domestically and internationally, and how that context has limited efforts to create meaningful change.
As astute as Howe's analysis is, his book in some ways becomes another cog in the problematic machine. It shines the spotlight on a complex problem, but doesn't really make a difficult topic more accessible to the average reader.
The epilogue provides some glimmers of hope. While international organizations and the feds seem to dither and bicker, there is energetic political advocacy taking place at local and regional levels. (In our state, Governor Jay Inslee formed a carbon emissions reduction task force this spring, and earlier this week entered into a partnership with United Kingdom energy officials to work together on market-based solutions to tackle climate change.)
Will efforts at this scale succeed in putting us ahead of the curve? That remains to be seen.
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"Behind the Curve," Joshua P. Howe