Tuesday, 18 January 2011

A World without Ice – Henry Pollack ****

This book might well have passed me by if it had not been shortlisted for the 2010 Royal Society science book prize. I hope the book receives the exposure it deserves – Henry Pollack gets across well the dangers we face if we do not prevent further global warming and melting of the world’s ice.
We see how, if we are not careful, rising sea levels, caused by the melting of ice sheets, will lead to the flooding of low-lying island nations, and how parts of South America will be without water for drinking and agriculture after the snow and ice on top of the Andes have disappeared. We see how the melting of permafrost will release the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, exacerbating the warming of the planet, and how underwater animal species that rely on sea ice for their development will struggle to survive once the ice is gone, producing knock on effects all the way up food chains.
The book isn’t limited to these discussions, however, and considerable space is also given earlier on to a variety of surrounding topics. In these sections we look at, for instance, what the world was like during past ice ages and how ice has shaped earth’s landscapes historically, and the strength of the consensus among scientists about the extent of future global warming and what have been the main causes of warming in the past.
The author is good at making simple analogies to get across important points. When looking at the causes of global warming in the earlier sections, for example, Pollack discusses the IPCC’s position in 2007 that there is a 90 percent chance that humans are responsible for most of the warming in the second half of last century. Some have seized on the remaining 10 percent to argue that there is uncertainty around the role humans have played. But, as Pollack says, if you were to go into a casino and be told that, for any game you choose, you would be given a 9 out of 10 chance of success, you would feel very confident indeed about going home with a lot of money. There is very little doubt about the extent to which humans have driven climate change, and are accelerating the transition to a world without ice.
Nothing gets in the way of the book’s message – the science is easy to understand and the writing is very approachable. It’s difficult to find anything significantly wrong with the book. I wondered whether it could have spent a little more time on what action we as governments and individuals need to take, given the position we are in – this is dealt with fairly briefly. It could also have been useful to hear directly from individuals in the communities most threatened by rising sea levels and the loss of ice about the specific difficulties in their daily lives they will likely be forced to contend with, and are already dealing with. These human stories would have made the consequences of ice loss seem a little less abstract.
These are small drawbacks, however. All in all, this is a well written book that should alert us to the importance of tackling global warming, and stopping ice loss, urgently.
Paperback:  
Also in Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

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