A Global Warming Primer: book review

I have just sent a copy of this splendid book, A Global Warming Primer: Answering Your Questions about the Science, the Consequences, and the Solutions, to Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, in honor of his claim, reported under the headline E.P.A. Chief Doubts Consensus View of Climate Change, that

I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so, no, I would not agree that it’s [carbon dioxide] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.

and further

We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis.

The last comment reminded me not only of Big Tobacco but also of a remark that I think is attributable to Jared Diamond, approximately, “The person who cut down the last palm tree on Easter Island was probably calling for another study.”

If Mr. Pruitt has any doubt about the reality of global warming and our contribution to it, Jeffrey Bennett’s short book should quickly dispel that doubt. The book is written at perhaps a ninth-grade level, but a nonexpert like me can also learn a lot by reading it. Mr. Bennett uses a clear question-and-answer format and says that global warming is as simple as 1-2-3:

  1. Fact: Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas ….
  2. Fact: Human activity, especially the use of fossil fuels, … is adding significantly more of this heat-trapping gas to Earth’s atmosphere.
  3. Inevitable conclusion: We should expect the rising carbon dioxide concentration to warm our planet ….

The rest of the chapter provides evidence to establish that 1 and 2 are facts. The discussion is clear and remarkably encyclopedic, especially considering that the book is only about 130 pages long. The text is illuminated with countless graphs and figures, and clear descriptive captions (though I confess I got tired of captions that began something like, “These graphs show…”). The figures are mostly taken from other sources and are mostly clear and appropriate, but I found the figures a little hard to decipher on a black-and-white Kindle Paperwhite, so I switched to a tablet. (Note to authors of scientific papers: Make sure your figures are intelligible in black and white before you add color.)

The next chapter discusses the claims of “skeptics,” who argue that global warming is not as serious as is claimed. These amount to “global warming is not happening very fast; OK, it is happening but it is natural; anyway, there is nothing to worry about, and maybe the benefits will outweigh the risks; and, finally, oh yes, it is happening, but we cannot afford to do anything about it.” Mr. Bennett neatly disposes of the first three of those but admits that the fourth claim is harder to dispel. Thus, the fourth chapter concerning the expected consequences. These include ocean acidification; regional climate change, including storms and extreme weather; and sea ice melting and the attendant rise in sea level.

The final chapter, “The solution,” departs, in a way, from science to politics. Mr. Bennett notes correctly that many of the costs of using fossil fuels are externalized and that renewable energy sources may in fact be less expensive when the externalizations are taken into account. He vacillates, but comes down on the side of building more nuclear plants, and I share both his vacillation and his conclusion. He is more optimistic about fusion than I am, and his claim that the water from your faucet is enough to power the nation is kind of cute but wrong, inasmuch as fusion experiments use deuterium, not hydrogen. The chapter also discusses solar energy from space, biofuels, and geoengineering.

Mr. Bennett’s proposed solution to the problem of global warming is, not surprisingly, a carbon tax. He rejects cap-and-trade, in part because it is probably easier to cheat. The carbon tax must be structured to account for what Mr. Bennett correctly calls the socialized cost of fossil fuels: the externalized costs that are distributed among the population. Like many, he wants the tax to be collected and then refunded to the population, what is often called a revenue-neutral tax. He unaccountably considers this solution to be a “free-market” solution. My guess is that a refundable carbon tax will benefit the rich (in which I include much of the middle class) and harm the poor, because the rich will get the bulk of the refund and will be allowed to continue doing what they (we) have always been doing. I therefore favor a carbon tax that is not refundable but rather is used like any other revenue source; perhaps we could earmark it for some socially useful program, such as a single-payer health insurance plan.

I hope that Mr. Pruitt enjoys this book as much as I did.

P.S. If anyone wants to contact Mr. Pruitt, you may find him here: Mr. Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of the Administrator - 1101A, 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20460.