The Physics of Climate Change

By Lawrence M Krauss
Published by Head of Zeus, 2021, RRP £14.99

Review by Tim Barton

One of the problems of objectivity displayed by many media outlets is a false idea of ‘balance’. This is as much driven by wanting a ‘story’ as anything else. For example, the astrophysicist that says Oumuamua is an alien spaceship, or a ‘solar sail’ that broke off one, has had a lot of attention lately. Little counter-narrative has been run, so an interpretation that vanishingly few other astrophysicists take seriously becomes, uncritically, part of general discourse. In most issues, a ‘let’s give both sides equal space’ attitude is adopted. Climate change, and human influence on climate-heating, has stories run in both categories – unbalanced fringe ideas are seen very much out of context.

Thus, it is no surprise that a large proportion of the general population are convinced that anthropogenic warming is ‘made up’ – presenting a 50:50 discussion, where half the space goes to reputedly ‘establishment’ scientists and the other half to a teeny-tiny number of naysayers, is sold as ‘fair’. If less than 1% (much less) of ‘experts’ object to the consensus, why give them half the space? It is clearly a false ‘balance’, and equally obviously sows dangerously unschooled doubt amongst the broader public. 

IT IS PARTICULARLY GALLING TO HEAR YOUNGER PEOPLE DECLARE IT IS A ‘LIE’

Many of those wheeled out as climate-change deniers have, sure, scientific or engineering credentials – but the majority of them are not in relevant fields, or, more correctly, are in fields where there are definite non-science reasons for them to take a denialist position. Some are blatant – such as oil-industry employed and/or sponsored scientists and technicians; some are simply paid large amounts of cash to toe a denialist line; and some are less obvious at first glance. For example, if you look at the degree to which modern industrial agriculture is dependent upon vast amounts of fossil fuel (for example, in creating artificial fertilisers, which using the Haber-Bosch process needs three tonnes of crude per tonne of fertiliser) you can see how experts in that field may have an axe to grind, without the appropriate credentials, and will appear in an article with their academic position sold as relevant.

It is no wonder that the public is ‘confused’, with many simply denying climate change effected by humans is a thing at all. It is particularly galling to hear younger people declare it is ‘a lie’ ‘because corporations say it is ‘true’, for those of us who spent decades lobbying to get the same corporations to admit it in the first place. It is also of note that much of the money poured into the denialist movement (whose online presence, especially, is overwhelming) comes from companies who are publicly giving lip-service to climate change. As I have recorded before, many of the ‘green’ schemes they are involved in are not even remotely sustainable technologies, either, but very little is said about that in the media.

SOME OF THE ACTUAL FIGURES STILL HAD THE POWER TO SHOCK ME

However, Lawrence Krauss does not spend much time on the politics, as he wishes his (excellent) book to reach an audience that includes climate cynics. He presents the science, the background to the science, and acknowledges – and contextualises – a number of caveats relating to exasperated climate scientists overstating the kind of predictions their models can make (or under-explaining them). As a reader already well-versed in the realities of the changes we are wreaking upon our biosphere, there was little I wasn’t broadly aware of (which is a good thing, it shows he has the right approach to conveying the message), nevertheless some of the actual figures still had the power to shock me. They shocked Krauss, too, which was a major motivation in his writing the book.

I resoundingly recommend every climate change advocate, and every doubter, to read the book. There is not room here to repeat his arguments, and they are not soundbite-sized half-truths (which is all magazine, blog, and newspaper pieces can really reproduce) but equally they are approachable, and, like any good teacher, Krauss builds the foundations for the reader to follow him into the more complex issues comfortably. However, a couple of interesting takeaways are: Did you know that most of the current sea-level change, and possibly over the long-term 50% of it, is not from ice sheet-melt but from thermal expansion?; Did you realise that the ‘carbon cycle’ was in approximate balance until the industrial revolution, with emissions and absorption of 0.03 gigatonnes per year but that in 2018 alone we have emitted 10 gigatonnes (over 300 times more than can be taken up by natural processes, and thus exponentially increasing atmospheric CO2 levels)? To put that into context, we have spent the last 200 years (each year more so than the last) burning fossil fuels that took hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years to form deep underground.

OUR CHOICES NOW ARE MITIGATION OR ‘NO-ONE GETS OUT OF HERE ALIVE’

Krauss gives us a necessary picture not just of possible future effects under different scenarios (our achieving net zero emissions; our reducing emissions, but by less than that; our failing to reduce emissions or even increasing them), all of which he acknowledges are ‘unknowns’ to a degree. His real point, one we perforce must hear, is how much of the projected change is already locked-in due to our past emissions, regardless of our actions today or tomorrow. Our choices now are mitigation, or ‘no-one gets out of here alive’ – there is no way at this stage to simply negate or roll-back the effects – and obviously Krauss is interested in mitigation (whilst healthily cynical of ‘geo-engineering’).

‘Denialism’, ‘againstism’, and polarisation of debate have been increasingly normalised (and I will be writing more here on that soon) but we absolutely cannot afford to keep playing such games – it is literally the case that our future depends on it. Please read this book, or gift it to the denialist in your family, it is a very solid and approachable introduction to the real story.


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