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Future Weather

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As an engineer, climate scientist and former journalist, Heidi Cullen has a unique perspective on climate change.

Other recent books like Eric Pooley's excellent The Climate War or Laurence Smith's lamentable The World in 2050 look at the struggle over consequences of climate change. Cullen's book, Weather of the Future, begins with her realization that scientists have done a poor job helping people understand the causes, magnitude and stakes of ongoing climate change. This worries her because she knows that if America does nothing to fix climate change "until after it has begun to affect us personally... it will be too late."

Cullen feels the scientific community has failed to "communicate the threat of climate in a way that [makes] it real for people." They have not "given people the proper tools to see that the impacts of climate change are visible right now and they go far beyond melting ice caps." Weather of the Future is her attempt to remedy science's failure to convey the immediacy and importance of a threat that has been left as an easily dismissed abstraction for nearly 30 years.

A good first attempt to"'make climate change" real is Cullen's explication of the historical development of the computer models that predict climate in chapter three. The whole chapter is a lucid explanation of how we can attribute escalating temperatures to human rather than natural "forcings" (processes that result in changes to the climate). The chapter closes with a second strong proof of climate change's human origins through "carbon fingerprinting" that traces the isotopes of atmospheric CO2 back to their origins in fossil (and other) fuels.

There are obligatory chapters about the Sahel and the Great Barrier Reef, and these are fresh and informative, but in chapter seven (which concerns California's Central Valley) Weather of the Future finds its footing and begins landing solid body blows.

The entire chapter is really a warning about America's next most likely environmental disaster. Like Hurricane Katrina, the impending collapse of the Central Valley is a long foretold disaster that combines climate change in a lethal mixture that includes neglect, vested interests, and overwhelming human demands on a confined eco-system. With the lives and livelihoods of 6.5 million Americans at stake, soil liquefaction in the Central Valley seems inevitable. It will occur during a Richter level 6 or 6.5 earthquake that will destroy the agricultural heartland by driving sea water from the San Francisco Bay into the Delta that joins the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers.

Even if such an earthquake never occurs during the coming century -- a real impossibility -- sea level rise will achieve the same destructive ends by poisoning both the fresh water and rich soil of the Delta with sea-salt. As I read Cullen's pages describing the fatal game of chicken playing out in California's interior, I am reminded of Mark Schliefstein and John McQuaid's 1997 Pulitizer winning pieces warning New Orleans residents about the impending disaster of Hurricane Katrina eight years before it happened.

More good chapters follow. Refreshingly there are two separate chapters about the western and eastern Arctic, followed by a stark description of Bangladesh's vulnerability to climate change. Finally, there's an excellent chapter concerning the vulnerability the low-lying antique infrastructure of New York City to the extreme storm events and sea level rise that characterize climate change along America's northeastern shore.

Over the phone Dr. Cullen is optimistic and very positive. She ignores the geo-engineering solutions like those described in Eli Kintisch's new book Hack The Planet, saying our climate change investment dollars should be spent first on either adaptation solutions (by which she means "infrastructure investment") or on mitigation solutions (meaning "the adoption of clean-energy technology, and emissions reductions").

All that we lack is the kind of strong leadership that depression-era America found in FDR who confronted the threat of the Great Depression by solidifying the nation's political will and then mustering it resources to invest in a nation-wide program to develop America's infrastructure.

If you're tired of being confused about climate change, buy this book. It's refreshingly readable, reliable and Heidi Cullen is one of those gifted Americans who sees much "more clearly on a cloudy day".

You can find Weather of the Future here

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