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Dr Alistair Brown
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Gale E. Christianson, Greenhouse: The 200 Year Story of Global Warming

Abstract

An accessible history of climate change science, but one which succumbs to the flaws of popularisation.

Essay

Whilst politicians and environmental lobbyists focus on the future of climate change, with a mid-twentyfirst-century tipping point in mind, Gale E. Christianson's book reminds us that climate change as a social and scientific issue has a two centuries' old history of debate and study. His book runs through from Jean Baptise Fourier's 1824 hypothesis of the "bell jar" atmosphere that keeps the Earth tepid, through the advent of industrialisation, as reflected by the evolution of the dark cousin of the peppered moth, B. carbonaria, which emerged amid the smoggy woods of Manchester in the nineteenth-century, and up to the late 1990s, with the scientific consensus growing around climate change, and the Kyoto Protocol to respond to it in 1997 (the same year as the publication of Christianson's book).

It is a swift and accessible read. But the accessibility is its downfall, as the book is frustratingly dotted with biographical irrelevancies, as if Christianson has read a Popular History for Dummies manual, and employed its guidelines here. Forget about the science, advises History for Dummies, tell readers what they looked like and throw in pointless remarks about names! So here we learn that Gregor Mendel had "a kind if wistful face" and that J.W. Tutt has a "Dickensian name." History for Dummies warns to be sure to make references only to well-known novelists, and not to writers who have the whiff of the academic about them! So here we get a pithy statement from "resident novelist" Elizabeth Gaskell on how nineteenth-century Manchester's population "only wanted a Dante to record their sufferings." Is it not more relevant that instead of an Italian poet, Manchester's residents got Russian academics, Marx and Engels, whose observations of the effects of the factory system on the population and the distribution of wealth provided the core anthropological data for Marxism? Not mentioning either theorist, Christianson misses this opportunity to link industrialisation, climate change and politics early in his story, in a way that would resonate with the end of his book, and the naive response of expanding, quasi-capitalist China to issues such as the local smog engulfing their cities. Again, following the advice of the History for Dummies, Christianson tells us in relation to the advent of the production line that Charles Dickens' descriptions of an unconscious mass of workers in Hard Times is an "eerie anticipation" of Orwell's 1984. Two well-known authors for the price of one; that's history popularised! Logically, though, there is absolutely nothing eerie about it. Orwell in Manchester, like Dickens in London, was responding to - not creating - the perception of the effects of industrialisation on the lower classes.

As if these symptoms of Pop History were not bad enough, we then get glaring howlers. Apparently, the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel is a "largely forgotten" figure of the nineteenth century. Um, would this be the same Brunel who came second in a recent public vote for the greatest Briton? Perhaps Christianson ought to have left his chair at Indiana State University, and visited Bristol before disregarding the great engineer - he might find his comment less than well received. Then we get simplistic scientific statements such as "as the central element in most compounds of which organisms are composed, carbon is derived from carbon dioxide." Well, this is not untrue, as carbon can certainly be derived from carbon dioxide, but it is more omnipresent in the hard matter beneath our feet - indeed, in our feet themselves - than in the atmosphere above it. A statement like this makes it seem as if carbon, coming from a greenhouse gas, must be a bad thing, when in fact it is the material source of life.

All these examples are taken from the early pages of Christianson's book. And one might say that these complaints stem from me, as a literary critic, picking up on careless uses of language and metaphor, and emphasising style over substance. But surely these little points do matter, in that they discredit the trust we place in some one writing about a very contentious issue. If he cannot get his Brunel right, what chance is there that Christianson has read the science carefully, balanced opinions, offering judicious and correctly presented evidence? To be fair, as he moves into the more contemporary material, Christianson does seem to become more focused, still aware of the need to make his history accessible but not having to revert to patronising comments. Out go the inane Pop. History metaphors, as he allows the contemporary experiences to speak in a prose which does justice to the sinister effects of climate change, on people in the here and now. Here, for example, is the story of Teunaia Abeta, resident of a small Pacific island, Kiribati:

On a sunny day in January 1997, a tide came rolling in from the turquoise lagoon and did not stop on reaching the shore. It lapped higher and higher until it swalled Abeta's thatched-roof home and dozens of others belonging to his neighbors. A month later, a second tidal surge added to the destruction of the first. Again, there was no wind, no rain, no warning of any kind. The ocean just seemed to swell, like so much liquid yeast.

Describing the shape of Mendel's face, or quoting Elizabeth Gaskell is irrelevant history, but these sort of contemporary anecdotes do actually matter, because whatever the reliability of data on climate change, whether a large or small proportion of the cause is anthropogenic, climate change is happening in the here and now, not only to the Abetas of the world but to the farmers in the American mid-west who find their land a dust bowl, to the tens of thousands who die in undue heat waves and forest fires, to the fishermen who find their stocks depleted by the increasing salinity of the ocean. As it gets towards the present day, Christianson's story picks up focus and verve, with a real passion for the problem conveyed, and narratives like this taking centre stage where they have real power to alarm.

Oddly, though, the most effective moment of polemic in the book is entirely unconscious. In his coda, Christianson bemoans the way in which the industry and economy of the US looks set to subvert any attempts to reduce emissions. In the moment the book was published (1997), he writes that:

Detroit is doing record business, spurred by the baby boomers' demand for so-called light trucks. Americans are now purchasing more sport utility vehicles, minivans, and pickups than passenger cars, and manufacturers predict the introduction of nearly two dozen more new sport utility vehicle models over the next several years will lure ever more buyers...The largest of the light trucks would be allowed to emit five and a half times more nitrogen oxides, the main ingredient of smog, than cars, whilst slightly smaller light trucks would be allowed three and a half times the emissions of automobiles. The ghost of Charles Erin Wilson, former president of GM and President Eisenhower's secretary of defense, still wanders the corridors of bureaucracy: "What is good for the country is good for General Motors, and what's good for General Motors is good for the country."

I am writing these words in June 2009, a few days after General Motors has been taken into receivership by the US Government. The reason: it had set itself to produce large, gas-greedy cars and failed to meet the growing market for small, fuel efficient vehicles to which European and Japanese manufacturers had long been catering. Charles Erin Wilson may well be turning in his grave and, after two hundred years, the world's richest and most polluting nation might finally be turning his industrialist mantra on its head.

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This page was published on June 5, 2009 | Keywords: Greenhouse, Gale E. Christianson, climate change, global warming

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