A Review of The Weather of the Future

Heidi Cullen, author of the new book The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet, has a background rare for any research scientist, let alone a climate scientist: she worked for The Weather Channel, and gained a lot of expertise in communicating complex climate science to the lay person.  This work has given Cullen a unique understanding of where misunderstandings of climate science exist:

“This is the only way a lot of people can truly connect to the issue of climate science – via a long-term investment like real estate.  The more I thought about this question, the more I realized the scientific community had failed to communicate the threat of climate change in a way that made it real for people right now.  We, as scientists, hadn’t given people the proper tools to see that the impacts of climate change are visible right now and that they go far beyond melting ice caps.”

Cullen’s new book aims to provide those tools.  She explains some of the big reasons (single-action bias and the ‘finite pool of worry’) why many Americans understand the dangers of climate change, but not urgently enough to change our behavior.  More importantly, she explicitly separates the concepts of ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ and shows how the former shapes the latter.  Cullen’s writing reminds me of Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, when she shows how climate science developed and where it stands today: she eloquently and economically conveys the complex science in a way that is pleasurable to read.   The groundbreaking part of Cullen’s book what comes next: she picks seven of the most at-risk locations around the world, explains how climate change is already impacting the weather, and uses state-of-the-art models to create climate projections for each of these places into the next half-century.  Two of the locations really hit home for me: Cullen examines the Central Valley in California, as well as New York City.  She also looks at the Sahel region of Africa, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Arctic, Greenland, and Bangladesh.

Cullen borrows a metaphor from Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster who was among the first in Silicon Valley to take Y2K seriously: “Imagine you’ve got a sailboat and you’ve got to sail around an island.  You can start to circle when you’re a mile from shore and it will be easy.  But if you wait until you’re only 100 meters away, there will be rocks and reefs.  There will be a lot more drama.”  In her analysis of these climate hot spots around the world, Cullen makes clear the economic impact of waiting until the proverbial sailboat is close to the rocks and reefs.

The Weather of the Future lays bare the unequivocal nature of climate change, and the need to take actions, what Cullen calls “a million boring little fixes.”  In time, we will all make these fixes; the question for policy makers, skeptics, and citizens in general is, are we going to wait until those fixes become all the more expensive and painful?  This book is timely and necessary.

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