Over the next four days, my 12-year-old daughter and I will be biking to Washington D.C. with four other riders from Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light, an organization engaged in a faith-based response to climate change. The ride is aimed at raising awareness about the need for action on the climate.
I’ve asked my friends and social network to consider supporting our effort in two ways. If you have a good understanding of the climate issue and the need for action, consider making a contribution to PA-IPL or to support its excellent work, or sharing your thoughts and prayers about climate change for my daughter to deliver to our congressional representatives. You can find out how to do that at the PA-IPL page dedicated to the ride.
But I’ve also asked friends who are skeptical of climate change or its importance, or who don’t feel they know enough about it, or don’t feel a personal connection to it, to take our ride as a challenge to learn more about the issue. For them and anyone else interested to learn more about the issue, I wanted to briefly note some things to read on climate change.
If you need to start from scratch and want a quick primer on the basic scientific ideas involved in climate change, the group of climate scientists who blog at RealClimate.Org have put together this excellent list of resources that can bring you quickly up to speed.
From my point of view as a scholar working in science and technology studies, beyond having a grasp of the basics, rather than trying to learn a lot more of the science (i.e., pouring over IPPC reports), I wuld encourage people to learn more about the science – how do scientists know what they know? what is the larger historical and social context? In this connection, I can recommend two excellent books.
The first is The Discovery of Global Warming by historian of science and physicist Spencer Weart. It’s a short book, very readable, and gives a compelling account of how scientists from diverse different fields gradually forged the conceptual framework of climate against the larger social context of an emerging ecological consciousness that recognized it was possible for human activity to have an impact on global natural systems. Weart has also put together an incredible website with separate historical essays that go into topics in more depth, and link to the key primary documents in climate science.
For those a bit more ambitious, I would recommend Paul N. Edwards’s A Vast Machine, a fascinating account of computer models, climate data and the politics of global warming. Edwards documents and analyzes in far greater detail than any climate change denier ever has all of the complexities and uncertainties of gathering, storing, and communicating basic data about the climate, but shows how climate scientists have developed computational and conceptual tools for working that data into increasingly consistent and reliable climate models. He concludes with an argument about why climate science has been so politicized, and how such knowledge could and should be used to inform policy.
Crucial to understanding the “controversies” that have surrounded climate science is to understand the world of climate deniers. Merchants of Doubt by historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway shows that the same small circle of scientists who, with funding from the fossil fuel industry, have opposed the consensus of climate science concerning anthropogenic climate change, had earlier, with funding from big tobacco companies, opposed the scientific consensus about the health risks of smoking. The connecting threat was an ideological commitment to free market economics that led them to oppose any scientific research that made some form of regulation seem necessary.
If you’re all good on the science, but aren’t sure why you should care, I’d recommend the work of environmentalist Bill McKibben and his activist organization 350.org. You can find many of McKibben’s essays online, but I’d recommend his essay on “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” as a good overview of why we should be concerned. His book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet is a clear sighted and, by the end anyway, a surprisingly optimistic vision for how societies might adapt as the effects of climate change unfold.
Finally, for a religious perspective since we are riding as part of a group motivated by their faith, the website for the national Interfaith Power and Light (of which PA-IPL is a chapter) provides some excellent resources. Virtually all faiths have mounted a response to the moral challenge of climate change. As a Catholic, the Catholic Climate Covenant’s website as pulling together many documents and resources from a Catholic perspective. And on our trip, which will include several stops at churches along the way, I’ll be reading Sacred Acts: How Church’s are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate.