Carbon Blogging 

Blogger turned author explains warming science, policy

Shortly after moviegoers watched images of New York City fall to what can only be described as flash glaciation in the movie The Day After Tomorrow, a group of climate scientists launched a blog called RealClimate. The blog's founders were shocked not so much by the 2004 film's completely unrealistic depiction of catastrophic climate change as by their colleagues' response to it: silence.

"It could have been a great teaching moment," said Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and one of the founders of RealClimate.

For Schmidt, the editor of a new book about the science of climate change, it was a wake-up call. When scientists confined their debate to academic journals, he realized, they turned over the public sphere to those who either knew little about the intricacies of the earth's climate or, worse yet, intended to spread misinformation.

"By conceding that playing field I think we collectively let the science down," Schmidt said.

Since then, RealClimate has become one of the most important voices on the science of climate change. In a typical month it offers a mix of technical explanations, discussions of journal articles and media commentary--all the while exploring the interaction between the scientific and public discourse.

"If a reading of the published scientific literature paints such a frightening picture of the future ... are we being too provocative in the way we write our scientific papers?" writes Eric Steig, a geochemist at the University of Washington, in a typical book review on the site. "Or are we being too cautious in the way we talk about the implications of the results?"

But if RealClimate is a response to the failings of the public discourse, Schmidt's new project might be described as a reaction to the limitations of his blog--its focus on what's in the news today.

"The bit on which everybody agrees, which is a huge majority of the information, gets 1 percent of the coverage," Schmidt said. "But the stuff that's more controversial, the stuff that might disappear very quickly, gets 90 percent of the coverage."

The new book, Climate Change: Picturing the Science, edited by Schmidt and photographer Joshua Wolfe, attempts to redress that balance and provide an overview of the science as it is known to date for readers who are interested in the subject, but haven't had the opportunity to delve into an overview.

"This is stuff that wasn't in the textbooks 30 years ago," Schmidt said.

While the book consciously avoids advocating a prescription, it ultimately makes the case that something must be done.

Climate Change: Picturing the Science, Gavin Schmidt and Joshua Wolfe, 2009, W.W. Norton & Co. 320 pages. $24.95.

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