02 December 2006

Book Review: Hell and High Water

Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and Politics -- And What we Can Do Joseph Romm. William Morrow, 2007.

I so wanted to give this book a hearty recommendation. Its topic is one that I am very interested in --I think we all should be concerned about the global warming and need to take individual grassroots-level action to help find remedies. I was curious by the subtitle. Besides being one of the longest subtitles I've come across recently, I was concerned that the book might do a little over-reaching in it's purpose. And that was confirmed as I read through it.

Romm's book presents a worse-case scenario for the implications of society not doing anything to curb the effects of global warming. This book presents lots of well-footnoted facts -- facts I've read elsewhere, ones I find convincing, although I do not have the technical background to refute any scientific flaws that may exist. In addition, Romm's book is a analysis of what hasn't been done by our government to implement means of reducing activities that are leading to global warming. It is this part -- the attack on politics -- where the book disappoints. While Romm is good with presentation of the data supporting the global warming trends, he relies more on unsupported (although not untrue) and suggestive attacks on the current administration, than on persuasive argument to convince the reader that the government is not doing enough to enact needed legislation. (Note: I'm not a supporter of the Bush administration, and can't disagree with Romm's premise, so bear with me here....)

Most of the facts on global warming have been presented elsewhere (Gore's recent movie, An Inconvenient Truth comes to mind although it is not the only example), so Romm isn't adding anything new to the body of knowledge for the lay reader who is aware of the situation and the overwhelming support in the scientific community for the need to address causes of global warming trends. But, Romm's writing slants so much to attack -- at points even seeming to contradict the point he is making. (e.g., at one point Romm writes of how a government representative made a statement which contradicts his (Romm's) point in the previous chapter, but then states that they only agreed as a delaying tactic, not because they sincerely want to believe there is a problem.) I think that it is here that Romm could have been most effective if he hadn't relied on attack-ad style tactics and hyperbole. He isn't going to convince anyone who doesn't already believe the facts about global warming that the US government is burying our collective head in the sand. But shouldn't that be the point? If not, he is no better in advancing arguments for correcting the situation than the vocal and attention-grabbing mouthpieces of some oil companies who manipulate the data to disprove Romm's scientific allies. The data about global warming is convincing enough that he should have changed the tone here. Instead, a reasoned voice is one that is more likely to be heard and to encourage action.

Another way in which the book disappoints is that it is very slim on the 'what to do about it' portion suggested by the title. A few paragraphs in the closing chapters is all that is presented. As someone interested in the topic who has read enough to convince me that something needs to be done, I was looking for something that would give reasoned, valid options for moving forward, rather than finger pointing.

I'm tired of divisive politics. I don't think the issue is so one-sided that we can only blame one political party -- I don't see the other political party stepping to the forefront on this either.

The chapter, "Missing the Story of the Century", did grab my attention though. Romm makes the point that as news media seek to 'balance' stories, they often give equal footing to both sides of the debate despite the preponderance of evidence. This is a different twist on the lament about so-called 'media bias', and I think that Romm has a valid point here. If the overwhelming number of scientists agree with the data on global warming and are in concurrence as to the root causes, why does the media give equal footing to those who oppose such data, including those that may be funded by the same industries that have the most to lose if we impose stricter governmental regulations? Romm uses the example of a recent (2005) segment on Meet the Press where there were four experts discussing avian flu. Romm's point was that all were in agreement regarding the potential for a catastrophic bird flu outbreak, yet there are some who might disagree with the likelihood of such an occurrence. His point, specifically, is that the press wouldn't think to have an opposing view since the majority concur; yet with global warming, they always give air to those who disagree. This may explain why studies show that few Americans think there is concurrence among scientists on global warming, while there are also studies that show that the majority of scientists do concur. I don't know what the solution is -- what percentage constitutes a majority opinion that dictates that we should listen to flat-earthers, regardless of the topic? Romm doesn't offer a solution either, and I'm not sure that Romm's reasoning behind the equal opportunity media time is because the media doesn't want to be blasted for bias. This chapter could easily be a book; I'm sure that this isn't the only topic where this is occurs.

While the above paragraphs might make you think that I wouldn't recommend this book, that isn't completely accurate. I think that Romm adequately lays out the facts regarding global warming trends, environmental impact of melting polar ice, and the reasons why we should reduce CO2 emissions (and sign the Kyoto treaty). He does make an argument about the dissembling actions of our government, although he seems more interested in painting the Republicans with a broad brush as 'bad guys' than in honest debate about how we should go about changing the situations and what types of economic plans we should have for doing so. He just seems to have taken on too much in one small book to make a strong case for how to change the problems -- both politically and technologically/environmentally.

TWO NOTES: 1) If you are interested in a concise Q&A regarding environmental issues and how to defend against contrarians, check out this link. Courtesy of Rev Sam at Elizaphanian.

2) Some in the blog universe have posited recently that it's important to disclose if a copy is a review copy. Here is my disclaimer in case you didn't notice the 2007 pub date indicated above. I received this book as part of HarperCollins' FirstLook program. Disproving, at least in this one case, the opinion that only positive reviews are done by bloggers when the book is free.


Stefanie said...

Love the link you included to the Grist site. I'm so bad at arguing about this kind of stuff it will be good to have specific answers to those annoying contrarian arguments.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. Sorry you didn't like the book more -- many people have told me their favorite chapter is the one you liked the least (Chapter Five, on the politics).

I have two full chapters on what we should do, but the point of the book is we can only solve this problem at a national level, so people are going to have to get politically active if they want to avoid catastrophic warming.

Joseph Romm