Fixing Climate What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat--and How to Counter It

Wallace S. Broecker and Robert Kunzig

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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Fixing Climate is the product of a unique collaboration between a pioneering earth scientist and an award winning science writer who have both invested their careers in the vitally important issue of global warming. Wallace S. Broecker, a longtime researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has learned that climate changes occur naturally, and when they do, they are dramatic and rarely benign.  He has also determined that, when mankind pushes nature by releasing some sixty to seventy million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every day, climate will change even more dramatically and the effects will be even less benign. Broecker hypothesizes that, even if all energy-saving efforts were put into action tomorrow, the resulting reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide might lessen but could not turn aside the great warming tide that is approaching.  Nonetheless, Broecker sees a glimmer of hope in the development of new technologies that are directed not only at the reduction of carbon dioxide output, but also at a harmless method of disposal. He argues that the root causes of global warming must be handled by energy reducing initiatives, but the consequences of natural climate change as well as human impact that have already begun to take a toll on the planet must also be addressed.  Science journalist Robert Kunzig constructs Broecker's research into a timely, informative, and accessible account in Fixing Climate.


Praise for Fixing Climate

"[Broecker] is well-known in the surprisingly gripping field of palaeoclimatology. He has spent his career investigating the climate in prehistoric times and, in particular, the role that the oceans have played in the way it changed. His book is the oddest, and the nicest, of the bunch. He is clearly a rather delightful man, with a penchant for practical jokes; through his life-story, the book explains how scientists have come to understand the history of the world's climate. That helps illuminate the future. Knowing that sea levels have varied by more than 100 metres in the past, as ice-sheets have melted and re-formed, lends a certain weight to the argument that serious climate change is best avoided. In this case the presence of a co-writer adds to the charm of the story, for Robert Kunzig seems to have fallen for Mr Broecker and his world. It is easy to see why. Palaeoclimatology is full of people obsessing about fabulously obscure wrinkles in the climate's history, and investigating them by drilling cores thousands of metres into the Arctic ice, or counting the oxygen atoms in minuscule foraminifer shells to learn just when the world froze and warmed: 'the planet in a grain of sand,' says Mr Kunzig, who has a lovely appreciation of the poetry of science. Buy this one. Forget the rest."—The Economist

"An excellent history of climate science in the 20th century, with much fine-grained explanation of ice cores, temperature graphs, and disturbing evidence of abrupt climate shifts in the past. Broecker himself is an eminent climate scientist, who coined the term 'conveyor belt' for the ocean's thermohaline circulation (of which the Gulf Stream is a part) . . . He is worth listening to."—Stephen Poole, The Guardian (London)

"A brilliant and iconoclastic scientist, Wally Broecker is largely responsible for shaping the modern discipline of chemical oceanography. His pioneering work has improved our understanding of the ocean's roles in the carbon cycle and climate system and demonstrated that climate often shifts in unpredictable jumps and spurts. In Fixing Climate, Broecker teams with science journalist Robert Kunzig to offer a well-crafted description of the history of such research, our current climate predicament, and possible paths forward . . . The book demonstrates that Broecker has again identified an important and difficult problem for which he offers creative solutions that will open new lines of productive research."—Ken Caldeira, Science

"Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat–And How to Counter It is a slow and gentle travelogue. Written by journalist Robert Kunzig and renowned Columbia University climate scientist Wallace Broecker, Fixing Climate is as much Broecker's scientific memoir as it is a call to action. (The biographical material isn't necessary to understanding global warming, but it's a wonderful look at a life in science nonetheless.) The authors wend their way through a good deal of the history of climate-science research—a fair amount of it over the past five decades conducted by Broecker or his close associates—in a measured, graceful manner. But in step with the intensification of global warming itself, the pace and urgency of Fixing Climate increases significantly toward the end. In a chapter provocatively entitled 'Green Is Not Enough,' Broecker and Kunzig make a convincing case that all the energy efficiency and conservation in the world, all the biofuels and carbon trading and climate treaties we can come up with, are not going to be enough to avoid very serious climate-change impacts."—Thomas Hayden, The Christian Science Monitor

"Fixing Climate gives a personal account of scientific endeavours to understand past, present and future climate change . . . Few scientists have been as active in their work and outreach as Broecker. Starting with his upbringing and early career, Broecker explains what inspired him and outlines his tremendous contributions to climate science Describing in an accessible way how Earth's climate system worked in the past, Broecker and Kunzig look at future climate predictions and the technological developments that may help to scrub the air clean. Along the way, we meet some extraordinary characters . . . The book is a call to arms for us to take responsibility for our fossil-fuel dependency. The climate has changed; now let's fix this open sewer of the twenty-first century."—Chris Turney, Nature

"Deftly explores how we arrived at the point where climate change is no longer preventable and will continue even if we all adopt sustainable alternatives the day after tomorrow."—Tyghe Trimble, Discover

"Back in 1897, Charles Dudley Warner wrote, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.' You could say the same thing about the global-warming debate: a lot of talk, not much action. But there’s an interesting new book that not only explains the scientific investigations that revealed our global climate is heating up, but suggests ways to fix the problem. The book is Fixing Climate by Wallace S. Broecker and Robert Kunzig. Broecker is Newberry Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University; Kunzig is an award-winning science writer . . . Broecker and Kunzig show a couple of generations of scientists at work. In Fixing Climate you can see young students puzzling over something—the fluctuating levels of a glacial lake in Utah, sediments from the bottom of the ocean, cores of ice drilled in Greenland and Antarctica, the growth of coral reefs in tropical waters. Little by little, one by one, they amassed their individual observations and measurements. Gradually they came to the conclusion that Earth’s climate is indeed warming, and that the human race’s output of greenhouse gases is an important part of the climate change . . . Thousands of scientists, working over more than two generations now, have found abundant evidence that the world’s climate is warming, and that our greenhouse gas emissions are a considerable part of the problem. What to do? That’s where Fixing Climate becomes really interesting. Broecker and Kunzig realize that the industrialized world isn’t going to abruptly give up fossil fuels and go totally “green.” Even if we tried, they maintain, we couldn’t replace all the energy we get from fossil fuels with nuclear, solar or other renewable energy sources. Not for generations, at least. But we can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere."—Ben Bova, Naples Daily News

"Wally Broecker is one of the most interesting figures in the study of the biggest problem the world has ever faced. This book explains why that problem may be getting completely out of hand, and offers at least an outside possibility for helping to tame it."—Bill McKibben, author The End of Nature and Deep Economy

"A remarkably readable and compelling account of the important advances in our understanding of the complexity of global climate that have taken place over the past 40 years. The book is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand the unique nature of the climate change underway today."—Michael McElroy, Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies, Harvard University

"The world needs pioneering scientists, visionaries, leaders in the global debate on climate change. Broecker and Kunzig offer us a unique contribution by mapping out how to fix the climate. Their book is a must for all who care about the future."—Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, President of Iceland

"'If you're living with an angry beast, you shouldn't poke it,' warns Wally Broecker, the world's leading expert on abrupt climate change. Yet we're doing just that, say Broecker and co-author Robert Kunzig in their riveting new book Fixing Climate. Our vast use of fossil fuels—combined with massive deforestation—is dangerously poking Earth's climate and threatening massive instability in climate, sea levels, and even the survival of species. The heroic labors of scientists such as Broecker illuminate the risks the world now faces as well as the choices our global society must make in order to live in harmony with Earth and ensure the well being of future generations."—Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Special Advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon

"A wonderful book about climate change and how to fix global warming, as seen through the eyes of one of our greatest living geoscientists. This extremely well-written account presents a host of fascinating characters, discovering secrets about how the climate system worked in the past and what this means for the future of civilization. It's the best book on the subject I've read."—George H. Denton, professor of geological sciences, University of Maine

"The best insight into our future must come from the Earth's history—and Broecker is the world’s expert on climate history."—James E. Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

"This very readable volume is the happy outcome of a collaboration between Wally Broecker, one of the founding fathers of climate science, and an exceptional science writer. Kunzig plays Boswell to Broecker's Johnson, and through a felicitous marriage of anecdote and lucid explanation they show how the science moved forward by a combination of hard work, insight, personal interactions and a little serendipity. A very enjoyable way to grasp the fundamentals of modern climate science!"—Baron Ron Oxburgh, former chairman of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Head of the select committee on science and technology of the United Kingdom House of Lords

"Towering scientist Wally Broecker and master-wordsmith Rob Kunzig tell the story we must read, of the great environmental challenges facing us and a path to solving them. Along the way, we catch a glimpse of the humanity behind the great mind, of what it is to be Wally Broecker trying to rescue the world from itself."—Richard Alley, professor of geosciences, Pennsylvania State University

"A close-up look at how scientists arrived at the evidence for global warming. Broecker teams with science writer Kunzig to document decades of climate research, much of it conducted by Broecker himself. Broecker became a pioneer of radiocarbon dating, the discipline that transformed the geological time scale into a useful chronology. Measuring the proportions of two isotopes of carbon, scientists could date events in the remote past, particularly the ice ages during which glaciers covered much of Europe, Asia and North America. Other techniques, such as the study of mile-long cores taken from Greenland glaciers and of annual sediment layers on lake bottoms, gave a precise look at climate fluctuations over hundreds of thousands of years. The focus on carbon as a chronological measuring rod also led to awareness of the relative historic abundance of carbon dioxide, which had been known since the with the to retain the sun's heat in the atmosphere. Between 1958 and 2004, Dave Keeling of the Scripps Oceanic Institute recorded a 20 percent increase in the atmospheric level of the gas linked to the burning of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, Broecker formed a theory of the 'conveyor belt,' a system of oceanic currents moderating the climate of Western Europe. Kunzig uses the theories of Broecker and others to show how the evidence for global warming accumulated, how it relates to the history of past ice ages and its likely effects over the next century. The book ends with looks at techniques that may mitigate the warming, from reduction of emissions—unlikely, say the authors, with India and China reaching for technological parity with the West—to wholesale scrubbing to get them out of the atmosphere. A strong but never strident document of the coming crisis, expressing some optimism on our chances of surviving it." —Kirkus Reviews

"Framed around the life and career of author Broecker, one of the earliest voices on global warming, this history of the climate crisis reads like a series of mini scientific biographies as the authors travel around the world and across centuries illuminating the lives of those who sought answers to climate mysteries. From glacial studies in the early-nineteenth-century Swiss Alps to the work of Serbian Milutin Milankovic, who calculated orbital cycles while in a World War I Austrian prison, Fixing Climate highlights the research of dozens of men who followed their own natural curiosity into areas not actively studied by their contemporaries. Anyone interested in environmental science, even at the most basic levels, will be intrigued by the wealth of climate history covered and the manner in which Broecker and Kunzig make personal stories from 200 years ago as relevant and fascinating as those from last year. The title is unfortunately misleading, as it does not hint at the brilliant eccentrics portrayed within. There is far more here than just another academic discussion on climate change; fascinating stuff."—Booklist

"The once arcane field of climate change has certainly moved up our agenda. Here, science writer Kunzig traces the influential career of Broecker, one of the learned voices sounding the alarm on this subject. Various climate concepts like the 'conveyor belt' of global ocean circulation originated with Broecker. Their book also lays out important findings made by climate observers and scientists over the past century. Its central point is that Earth's climate is sensitive, it has changed abruptly in the past, and humans mess with it at our peril. The authors add succinct climate predictions for the coming decades and centuries. Concluding that 'there is still no sign that we are capable of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels,' they offer a radical solution to our present carbon dioxide glut and introduce physicist Klaus Lackner, who has developed a device to scrub excess CO2 out of the atmosphere, then sequester it. It looks technically feasible but would require major resources. This accessible science book is recommended for all public and academic libraries."—Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



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Wallace S. Broecker is the Newberry Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. He has received many honors for his work, most recently the 2006 Crafoord Prize in Geosciences. Robert Kunzig is a freelance science writer.
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  • Wallace S. Broecker and Robert Kunzig

  • Wallace S. Broecker is the Newberry Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. He has received many honors for his work, most recently the 2006 Crafoord Prize in Geosciences.

    Robert Kunzig is a freelance science writer.
  • Wallace S. Broecker Ken Kostel