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Resource: State of the World 2009
Alex Steffen, 19 Nov 08
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The world is awash in climate change books, many of them bad, boring or both. It's all too common to see these books repeating the same ideas and arguments, often scattering facts (or supposed facts) around to make themselves look researched, often mixing exhortations and haphazardly explored solutions. I have piles of these books a few yards high.

So when I got Worldwatch's latest State of the World report, Into a Warming World, I feared the worst. This year's offering, after all, departs from Worldwatch's tried-and-true survey formula to focus in solely on climate change and its implications. I worried that instead of great ideas across a range of subjects, I'd find more of the same ideas and insights I've read so often before. I feared that Worldwatch was grasping at relevance.

I was wrong. State of the World 2009 is a research masterpiece, the single most important reference guide to climate change yet published.

SotW2009 is argued comprehensively, moving from an outstanding overview of the state of climate science to individual chapters on various solution spaces: accelerating the transition to clean energy, providing green jobs, transferring technology to the developing world, saving the international climate negotiations and so on. Like other Worldwatch work, the book is somewhat dry and technical, but that allows for exhaustive footnoting and a clear intellectual framework for building an understanding of many of the key issues. It's like a terrific interdisciplinary academic seminar, distilled into a single volume.

Which isn't to say that it's perfect. Several of the shorter chapters don't meet the quality standards of the rest of the book. The editors include a lame chapter on geoengineering that largely ignores the politics of the geoengineering debate and concludes "geoengineering schemes have the potential to make things better, but they could also make things worse." For such an important and charged debate, milquetoast equivocation is not a helpful contribution to the discussion.

And there are some glaring omissions. Several key innovation pathways are largely ignored. The vital role of cities and urban planning is more or less ignored. The critical leverage points offered by information technologies are completely missing (though there's some good discussion of smart grids). The human components of change -- from new finance models to the importance of transparency and battling corruption -- get short shrift. But I was perhaps most disappointed by a common element of carbon blindness in the chapters. It's one thing to focus on climate change; it's another to largely lose sight of our other equally critical environmental and social needs, without which no sustainability solution will work. Worldwatch has been such a leader in comprehensive, holistic visions of sustainability that I expected more.

But no book is perfect, and this one's faults don't ultimately detract from its excellence. The Worldwatch team has a hell of a lot to be proud of here. If you are looking for a single-volume education in what it means to live in a changing climate, you can do no better than the latest State of the World.

Front page photo credit: flickr/hyperboreal, Creative Commons license.

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To say
"I worried that instead of great ideas across a range of subjects, I'd find more of the same ideas and insights I've read so often before. I feared that Worldwatch was grasping at relevance."
seems pretty harsh, given that before Worldchanging, Worldwatch was one of the few institutions to tie together peace, poverty and ecology in an outreach-oriented way.

Might we not strive for a little bit more support, and a little less snark, to an early (1981) pioneer?

Posted by: Jim on 19 Nov 08

"I'm going to tell you something I probably shouldn't: we may not be able to stop global warming. We need to begin curbing global greenhouse emissions right now, but more than a decade after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the world has utterly failed to do so. Unless the geopolitics of global warming change soon, the Hail Mary pass of geoengineering might become our best shot." --Bryan Walsh, Time Magazine, 17 March 2008

"The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state." --Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

"The Greens' resistance to geo-engineering sits very uncomfortably with its message that the planet is screwed and we're all going to die. It suggests that Environmentalism has less to do with saving the planet than it does with reining in human aspirations. It suggests that they don't actually believe their own press releases, and that they know the situation is not as dire as they would like the rest of us to think it is. And that Environmentalists are cutting off their noses to spite their faces - "we'll save the planet our way or not at all." It suggests that Environmentalists regard science and engineering as the cause of problems, and not the solution." --Climate Resistance, 24 March 2008

Posted by: Brad Arnold on 20 Nov 08

Quoting a journalist, a crackpot and a climate skeptic is not an extremely convincing argument.

Indeed, like many arguments for geoengineering, it denies the hard realities of the issue: 1) we know what's causing climate change and it is within our power to reduce or eliminate those causes; 2) it is (at least we think) not to late to do so; 3) the main barrier to doing so is political, not technical or economic; 4) we do not know how to successfully geoengineer the planet (though it's possible we could successfully learn to do so, it's also possible we could screw up even worse); and 5) that some people most advancing geoengineering in the public debate are people who are on the wrong side of the political debate on stopping climate change and are using it as an argument for inaction.

Unless you address these topics, any argument for geoengineering is flawed from the start.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 20 Nov 08

Oh, and Jim, I clearly mis-communicated. I have nothing but respect for Worldwatch, and I think their work is highly relevant and important -- my worry was that they perhaps didn't think so, and so were going topical in an effort to gain more notice.

And, as I say, I was clearly wrong.

IOW, WW rocks.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 20 Nov 08

"The vital role of cities and urban planning is more or less ignored." As an excuse for the Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2007 was exclusively about cities.

Posted by: Nils Simon on 21 Nov 08

Alex, I see your passion about the topic, and like the others here share your pain. Yet that is no reason to lash out -- in fact it can be argued that unless we learn to listen to each other then we are doomed to failure. Consider that one administration could do enormous good works, but if the other side disagrees, the good works are later dismantled (this is the theme of _A Brain for all Seasons_ by Calvin). Hard situations are seldom either/or, rather they are both/and.

I suspect folks here are saying that as reprehensible as geo-engineering may be, the situation may force it to happen. It is not desirable and it is likely to fail. Yet the sources at work are huge, widely distributed, have significant time lags, and the climate system is not linear. Not an easy thing. Many of us have realized we are past the tipping point due to all these factors.

Should you or Worldchanging be involved with geo-engineering? Absolutely not. You and Worldchanging need to be part of the other side, helping folks find ways to reduce their carbon footprint. What the futurists say: you have more impact by adding your energy to a positive trend. What Bucky said: tools not politics.


p.s. Lovelock is an amazing scientist. As the financial crisis shows, ignoring conflicting information puts us all at risk.

Posted by: Curt McNamara on 22 Nov 08

Alex is exactly right--I got these galleys too, and this is truly a useful book. I'm supposed to know everything about global warming (ha) and I learned a good deal.

Posted by: bill mckibben on 23 Nov 08

Just questions for thought:

Where does widespread use of white reflective materials on roofs and pavement fall in the geo-engineering spectrum? What about green roofs on a truly global scale? Planting or replanting forests?

Universal adoption of these techniques might be considered geo-engineering and have some unknown impacts.

Posted by: Tom L on 24 Nov 08

Thank you very much for this great review. I am just sick and tired of this topic, especially because of all the biased publications on this topic. I am looking forward to read, as I like books that give you the oportunity to interpret and think further in an objective frame.

Posted by: Fl├╝ge on 15 Dec 08

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