Authors present climate change argument

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 12, 2011

“Global Climate Change: A Primer,” by Orrin H. Pilkey and Keith C. Pilkey, with batik art by Mary Edna Fraser. Duke University Press. 2011. 160 pp. $19.95 paperback.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
If the last two summers haven’t convinced you of climate change, perhaps a new book by Orrin and Keith Pilkey, “Global Climate Change: a Primer,” will.
The book is an attempt to discuss the topic in the language of the lay person — the non-scientist — and instead of using lots of charts and maps, the book is beautifully illustrated by the batik art of Mary Edna Fraser.
Far from being the typical intimidating tome, this book makes its points clear, and backs it up with enough research that it has a seven-page bibliography. Orrin Pilkey is a professor emeritus at Duke University who has authored or co-authored numerous books on nature and climate, particularly the part where the land meets the sea.
Keith Pilkey is his son, an attorney interested in geoengineering and corporate science policy, so an argument can be made that both the heart and the head are speaking here.
Fraser’s artwork, based on the maps and photographs that she took, is beautiful. She often highlights environmental concerns in her works, and takes photos while flying her 1946 propeller plane. She illustrated Pilkey’s early work, “A Celebration of the World’s Barrier Islands.”
In fact, the batiks are on display at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh through Nov. 6 in the “Our Expanding Oceans” exhibit, developed with Orrin Pilkey to coincide with the book.
What will be most often quoted from this book is a sentence in the preface: “Never in our nation’s history has a question of science become so politically polarized as to become a partisan issue.”
The Pilkeys prefer the term global climate change to global warming, which doesn’t encompass the scope of the problem. Blame comes down to an excess of carbon dioxide from nations all over the world, from causes as varied as traffic and deforestation.
The other villains here are methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). But what does a CFC have to do with me? It runs my refrigerator; a related substance keeps my flat-screen TV going and even my fire extinguisher has halon, another greenhouse gas.
The Pilkeys cite “rising sea levels, warming atmosphere and oceans and widespread melting of sea ice, ice sheets, glaciers and permafrost” as evidence of warming around the world. And the effects are many — with warming, scientists predict, comes good and bad — bad for coastal regions that lose land, good for northern climes that will see a longer growing season and longer summers.
At the same time that the North warms, areas in the South will see some land turn into deserts, North Carolina’s barrier islands will certainly disappear and shrinking ice packs will reduce water supplies.
Many people in North and South Carolina have noted the recent increase in the size and frequency of forest fires, due, the Pilkeys say, to drier soils, more fire suppression and fire seasons that are up to two months longer.
And it’s not just in our backyards, the book explains. Massive fires extended from Siberia to just outside Moscow in 2010. The Australian forest fires ate up 1,100,000 acres and killed 173 people.
The Pilkeys recount land turning into desert from tree removal and over-grazing by herd animals. China is now 28 percent desert, and more and more land in Africa is becoming desert as people clear trees to plant crops, graze sheep and build homes.
What is now the greatest threat, the melting of glaciers and ice sheets, isn’t hard to measure or deny. The famous snows of Kilimanjaro have retreated by 80 to 90 percent. Scientists predict the rest will disappear within 10 to 40 years.
When mountaintop glaciers are gone, the people living along rivers fed by the ice will be left without a renewable source of water.
You can’t drink seawater, so the rising sea levels from the melting ice do not provide a source of drinkable water — instead, the Pilkeys write, salt water will infiltrate the ground water so many people depend on. Places like Charleston, S.C., will be desperate for water as the sea level rises.
And, the Pilkeys write, that’s just the effect on humans. They also discuss the effects on plants and wildlife, including important food sources — if farmlands turn to deserts or end up under the sea …
There is so much to this thin volume that even a casual look is enough to raise eyebrows.
For doubters, their minds are made up and no burden of evidence will convince them. For believers in global climate change, the book is a dire warning. Changes are not just coming, they’re progressing at an alarming pace.
The book might appeal to fence-sitters, as it delves into the political debate, media coverage and some of the beliefs of the nay-sayers. As with the current situation in Washington, it is unlikely the two sides will find anything to compromise on, despite the Pilkeys’ attempts.