Book Review: A Brief History of the Earth’s Climate

Everyone’s Guide to the Science of Climate Change

review by Susan Yates

Glacier, Patagonia Argentina

Ice collapsing into the water at Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park near El Calafate, Patagonia Argentina, South America.

 

A Brief History of the Earth’s Climate:
Everyone’s Guide to the Science of Climate Change

Stephen Earle, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island BC, 2021.
Paperback – 208 pages, $19.95, pdf $13.00
ISBN: 9780865719590

 

 

In September, an excellent book came my way, A Brief History of the Earth’s Climate: Everyone’s Guide to the Science of Climate Change, by Steven Earle, a teacher of earth sciences for almost four decades who lives on Gabriola Island, where he is constantly on the move (by foot and bicycle) working on ecojustice projects and solutions for climate change.

I was hooked on this book right from the preface that begins with the moving poem “Let Them Not Say” by Jane Hirshfield, alternatively feeling jolts of hope and stabs of despair.

Earle makes complex scientific information understandable, explaining things like the greenhouse effect, insolation, albedo, atmospheric pollutants, climate feedback loops, and geologic time with succinct clarity. He even tackles the arguments posed by climate change deniers, offering undeniable scientific evidence and logical reasons to counter such beliefs, while acknowledging that some climate change skeptics’ arguments are pertinent to this book.

The premise of this book is that in order to understand the anthropogenic aspects of climate change, we need to understand the earth’s long history of natural climate change. Chapter Three, for example, on plate tectonics and continental drift, told me about a whole supercontinent (Rodinia) that arrived about 400 million years earlier than Pangaea and its distant land mass relative Gondwanaland.

Solar evolution is another topic that would have drawn a blank in my scientific ledger, and I learned that the evolution of the sun over billions of years has affected the earth, but despite a 40% increase in solar intensity over eons, the earth as a living sphere has managed to keep the climate within a range that supports life in all of its extraordinary forms. Only as recently as within the last century have humans so altered the planet’s life-sustaining oceans, continents, and atmosphere that we have reached a terrifying tipping point.

Long- and short-term changes of ocean currents affect the earth’s climate (and our weather cycles). Earle describes how the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean, which changes over hundreds of years, and the El Nino variations in the Pacific Ocean, are formed and why they might appear to ameliorate climate warming. Such appearances are not to be relied on, because they are temporary oscillations with no evidence of long term mitigation.

Volcanology is another topic Earle delves into, where we learn that despite the dramatic climate effects of all known explosions, even the largest eruptions in historical times have led only to cooling, not warming. Typical volcanic eruptions do emit CO2 but the amount released is insignificant compared to the emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Despite a 40% increase in solar intensity over eons, the earth as a living sphere has managed to keep the climate within a range that supports life in all of its extraordinary forms.

If you’re curious about the history of extraterrestrial impacts on the earth, check out Chapter Eight. Most people know about the big blast-out in the Yucatan peninsula, and perhaps Manicouagan in Quebec, but there have been many others, and the main reason we don’t see a lot of craters on the earth’s surface is because, unlike the moon, the earth is (still) a geologically active planet. This sounds scary enough, but again, it turns out that despite the devastation to life from prehistoric collision events (about 75% of species went extinct during the Cretaceous-Paleogene events), what we are doing now to our environment leads to terrain that could be much worse.

Does 1ºC of warming matter? After all, nobody really cares if tomorrow is a degree warmer than today. But this is about being 1ºC warmer every day, on average, for as far as we can see into the future. It really does matter if, as Earle says, “Your children are starving because your crops are shriveled by drought, your fresh water has dried up, your life savings have been wiped out by a wildfire, your entire community has been destroyed by a flooding river, or a landslide, or a superstorm … [it matters] to hundreds of millions of people whose cities, farms, and homes are threatened by sea-level rise.”

Existential anxiety

It also matters to all of us who stare down existential anxiety every day and every sleepless night, worrying about species who can no longer survive the destruction of our planet’s ecosystems. Earle doesn’t mince words when it comes to what we must do: “Although we have created a wide range of environmental problems, climate change is far more significant and dangerous … unless we come to grips with it, every other environmental threat will become largely irrelevant.”

Earle quotes fellow scientist, activist, and writer Lynne Quarmby (author of Watermelon Snow: Science, Art and a Lone Polar Bear, published last year) with this memorable passage: “There is a yawning chasm of difference between how bad things will get if we continue business-as-usual and how bad they will be if we get off fossil fuels as soon as possible.” What will it take, besides a paradigm shift in personal resolve and political action, to avoid the dreaded tipping point?

Current economic and political systems deriving from colonial land grabs and resource abuse instead result in complicated and farcical plans for carbon offsets, and ways to get to net zero emissions by so-and-so date, which is mostly government subterfuge to avoid doing something now, or, as Ms. Thunberg would say, “blah blah blah.”

Earle offsets these depressing aspects of modern capitalism with practical ways to lead by example in the book’s last chapter, “What Now?” He reminds us of the near-heroic efforts health care workers, medical researchers, and even government policy makers made, in order to control the pandemic that has cost us so much (and I don’t mean financially) and says, “Surely we can bring the same kind of resolve and effort into the fight against climate change, which poses a much greater risk to our existence here on Earth.”

Please look for this book at your favourite independent bookstore. As Jerry Seinfeld says, “A book store is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.”


Susan Yates has been active in environmental and social justice groups for 48 years, inspired by working with others whose energy, determination, and visions offer hope for a better world.

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