Last June, on a fittingly hot afternoon in Washington, D.C., President Trump announced that he would begin the long process of withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Many of us, I wager, listened to his speech with despair and probably some disbelief. Just as the pace of global warming is starting to quicken, the federal government of the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases will abandon its commitment to fighting climate change. As historians, some of us no doubt wondered, how could we have reached this point? Joshua Howe’s Behind the Curve is among the latest and best attempts to answer this question. Howe argues that the reasons for political inaction on anthropogenic climate change lie not only with fossil fuel lobbyists but also with atmospheric scientists naive enough to assume that better science would lead to better policy. Time and again scientists have ignored or underestimated the deep social, political, and moral questions raised by the issue of anthropogenic climate change. Their focus on minimizing scientific uncertainty about global warming has offered opportunities for deniers to undermine public faith in climate science while leaving the rest of us unprepared to grapple with the true consequences and costs of climate change. Howe presents a chronological account of one missed opportunity after another that, he admits, reads a little like a Shakespearean tragedy. Scientists erred for reasons they could not control—such as the nebulous and intractable nature of the threat posed by climate change—and for reasons they could, such as their misplaced faith in top-down over bottom-up methods of confronting global warming or their focus on global over local forecasts. Howe adds depth to this sad story by incorporating the familiar histories of the Cold War and American environmentalism, which here open exciting new windows into the institutionalization and politicization of climate science. While chronological narratives can lose momentum, Howe’s fluid prose and meticulous research overall make for compelling reading. Howe writes there are “no true heroes and no true villains” in Behind the Curve, and while that may make for a richly textured history, it also seems at odds with Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, another standout title in climate change literature. Howe insightfully points out that deniers have merely reacted to the ways in which scientists have presented the issue of climate change. Yet the ability of “merchants of doubt” to delay action on issues well beyond climate science suggests that policy inaction on climate change does not stem primarily from the naiveté of scientists or the inscrutable workings of global warming. So do the diverse policy responses to climate science pursued by national governments around the world. One of the more curious aspects of Behind the Curve is in fact that Howe makes universal claims while concentrating on the failure of scientists to provoke political change in the United States. Moreover, according to the definition of “climate change” that Howe uses—“past, present or future changes in climate, regardless of cause”—references to the “history of climate change” in Behind the Curve are confusing because they exclusively concern global warming between 1957 and 1997. Of course, this leaves out the early and most recent history of anthropogenic climate change, not to mention the ancient cycles of natural climatic variability. For the sake of clarity, Howe might have more clearly explained the parameters and limitations of his analysis. Nevertheless, Behind the Curve is one of the most important books yet written on the politics and science of global warming. It is not an environmental history, yet it does much to explain American inaction in the face of the greatest environmental change of the Anthropocene. It also offers persuasive prescriptions for how climate policy might come out from “behind the curve” of climate science. Our best bet for action in the face of climate change, Howe concludes, will take the form of pragmatic policies at the local level. It is a hopeful message for the Trump era. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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