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March 14, 2014

After Merchants of Doubt, What to Read Next?

I’m participating in a panel this evening where Naomi Oreskes will discuss her excellent 2011 book Merchants of Doubt and the invention and manipulation of scientific uncertainty to impede public understanding and public policy in topics from tobacco to climate change.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.com

I would like to paint a broader picture of where Merchants of Doubt fits into the larger questions of “where are we?,”  “why are we there?,” and “how do we move forward?” when it comes to climate change. To that end, I want to refer interested participants to a short reading list that gives them the opportunity to dramatically accelerate their learning curves around these three questions.  I’ve chosen nine.  Some are specific to climate change, but many are not; to really understand the three questions posed above, we need to think more broadly.

  • For a great story of what the world might look in several decades, James Powell’s 2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming (2011) is a great (and quite short) Kindle Single. Powell is a scientist (geologist) and the book is written to be scientifically plausible.  But don’t look for a happy ending!
  •  For the classic look at how our minds process information, including in the context of risk and risk management, and to get an idea of why it’s so difficult for us to grapple with something like climate change, read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (2011).  Kahneman is a leader in the field of behavioral economics and won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.
  •  To understand the many situations in which we prefer to “look the other way” when it comes to things we don’t want to see, read Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (2011).  This book doesn’t focus on climate change, but does note that with respect to climate change “all the forces of willful blindness come together, like synchronized swimmers in a spectacular water ballet.”  Brilliant imaging.
  •  To gain insight into the business of predicting the future, and why we are so bad at it, Dan Gardner’s Future Babble: Why Pundits are Hedgehogs and Foxes Know Best (reprint ed. 2012) is a fascinating look into the communications world of hedgehogs and foxes.  Because we want to know the future, we are drawn to those people (hedgehogs) who present it most clearly and unequivocally.  We tend to dismiss the “foxes” who are full of “maybe” and “if this then that” equivocations.  Who do you think actually does a better job of forecasting the future?
  •  For a look at how we make decisions, and how we can start to think about changing the decisions we make, take a look at Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change (2013), written by Joseph Grenny and others.  The first edition of this book is what led me to think five years ago about tackling climate change in a whole new way, namely through the use of knowledge management as a way to promote learning and coordination.
  •  David McRaney’s You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself (2013) builds on Kahneman’s book, and uses everyday situations to help explain how specific cognitive barriers and biases affect our everyday lives.  It’s a much more insightful book than the title makes it sound.
  •  Climate Safety: In Case of Emergency (2008) from the Public Interest Research Centre in the UK, is an oldie but goodie.  What is notable about this (short) report is the way in which it approaches the question of risk.  “What if” we are wrong when it comes to various aspects of climate modeling and forecasting?  Given all of the talk about 2oC, how wrong could things go if we are being too optimistic in terms of common assumptions about how the atmosphere will respond to a given level of emissions?  Since we’re engaged in a one-way experiment, the questions are well worth asking!
  •  Nick Mabey and colleagues from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions take an interesting look in the report Degrees of Risk – Defining a Risk Management Framework for Climate Security (2011) at the question of how we would address climate change risks and uncertainties if we approached these issues the same way we approach national security risks and uncertainties.  Ironically, the national security community is quite concerned about climate change, and has been active in integrating climate risks.
  •  A lot of great work came out in 2013, but for what I’m characterizing as the most insightful piece of climate change analysis of the year take a look at Jonathan Rowson’s A New Agenda on Climate Change.  Not only is it a great piece of analysis of why we are where we are and how we might move forward, but how many climate change reports do you get to read that are written by chess Grand Masters?

These are just nine titles out of the many hundreds of titles in this space, but they are nine titles that are both extremely insightful and eminently readable for almost any audience.   Enjoy!

Photo credit: Thinkstock.com

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Climatographer Team

  • I would also suggest: What We Know About Climate Change by Kerry Emanuel and
    Hack the planet : science’s best hope– or worst nightmare– for averting climate catastrophe by Eli Kintisch.

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