Non-Fiction Reviews

Predicting Our Climate Future

What we know, what we don't know, and what we can't know

(2023) David Stainforth, Oxford University Press, 20, trdpbk, 356pppp, ISBN 978-0-198-81293-7


Climate change has been of growing concern over the past three decades, though actually one of its first appearances on the political agenda was from the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment: yes, that long ago. Since then climate change concern has swelled so that no politician can ignore it even if they are rowing back on mitigation and transferring the economy to one not based on fossil carbon and becoming circular.

All this means that more and more folk are seeking out information but and here's the rub even if they can find it, can they understand it? Some (you?) may think they can, bit do they really?

Of course there are many aspects to climate change my own concerns the biology and human ecology of climate change and one needs to have a basic understanding of many other topics if an overall useful understanding of the issues is the goal. There is palaeoclimatology, meteorology, geology, biology, geography, politics and so forth and all interact with each other as well as being different aspects of climate change. Here, firmly in the mix is the mathematical modelling of climate change and this is where David Stainforth's Predicting Our Climate Future comes in.

First up, though it is about mathematical tools specifically climate computer models it barely has any mathematical equations and it is written in an easy-to-understand, New Scientist magazine level. David Stainforth writes lucidly (too many scientists don't) and his prose is enhanced with numerous diagrams and graphs which, for very much the most part, are simple and straight forward. (You have seen stock exchange, inflation and exchange rate graphs in your daily newspaper so nothing to worry about here.)

He explains what is knowable and what is unknowable and some of the basic jargon that comes up such as model ensembles and dispelling common misconceptions along the way. This is an extremely useful book for anyone that seeks to explore beneath climate change's hood to see what is going on in the engine.

What is clear is that the Earth's climate system indeed the Earth System as a whole behaves chaotically in the mathematical sense, and that there are critical transitions (or 'tipping points' though I don't like that term as it suggests we can as easily tip back into a former climate state as well as forward into a new one: this is not often the case). But how do we tell what is going on? Stainforth reveals all.

So, who is this book aimed at? Well, actually a large and diverse readership can benefit from this guide to the science of climate modelling. Perhaps one of the chief groups of readers will be climate scientists working in other disciplines than climate modelling, as they will at some stage, or even stages, almost certainly have to relate their work to that of models and also have to understand, as well as be aware of the limitations of, climate models. Second up, those politically engaging in climate science and that's not just politicians (who for the most part, with their degrees in politics, philosophy, law and economics, are simply unequipped to properly understand science and technological issues, this despite the developed world living with an increasingly science and technology based economy: spaffer Boris Johnson was reported in the UK CoVID enquiry not to be able to grasp concepts such as exponential growth!).

Those politically campaigning on climate issues will also find this book useful as it will give them confidence when talking about climate change and in 'following the science' (a term I hate as most politicians claim they do but don't here, this book helps greatly).

But even if readers are not climate activists but have a genuine avid interest in climate change and do wish to know the maths and modelling underpinning our understanding then this book is possibly your best shot.

Of course, many are content for climate change being something that just regularly crops up on TV news programmes. Such folk don't really comprehend that our overcrowded planet is going to hell in a hand cart. For them, no book, no matter how good at conveying complex fundamental issues simply will be of interest. For them, move along. Nothing to see here.

Jonathan Cowie


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