Charting a course correction: A review of Earth: The Operators' Manual

by Thomas Wagner
Thursday, January 5, 2012

Rare are the scientists like Richard Alley. An exceptional researcher known for his work on the great polar ice sheets, he is also a central figure in policy discourse on climate change through his testimony in front of Congress and work with groups such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for which he shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Alley is also an outstanding communicator: His audiences at scientific meetings typically overflow the room, and he is enviably comfortable speaking to eight-year-olds. His new work, entitled “Earth: The Operators' Manual” (ETOM), is a succinct discussion of how our actions affect Earth’s climate, as well as a compelling and hopeful call-to-arms to address warming. ETOM is also a truly multimedia affair, consisting of a book, a three-part miniseries for PBS and public television, outreach events at five major science centers and a website ( for the general public.

Though the subject is gloomy — we’re polluting the air with carbon dioxide and other gases to the point that we’re influencing the climate and destroying the planet as a habitable abode for life — the book maintains a positive tone throughout. It opens with a brief but fascinating history of energy consumption, from the perspective that the ability to exploit energy greatly benefited humanity. Even the transition to fossil fuels, Alley points out, let the eastern forests in the U.S. rebound from clearcutting and helped save the whales from all being turned into lamp oil.

The second section, comprising more than half the book, addresses climate change and the role of fossil fuels in driving global warming. It is unique in its scope. There is a thorough discussion of all of the potential drivers of climate change — changes in the solar flux, for example — that are occasionally trotted out by doubters of anthropogenic warming. Alley deftly explains some of the more complicated and controversial science, such as how warming can begin before rises in atmospheric carbon dioxide are measurable, and how volcanic eruptions and other phenomena complicate interpretation of the climate record. This section also gives readers Alley’s insider-view of the processes of science and publication, and the inner workings of groups like the IPCC. Political controversies such as “Climategate” — which Alley says was mostly about researchers letting off steam — are discussed along with charitable discussions of Alley’s own experiences, such as when a prominent alum of his own university demanded his firing.

The last third of the book covers solutions, focusing on alternatives to fossil fuels for energy generation and related success stories. Humorously framed around statements such as “But my brother-in-law said…” the book carefully and quickly debunks all of the typical hearsay that solar/wind/tidal power cannot possibly meet humanity’s energy needs.

This section also highlights one of Alley’s greatest talents: His ability to relate the complex in familiar terms. His units of energy consumption are often light bulbs, but Alley will go beyond the metaphor to explain the mathematics. Some of these calculations are in the text, but there are gems in the extensive endnotes that should not be missed. He also covers various economic aspects of climate change, including the costs associated with reducing carbon dioxide emissions and the manner in which we should — but do not — place economic value on the future. Alley’s overall point is that the additional costs to curb climate change are relatively small compared to what we already pay for clean water or the price swings for gasoline that happen each year.

Another strength of this section is that it does not advocate a specific climate change policy, but rather points out the tremendous range of options at hand. This differentiates it from some similar books in that it illustrates the full complexity of the problems and solutions — something often disregarded in suggestions for single solutions such as carbon sequestration.

Strengths aside, the book would have benefited from stronger editing. Reading the middle section on climate change, Alley’s area of greatest expertise, can feel like riding a roller coaster without a safety harness. One minute you’re racing along the track following every twist in a discussion of ice cores, and the next minute you crest a hill at the last glacial maximum only to be flung out of your seat into the dungeon of medieval warming. The terminology and time shifts will confuse many readers. Nonetheless, the book is chock full of pertinent figures and references, and indexed and supplemented with detailed notes, making it an excellent review for scientists or anyone interested in the details of climate change research.

The accompanying PBS documentary is essentially an abridged — but not dumbed-down — version of the book. It follows the same structure and couples the major points with powerful images: sweeping vistas of retreating glaciers, three-dimensional flyovers of wind farms in the United States, and even footage of economically depressed communities making comebacks on renewable energy development. Some of the most compelling footage shows evidence of how seriously the U.S. military is taking climate change threats and how it is quickly adopting technology — from biofuel-powered ships to air-conditioned tents run off of solar power — that reduces the military’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Although the content is superb, the film lacks the emotional highs and lows and humor that would make it even stronger. In narrating the film, Alley — a marvelous speaker and singer (his earth science renditions of Johnny Cash classics can be found on YouTube) — speaks with a modulated tone that sounds more like a BBC announcer than his usual charismatic self. But unlike some educational videos, the wide-ranging content, visual imagery and rapid pacing will appeal to younger audiences; it is appropriate for use in junior high school through college classrooms, and the book could be used as both a primary text or a reference.

The website is evolving, but its structure, including the section for educators, appears promising. On it, the documentary is divided up into segments for easy incorporation into lesson plans, and links are provided to related resources such as carbon footprint calculators. ETOM also hosts a Facebook page and a Twitter feed, which directs followers to breaking climate and renewable energy news and events, including museum visits by Alley and others.

Overall, “Earth: The Operators' Manual” achieves its goal, which is to prepare us to “come about” — as in, to change course and replace fossil fuels with alternative sources to blunt the impacts of global warming. The book and documentary compellingly argue for change, and present the information we need in order to understand Earth and regulate its climate as though we were operators of a vast machine, which, in essence, we now are. As threat fatigue about global warming progressively settles in, we would do well to heed Alley’s wise counsel: “The change is still possible, we are not the Titanic, doomed to hit and sink.”

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