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Reviews - January 2007

Weather Catastrophes and Climate Change - Is there still hope for us?

Pfister, C; Schellnuber, H J; Ramstorf, S and Graßl, H (eds)
Publication date: 2005
Published by: Munich Re Group
ISBN: 3-937624-81-3
List price: €29.90
264 pp

Global warming is a reality. Over 80% of natural catastrophes are the result of extreme weather events. Economic loses from these events have increased six fold (and insured losses 15 fold) since the 1960s. It therefore comes as no surprise that the insurance industry is very interested in assessing the risks and costs of extreme events in order to cover the sometimes huge costs of insurance claims. The German reinsurance company, Munich Re, has a long history of bringing the importance of natural hazards to a wider audience. This new volume on weather catastrophes and climate change continues this tradition.

The book is divided into four sections and consists of 28 chapters. The editors have chosen their authors carefully. The first section deals with the state of the science of climate change, and presents an excellent overview of the complex mechanisms involved and how they can be monitored and modeled. Topics considered include: climate change in the industrial age, detecting climate change by satellite sensing and abrupt climate change.

The second section deals with the impact of climate change on nature, human life and economic activity. In particular, it is shown that even relatively small changes in average global temperatures can lead to large increases in the probabilities of extreme events - because the sting lies in the tail of the probability curve. This explains why extreme events are liable to increase dramatically over the course of this century. The third section deals with the options for politicians and society, and leaves considerable doubt about humankind’s ability to reduce CO2 emissions to sustainable levels in the near future. A major problem is, of course, that the bulk of the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations is sourced outside the EU and is not subject to the phased reductions in atmospheric CO2 emission required by the Kyoto Protocol.

The fourth section deals with the opportunities and risks for the insurance industry and is, in some ways, the most interesting part of the book. The central question is how to deal with the increasing losses to be expected from natural catastrophes and, in particular, with the exceptionally large losses from extreme events in the 21st Century. All in all this book provides an excellent introduction to the causes of weather-related catastrophes and their likely effects over the next 90 years. It is recommended reading for all those that wish to familiarise themselves with what is likely to become the major task of the 21st Century, namely how to mitigate and adapt to the effects of global climate change.

Geoff Glasby
University of Göttingen

Evolution and Differentiation of the Continental Crust

Michael Brown and Tracy Rushmer (eds)
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 2006
ISBN: 0-521-78237-6 (hbk)
List price: £80.00
553 pp

The last 15 years or so has witnessed a huge increase in interest in the processes by which the continental crust has evolved and differentiated through time. This highly readable and well-written volume summarises the results of recent research concerning melting, melt extraction and transport through the crust and the effects of melt on crustal rheology - in addition to new advances involving geophysics and geochemistry. The volume comprises 14 chapters, all authored by well-known international researchers in their respective fields. It is very well illustrated to a consistent standard and reproduction is excellent throughout. Each chapter includes a thorough reference list and the editors and publishers are to be commended for the speed with which the volume has been produced, as the most recent references are to papers that were published only a year ago.

The volume is logically structured, the first three chapters dealing with the structure of continents, controls on heat production, and the composition, differentiation and evolution of continental crust. Subsequent chapters focus on the role of arc magmatism in the Phanerozoic and crustal generation in the Archaean. To understand the modification and differentiation of continental crust, the book then considers regional examples from the lower and middle crusts. Thereafter follows a series of process-oriented chapters that focus on melting, melt extraction and migration and crustal rheology. The final chapters review the emplacement and growth of plutons and outline a modelling approach to the physical controls on crustal differentiation. Despite the large number of different contributors, the written style is clear, consistent and accessible throughout, presumably the result of careful editing.

The volume is timely in that it summarises concisely, and in a well-organised fashion, the results of a large amount of wide-ranging recent research in this topical field of earth science. Hitherto this material has been scattered across a wide spectrum of journals and conference volumes, making this particular volume an extremely valuable addition to the literature. The target audience is advanced student/postgraduate/researcher, and it will likely remain the standard text to guide research for some years to come. In summary, this is essential reading for all involved in research in this field and for those teaching advanced-level undergraduate courses. Copies should be on the shelves of all university libraries and I am sure that many individual researchers will consider the volume well worth purchasing.

Rob Strachan
University of Portsmouth


Half Gone – Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis

Jeremy Leggett
Published by: Portobello Books Ltd
Publication date: 2005
ISBN: 1-84627-004-9
List price: £12.99
312 pp

Global warming, propelled by reckless consumption of fossil fuels, has emerged as the foremost environmental issue of the 21st Century. In Half Gone Jeremy Leggett pins the blame squarely on ‘Big Oil’; not only have the Oil Men and their allies denied the link between hydrocarbons and warming, they have concealed an imminent collapse in oil supply. Thus environmental catastrophe will be preceded by an energy crisis that will cause economic and political meltdown. Luckily a few good men can see the ailing state of the planet and we may be redeemed if we follow their council.

‘Peak Oil’ adherents argue, correctly, that most giant fields were discovered a generation ago and we are now consuming far more oil than we are finding. They further maintain that supply has effectively peaked and that we have embarked on an irreversible decline. Of course, had we oil in unlimited quantities we could not burn it anyway as the impact on global warming would be catastrophic. However, salvation is at hand in alternative energy, which must be harnessed without delay.

Leggett’s selective use of facts and expert opinion do not make his case for a production crisis - nor does his contempt for all those that disagree with him. Many analysts with comparable credentials to the Peak Oil advocates see no short-term problem. For example the book ignores the forecasts of consultancies such as Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), under the Chairmanship of Daniel Yergin, who predict no near- or medium-term supply crisis. Others simply accept that, unless OPEC decides to open its books, we cannot tell either way. That is not a comfortable position, but it is an honest one.

On man’s contribution to global warming Leggett is on surer ground. Even here, though, he fails to deal adequately with the key issue. The case for climate change is proven. The critical issue is the precise relationship between greenhouse gas levels and temperature, because this will dictate how much more fossil fuel we can burn. Attempts to mitigate warming by sequestration of CO2 are dismissed out-of–hand.

As the book exaggerates the difficulties of maintaining oil production, so it minimises the challenges of a shift to renewables. The direction of change is inevitable but the rate is crucial if we are to survive the transition to a Post-Hydrocarbon Age. Accepting Sheikh Yamani’s claim that the breakthrough could be made in a decade is simply not realistic. Jeremy Leggett has performed an invaluable service in making us face up to the problem of global warming, but in refusing to acknowledge that continued hydrocarbon use is part of the answer he cannot offer a workable solution.

Joe Brannan
Shell International Exploration and Production