Not too long ago a librarian friend asked me a question about my latest book, Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World (National Geographic, 2009). She said that a parent at the elementary school where she works was upset that global warming was presented in some nonfiction material as fact rather than theory. She added, “I had no idea that global warming was a controversial issue. Or am I just naive? Did you address a controversy in your book?”
It was a question I’d been anticipating—OK, dreading—ever since I began researching the book. I was pretty sure it was one I would encounter in school visits, and I'd already been giving it some thought, in part because of my brother-in-law. He’s a global warming skeptic, and ever since I took on this project he'd been asking if I planned to present what he calls "both sides of the story."
Now, most everyone agrees that our planet is getting warmer. Scientists have determined this from historical records and decades of careful observations and precise measurements around the globe. Melting ice in polar regions, rising seas, earlier blooming times and ripening times for plants, earlier hatching times for insects, and earlier migration times for birds are a few of the unmistakable signs that Earth is heating up. Computer models have helped confirm these observations. "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal," stated the IPCC, a panel of hundreds of the world's leading scientists, in their 2007 report.
The controversy centers around what’s causing Earth to heat up. A few, very vocal skeptics continue to argue that the current climate change has nothing to do with human activity, that's it all due to natural causes, such as sun cycles and changes in the shape of Earth's orbit and the tilt of its axis. Most scientists, however, agree that the current warming trend can't be explained by natural cycles alone. The 2007 IPCC report declared that it was more than 90 percent certain that human activities, in particular the burning of fossil fuels, have caused most of the increase in average global temperatures since the mid-20th century. Ninety percent: That’s about as certain as science gets.
As I researched Earth in the Hot Seat, I did come across some material--much of it on the internet--describing global warming as mere theory and a bad one at that, one linked to nefarious political and economic agendas. I reviewed it but did not find it convincing. My editor and I discussed whether I should at least give a nod to the arguments of skeptics in this book, and we decided not to. To us--and to the National Geographic Society, which has long been in the forefront of reporting on climate change--the evidence that humans are responsible for the current buildup of greenhouse gases and that this is contributing to the current warming is overwhelming. If I had included the skeptics' argument in my book, I would have felt obligated to refute it, so it seemed best to leave it out altogether.
I worked hard, however, to avoid global warming hysteria. There are some activists who are ready to blame practically everything on global warming. So when I talked about the impact of climate change on animals and plants, I first made sure to note that habitat loss, pollution, overhunting, and overfishing already threaten much of Earth's wildlife.
More controversy arises when you get to the question of what humankind can do to limit the impact of global warming. I tried very hard--and think I succeeded--to stay away from politics here, i.e., no mention of carbon taxes, etc., or government intervention. Instead I focused on promising technologies, and positive steps kids can take, in particular by making smart choices about how they use energy.
Eventually a kid is bound to tell me that her mom or dad thinks global warming is a hoax. My response will be to share what I have learned, but to encourage the student to move beyond my book, to undertake their own research, and draw their own conclusions.