Summary of reviews of

Climate Change: Biological & Human Aspects (Cambridge University Press)

You can buy the book here.

(2007  1st edition) Jonathan Cowie, hardback / paperback, xvi + 487 pages, ISBN 978-0-521-87399-4 (hardback) / ISBN 978-0-521-69619-7 (paperback).

(Reviews of the book's 2nd (2013) edition reviews click here.)

This page contains excerpts from reviews of the book's 1st, 2007, edition.
The review quotes are longer than CUP can use on its promotional material but,
as most journals have on-line versions, you can use Google Scholar to see many of the whole
reviews. Having said that, you may need to use a terminal within an academic library
that subscribes to the journal to get free access, and so for others this page may be useful.

 

UNEP recommended

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) cited Climate Change: Biological & Human Aspects as one (of a number) of the top climate change science books of the 21st century. It did this as part of the UN World Environment Day 2008 (5th June) which, that year, had the theme of 'climate change'. The selection of books was compiled by the Sergio Vieira De Mello UN Library. They chose 93 titles published worldwide. This may seem a bit of an odd number but it equates to 10 books a year for each of the nine years 2000 - 2008: that is 90 titles. What about the other three? Well UNEP included in its list the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 2007 report Climate Change: The Physical Science Basis and it also included three other IPCC reports, which gets us to 93.

 

Bioscience - Journal of the American Institute for Biological Sciences

"Jonathan Cowie took on a monumental task in writing Climate Change - a book that covers climate science and the interactions of climate with the biosphere and geosphere from the inception of life to modern times. Given the book's vast scope, it is not surprising that the level of detail, the completeness of information, and the quality of writing vary considerably. Initially, I was somewhat ambivalent, but as I got deeper into this tome, I became more and more impressed by just how well Cowie tied together so many disciplines-all of which are relevant if one wants more than a superficial understanding of what human greenhouse emissions mean for our planet.

There is so much to gain from Cowie's book that I can easily forgive its problems and limitations. Climate Change has flaws, and some chapters have an obvious European (particularly UK) bias, but those aspects should not deter readers. I know of no other source, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that brings together the breadth and depth of material that this book does. There is sufficient repetition and cross-referencing so a reader may choose among topics and read only the ones of interest without losing a sense of completeness. This is one of the strongest points of the book. While I dutifully provide critique here, the bottom line is that anyone who wants to understand climate change and its impacts, but who doesn't have time to earn a PhD on the topic, should buy this book. The title may be misinterpreted by people expecting a focus on modern-day species. While Cowie does a splendid job of summarizing modern-day impacts on wild species and on society, there is as much climate science, atmospheric science, oceanography, biochemistry, and biogeochemistry as there is organismal biology. Cowie does a brilliant job of weaving together the evolution of life with the evolution of Earth's climate. This topic occupies the first third of the book. Many of us know intellectually that the two are connected, but how many of us could explain the interconnections in any detail to another person, much less give a lecture on the topic? For those who would like to be able to do just that, Cowie provides the material..."

"...Although I still recommend this book overall, if there is some particular information that is vital to the reader, it would be advisable to investigate key details by delving into the original studies. Fortunately, Cowie supplies ample references so that the reader can do just that. Indeed, part of the value of this book is as an inroad into the primary literature for each of the topics covered..."

"...Cowie makes a bold transition from the earlier part of the book, which focuses on natural science, to the latter part, which focuses on society. He starts the societal discussion with a blunt yet thoughtful appraisal of the pivotal role that the sheer number of humans plays in producing climate change in the first place and in affecting our ability to both mitigate and adapt to future impacts. This is very much a late-night topic among conservation biologists and ecologists, but it is rarely brought to the forefront in public discourse on sustainability in general and on climate change in particular. Lowering the global population growth rate is perhaps the single most important action we could take to alleviate environmental degradation of many kinds and to promote a better quality of life and human well-being. I doubt it's coincidental that the IPCC emission scenario that results in the lowest average global warming (the B1 scenario) assumes not only the use of "green" energy but also a decline in the global population after 2050. The failure of human population issues to rise to prominence in policy discussions is a result of political unviability, not scientific unimportance. Cowie himself puts it well: "If we are to comprehend and address climate change concerns and the implications for species, including our own, then this understanding needs to come from science.... If we fail...well, someone else can narrate doom and disaster, at least as far as human and many wildlife species are concerned. As for the rest of the biosphere, it will go on.""

Note: A free/open access pdf of the above review can be found here and also here in full.

 

Bulletin - British Ecological Society

"No ecological or environmental issue has impacted more violently upon public awareness and concern than climate change. It is reasonable that this should be the case, but I am sure that we have all occasionally seethed with exasperation when the media have latched on to some new unsubstantiated prediction of gloom, or an uncritical interpretation of a meteorological catastrophe as an illustration of the negative effects of climate change. The thinking public is in dire need of a balanced account of the current state of knowledge, along with a carefully expressed interpretation of the evidence for climatic shifts and their causes and consequences. Jonathan Cowie has attempted. to provide such a guide in this book, aimed at students of the life sciences, geography, and environmental science. He spends the first chapter setting out basic information on the relevant global processes; carbon cycle, greenhouse effect, water cycle, and the astronomical forces underlying long-term climatic change. He then devotes 200 pages, almost half of the book, to what might be described as climate history. Some may feel this is excessive, but my reaction is one of great relief on encountering such a perceptive approach to the subject. It is impossible to develop a fully balanced appreciation of current problems without an informed historical background. Climatic change is part of the normal process of Earth history, and extreme and rapid climatic change has often taken place in the past. The biological consequences have indeed been considerable and occasionally catastrophic, and we can learn much from this. The historical perspective is also important when extrapolating changes into the future and making climatic predictions. What climatic conditions might we have expected if the industrial revolution had never taken place? Would we still be in the throes of the Little Ice Age, or, even worse, immersed in a full glacial? The lessons of climatic history certainly indicate that this far into an interglacial we should be on an icy downward slope. Such considerations do not necessarily encourage complacency about current climate change. Indeed, they may stimulate further concerns if one contemplates the rapid climatic reversals that can take place when the smooth circulation of the oceanic heat conveyor is interrupted, as it was just 10,000 years ago. But historical lessons set the scene for the interpretation of our present predicament. In the second part of the book Cowie looks in detail at some of the elements of this predicament, including rising sea levels, shifts in the biogeographic distribution patterns of living organisms, and the implications of climate change for energy supply policies and global food production. Cowie uses his pen without waving his arms, and has put together a book that is measured, informative, balanced, scientifically sound, and as up-to-date as a book can possibly be in these days of rapid information accretion."

 

Petroleum Review (of the Energy Institute)

"This book provides a broad review of past, present and likely future climate change from the viewpoints of biology, ecology and human ecology. It is a useful introduction to the subject, giving a brief overview of the basics of climate science, atmospheric science, environmental science and geography for those needing to understand the biological and human ecological implications of climate change. The book is also a useful reference for those involved in environmental monitoring, conservation, policy-making and lobbying."

 

Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society(AMS)

"Cowie chooses to go wide rather than deep. As a result, the reader will not come away with a newfound thorough understating of any aspect of the climate change problem. Rather, the reader will gain an appreciation of the wide-ranging consequences that will reach into every corner of the world and nearly every facet of our society. In fact, the shear breadth can be overwhelming at times. Given that such scope cannot be conveyed by a linear narrative, Cowie often jumps around from subject to subject, and frequently returns to specific topics several times during the course of the book. This can be confusing, but it is necessary to convey the profound interconnectedness of the issue. He does not paint a clear, concise picture of climate change, but at some level that is the point. It's not a clear, concise issue; it is convoluted and messy..."

"...Some specific parts of Cowie's book jumped out at me as being particularly strong. His history of methodologies for isotope analysis in the chapter titled "Principal Indicators of Past Climates" gave a very nice background on how paleotemperature reconstructions have been made and cross-correlated. His presentation on methane hydrates on the ocean floor points to the precariousness of our situation regarding higher-order consequences of climate change that have low probability but enormous impact. Cowie presents many examples of how humanity's presence makes our current period of climate change unlike previous cycles the Earth has experienced. For instance, I found it illuminating how human-induced landscape fragmentation prevents some adaptations to climate change within the natural world that it was able to exploit in the past, such as species migration. Demographic pressures and climate change can combine so that lands that are now productive may not remain so in a new climate. Cowie also suggests that greenhouse gas emissions could carry us through the next natural Milankovitch glacial cycle without an ice age. This means that our actions since the start of the Industrial Revolution could have profound effects tens of thousands of years into the future, even if we begin cutting global emissions today. The book also includes enlightening perspectives at the interfaces of the traditional disciplines of environmental sciences, ecology, economics, and policy. Statements such as "the global value of services provided by ecosystems, but external to our human economy, is of the same order of magnitude as the 'real' human economy, if not greater..." force the reader to step back toward a global perspective. He sums up the source of our present predicament thusly, "Today 92% of many industrialized-nation populations are free to engage in activities other than basic food supply, which is almost a complete reverse of the position in ancient Egypt. What enabled this radical change... was the increased contribution made by energy." Despite crystalline statements like this, however, complexity remains the thesis of this book.

The book orbits around two key points. One is that the reorganization of the carbon cycle, as has happened many times in Earth's past and like what we are doing through human activities, results in major environmental change. The second point is that the effects on species and societies will be both positive and negative-that is, there will be winners and losers.

The writing often tends toward pedantic and long-winded. The author has a tendency to wander away from central topics and to drop names in lieu of presenting arguments. Cowie hits his stride when he can delve fully into discussion of the timeline of policy advances, becoming downright wonkish with chapter and verse citations from a stream of conferences and reports. Chapter 8 stands as a veritable history of sustainability policy. The distribution of examples in the book is skewed toward Britain and the United States.

Cowie directly fingers naysayers of climate change and the fallacies of logic they use to justify their point of view. While it is true, for instance, that the problem with our short observational climate record is that it is difficult to differentiate long cycles from trends, the wealth of palaeoclimate evidence helps resolve this conundrum. When cross-referenced with observations, this evidence makes the case for anthropogenic global warming. Cowie identifies those who "did not wish to believe" as those with something to lose. There is no "smoking gun" that one can point to, but there is a tremendous amount of lesser evidence that all points in the same direction. In statistical parlance, local field significance is generally marginal, but looking at the whole, field significance is undeniable. This book is a walk through that subtle realm..."

"...The punch line is delivered as section 8.4.1, where Cowie clearly and concisely lays out the scale of the problem, and the depth of mankind's predicament is presented with inescapable transparency. It is difficult not to feel ashamed when thinking of our descendants at this point. As Cowie says later in the chapter, "Anyone born today will witness many of the climate-change impacts discussed in this book, and will almost certainly see the peak in consumption of global oil and gas as well as witnessing their decline to scarcity. This is not a shock statement but one of simple virtual certainty and something very pertinent to all parents." The mark of current generations upon the Earth will be evident for many generations. Cowie then drives home the point later in the book that scientists must have "good communications with politicians." Reconciliation of the differences in perspectives between scientists and policy makers must come quickly to minimize the damage and ensure solutions. Cowie's final point is that understanding needs to come from science-we will be the point of origin for solutions to the problem of climate change.

In summary, this is not the book a climate scientist would have written, but it is a book a climate scientist should read. The descriptions of the biological interactions with climate are enlightening. The scientist reader will come away with a better idea of how his/her work applies to policy, and will gain a better perspective on the big picture..."

 

Holocene

"It is not necessary to read the chapters of Climate Change in order. Chapters 1 and 2 are an introduction to climate change and the evidence that we use to determine past climates. Chapters 3 and 4 review past climates of the Earth from the Hadean and Archean eons through the Quaternary, along with the possible reasons for the changes that have occurred through the last 3.5 billion years. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 look at the current and near-future impacts of climate change on the environment and human ecology. Finally, Chapter 8 looks at the policy aspects of climate change and future implications based upon what we decide to do.

Chapter 1 is a relatively concise discussion of the various scientific elements of climate change, from causes to results. Chapter 2 covers the indicators (proxies) of past climate change. These range from biotic climate proxies (tree rings, leaves, pollen and species response) to marine proxies (oxygen isotopes and alkenone analysis) and non-biotic indicators (water isotopic analysis, carbon dioxide and methane records, and dust concentrations in ice cores).

Chapter 3 is a rather impressive attempt to discuss all major climate changes beginning about at 3.8 billion yr BP through the late Miocene. Owing to the use of the popular journals, the discussion of the Precambrian atmospheres and climates is a little confident, perhaps more so than the evidence would allow. Each of the extinctions of the Earth’s first 4.5 billion years is covered as being the result of climate change, at least as the major influence. Many of these discussions either discount other factors of a geologic nature (such as sea-level change) or they are presented as being brought about as part of that climate change. Some of this can be attributed to the use of the ‘popular’ journals which tend to cover ‘sexier’, more contemporary discoveries.+ Chapter 4 has more of the meat of the discussion of climate changes of the past, with a much greater level of detail aimed towards taking us through the late Miocene.

Chapters 5 and 6 are a discussion of the Holocene and possible near-future. Cowie uses Milankovitch cycles as the principle forcing agent of at least near-past climate changes. He looks at the potential loss of the predicted modern cooling period as being influenced by a new kind of forcing agent: mankind. Looking beyond the evidence of temperature, Cowie uses Chapter 6 to look at other indicators of continued change towards a warmer atmosphere, including changes in boreal and tropical rainforests. The chapter ends with a discussion of feedback mechanisms and what he calls ‘possible surprise responses’ that may result in worse problems related to a warmer Earth.

Chapter 7 looks at the human toll of climate change. Population increases, both as a cause for climate change and a casualty of the change, are discussed. Energy resources and needs are discussed as a part of the climate change equation. The impact of a warmer Earth on human health and food security are covered, with a stress on the impact being felt more acutely by the poor. The chapter ends with a discussion of the few possible ways that humans can try to reduce that part of increased temperature that will occur because of our influence.

The final chapter is more policy-related than scientific. It briefly covers all of the major international conferences along with their efforts to measure the human impact on climate change, beginning in 1972. Through the role of energy use (and related carbon releases) as the major thrust for change, Cowie looks at alternative energy options, but concludes that change is already going to happen for the foreseeable future. It is his conclusion that the world (and humans) will be forced to deal with increasing temperatures as a reality. It ends with a discussion of how these changes will impact the human and natural environments, and the challenges that we will have to face."

+By 'popular journals' you may care to note that this relates to publications such as Science and Nature which I unashamedly used preferentially (but not exclusively), compared with more specialist but lower-circulation journals, as few university and research libraries stock the latter whereas nearly all stock the former. This increases students' chance of being able to check out my book's references for themselves and this is part of the book's educational aim as a gateway to the relevant academic literature. However, contrary to the reviewer, I do not believe that these journals' 'sexier' (if that is indeed what they do have) content is less scientifically robust: indeed these journals' high citation impact factors suggest that they garner much scientific respect. You though must make up your own mind.

 

Biologist

"Cowie's book deserves more than a cursory glance - it demands to be read. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at both the range of contents and the style which is reader-friendly, quantitative, authoritative but above all, stimulating; the pages dare you not to turn them over and read further…"

"…the book is intelligently arranged in major sections, which are further sub-divided and concluded with an extensive bibliography. I very much enjoyed the section on 'Sustainability and Policy', pages 392-465, which presented models data and balanced arguments, underscored with case studies and references to past geological events and likely future scenarios and ending on a very personal and positive note (see page 466). I think Cowie is to be congratulated for presenting a highly complex, yet fundamentally vital distil of a problem of literally global proportions that will play out its final scene long into the future."

 

Choice Reviews On-line

"Cowie (formerly, Inst. of Biology, UK) offers an excellent overview of the foremost environmental problem of the 21st century. As such, the book is about biology and human ecology as they relate to climate change. While this volume appears to be drawn heavily from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) reports, it was actually written before the most recent IPCC report was published. The author provides nonspecialist readers with a very good introduction to the complexity of global climate change. As a specialist working on the effects of global change on forest ecosystems, this reviewer found it somewhat refreshing to step back and look at the bigger picture of global change that this book addresses. It should be a useful starting point for environmentalists, policy makers, and teachers. The book does an excellent job of pulling together the complex web of evidence for climate change by carefully setting the current conditions in the context of climate change over the recent and distant past. It will benefit anyone trying to understand the tremendous human consequences of these changes. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels."

D. F. Karnosky, Michigan Technological University

 

Amazon.co.uk

**** (Out of five possible stars)
"This text provides possibly one of the most up to date examinations of climate change from a scientific point of view, which is to be commended. The book deals with the scientific methods for detecting climate changes, past climate changes, present changes, as well as the human ecology of climate change (this section in particular is dealt with in a manner often overlooked by other texts). For an examination of the political implications of climate change at a governmental level in the modern period the section 'Sustainability and Policy' is particularly useful. The section on past climate changes are also very useful for all levels of study. The text raises several issues as to the manner in which climatic data is utilised by scientists and non-scientists alike in the modern period which should prove useful for students of the field who are often faced with a multitude of texts (often of a contradictory nature). At all times the book encourages the reader to critically examine the masses of information available in the expanding field of climate change studies from multiple points of view. It does not attempt to simplify the issues into clear and concise explanation, which is one of the book's laudable aspects."

Don O'Meara "Dedon" (student) University College Cork

Note: A similar review to the above has appeared on the Organic Linker - The Organic & Eco Directory.

 

Eos: Transactions of the American Geophysical Union

"Several months ago a young economist asked me if I could recommend a good book explaining global climate change. At the time, I couldn’t think of anything appropriate for a nonscientist. Jonathan Cowie’s new book can now meet this need and is especially appropriate for someone interested in human systems. As Cowie explains in his introduction, Climate Change: Biological and Human Aspects is written to be accessible to undergraduates, scientists outside of the life sciences, specialists reading outside of their field, and policy makers and analysts interested in climate change and its relevance to society. In this regard, he succeeds very well..."

"...Cowie excels in clearly describing complex interactions and explaining the need to consider the infl uences of multiple interacting factors, the relative importance of which can vary across time..."

"...Cowie makes it easy both to appreciate the degree of societal impact associated with historical and current climatic variations and to consider what could happen in the future if more severe climatic changes occur. The analyses of human responses and actions, such as how agriculture, food prices, human demographics, and even religious practices changed during the Little Ice Age, are extremely interesting but not presented in great depth. One is left wishing for more..."

"...Overall, Climate Change: Biological and Human Aspects is a fine treatment of global climate change and interactions with biological systems that can be used to inform a variety of readers. It has value as an educational introduction to climate change for nonscientists as well as a refresher for scientists. Almost everyone is likely to gain a fresh perspective or learn something new."

Note: If you have a subscription to the journal the above review can be found in full here.

 

Physics in Canada

"This remarkable book about global warming was written by an erudite biologist rather than a physical scientist. Cowie has an extensive knowledge about how the various species of biota including humans on the Earth have evolved over geological time. The result is a very valuable and original contribution about how climate change has affected the Earth’s biota in the past, what is now occurring and what is likely to occur in the future. It is contains a valuable survey about how the various geological processes including climate change have altered the types of biota and their distribution over the past millions of years. It is not a book that can be read quickly as it is literally jammed with fascinating and unique information about how global climate change has occurred over and over again. The reader quickly senses that Cowie has a very clear mastery of his subject and that he is an excellent communicator. Consequently, his book should be a must read for those interested in the big picture about global climate change. It is not necessary to know anything about the subject. However, those readers with some background in global warming will have a better perspective about the objective of the author in organizing his book. It is a masterpiece in its subject area in the opinion of this reviewer and will be read for many years because much of the material will not become dated..."

"...This book deserves to be widely read as it provides an extremely important and valuable overview of what is happening to our planet due to the irresponsible misuse of valuable resources and fossil fuels for many years in the developed 20% portion of the world. Every scientist should read it carefully and then become involved in explaining what is happening to those unlikely to read about this subject. Sadly, it is unlikely that any politicians will take the time and effort to read it. The members of the scientific community have a public responsibility to lobby them about what policies must be enacted to prevent further drift towards a doomsday scenario."

Note: A free/open access pdf of the above review can be found here in full.

 

Global Environmental Politics

"Climate Change: Biological and Human Aspects, by Jonathan Cowie, is an impressive endeavor that weaves together discussion of both natural and social science processes associated with climate change. The author begins with a chapter on the functioning of the climate system, discussing the fundamentals of the carbon cycle, the greenhouse effect and connections to the water cycle and other biological processes. The book then covers a historical view of past climates and contributing factors that have marked past climate changes. He addresses the question “how do we know what we know about climate change?” by carefully discussing climate proxies such as tree rings, pollen, coral and peat bogs. He addresses biological processes through the 4.6 billion years of planet Earth, including discussion of the relevant Carboniferous period when coal was deposited (330 to 250 million years ago) and the Holocene epoch (10,000 years ago to the present). It is through these roughly one-hundred pages of great detail that Cowie successfully situates our present anthropogenic climate change predicament.

His focus sharpens when attention is paid to biological changes and human factors connected to climate change. For example, he examines shifting migration patterns spatially in different directions: vertical (e.g. up a mountainside) or horizontal (e.g. the migration range of the Monarch butterfly) or temporal/ phenological (e.g. earlier flowering of a plant species). Then drawing on work from the US Global Change Research Program and the UK Climate Impacts Programme, Cowie provides carefully detailed regional case studies on these kinds of interactions over time. The book concludes with a discussion of these interacting factors, and a view to the future of energy use, carbon emissions, human and biological change and sustainability.

Cowie draws on many disciplines—such as geology, chemistry, economics— in order to interrogate climate change causes and consequences. As a result, the book’s title seems unnecessarily constraining, and perhaps even misleading. Biological and human elements are privileged, but they are not the only things Cowie examines in detail. Furthermore, while the text is excellent, more photos and figures would aid in discussions throughout, especially if the book is to be used as a course text. Nonetheless, the strength of this contribution is precisely the interdisciplinary approach taken to such a multifaceted challenge. The author commendably accounts for the dynamism and agency of biophysical as well as human elements in telling this history at the human-environment interface."

Note: The above appeared as a review essay of three related books. If you have a subscription to the journal of Global Environmental Politics you can find this essay here.

 

Meteorological Applications (a journal of the Royal Meteorological Society)

"Overlapping the disciplines of atmospheric and life sciences, this is the first book on aspects of climate change and biological impacts which I have seen for some years which addresses these issues in a comprehensive manner, by showing the co-evolution of climate and life through geological time. The book provides and up-to-date synthesis of this rapidly developing field..."

"...In order to understand and assess the future impacts of climate change on biological systems the reader is taken through what is known about the impacts of climate change on life in the geological past. The author has taken the approach of ensuring that each of the eight chapters of the book stands alone: the reader can read each one independently and gain enough information to understand the material. Although it is inevitable (and noted in the text) that there is some duplication between chapters, this approach works because the text is cross-referenced well. Equally, it is readable from cover to cover. Thus, the reader is taken through a discussion of: a general introduction to climate change and the greenhouse effect; indicators of past climates (proxies and climate reconstruction); relationships between past climates and life (pre-mid-Tertiary, then post mid-Tertiary and Quaternary); present climate and biological change (effectively the impact of current climate change on modifying and influencing life); current warming; human ecology of climate change, and, aspects of sustainability and policy. Each chapter has its own reference list, and there are four appendices providing additional supporting information (a glossary, bio-geological chronology, energy supply and demand information, and a short summary of the findings of the 2007 IPCC Report with reference to the key messages of the book)..."

"...The book will make an excellent teaching aid, allowing students from the biological and atmospheric sciences to see the fundamental interaction between climate change and life, and an excellent reference for anybody interested in these interactions."

 

And finally, there is always one...

Journal of Biological Education (of the Institute of Biology)

I found... "some weaknesses in explaining the underlying physics, which irritated me – though not seriously enough to undermine the book's overall credibility..."*

"...I know of no single alternative that brings to bear on this key issue such a range of scientific findings, relatively unfiltered. In conclusion, here is an ambitious book which fills an important niche, albeit imperfectly."

John Cheverton

*Actually the give-away might have been the book's title 'Biological and Human Aspects'.