Behind the Curve

Science and the Politics of Global Warming

Joshua P. Howe
Foreword by William Cronon

  • Published: March 2016
  • Subject Listing: History / Environmental History; Environmental Studies; Science and Technology Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 312 pp., 19 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Series: Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books
  • Contents

In 1958, Charles David Keeling began measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. His project kicked off a half century of research that has expanded our knowledge of climate change. Despite more than fifty years of research, however, our global society has yet to find real solutions to the problem of global warming. Why?

In Behind the Curve, Joshua Howe attempts to answer this question. He explores the history of global warming from its roots as a scientific curiosity to its place at the center of international environmental politics. The book follows the story of rising CO2-illustrated by the now famous Keeling Curve-through a number of historical contexts, highlighting the relationships among scientists, environmentalists, and politicians as those relationships changed over time.

The nature of the problem itself, Howe explains, has privileged scientists as the primary spokespeople for the global climate. But while the "science first" forms of advocacy they developed to fight global warming produced more and better science, the primacy of science in global warming politics has failed to produce meaningful results. In fact, an often exclusive focus on science has left advocates for change vulnerable to political opposition and has limited much of the discussion to debates about the science itself.

As a result, while we know much more about global warming than we did fifty years ago, CO2 continues to rise. In 1958, Keeling first measured CO2 at around 315 parts per million; by 2013, global CO2 had soared to 400 ppm. The problem is not getting better - it's getting worse. Behind the Curve offers a critical and levelheaded look at how we got here.
Joshua P. Howe is assistant professor of history and environmental studies at Reed College.

"Joshua Howe's conviction is that we must look beyond science for solutions to questions of human value that science alone can never answer. Only by placing climate change in a larger cultural and historical frame-as Behind the Curve consistently succeeds in doing-will we learn what we must from science without evading the ethical, moral, and political work that is no less essential if we are to find our way through the challenging choices that lie ahead."
-William Cronon, From the foreword

"Scientists have proven to be right about the causes of a warming planet, but they have failed to stop the warming. Stopping it involves politics and economics more than science, and in this important book Joshua Howe examines how scientists and environmentalists- although both live in intensely political worlds - have managed to get the science right and the politics wrong. This is not the usual story of heroes and villains. Howe tells a more nuanced story- a tragedy- in which a somewhat naive faith in science rendered scientists politically impotent in a complicated world. Few books published this year will tell a more important story."
-Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University

"How shall we deal with climate change? That is not just an important topic but, from the standpoint of future generations, arguably the most important of all topics. Thorough and wide-ranging, this book puts the history of global warming policy in its full political and cultural context."
-Spencer Weart, author of The Discovery of Global Warming

"Behind the Curve is a much-needed book on the history of climate science and politics stretching back to the immediate post-World War II period."
-Mark Carey, author of In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers

Foreword by William Cronon
List of Abbreviations
1. The Cold War Roots of Global Warming
2. Scientists, Environmentalists, and the Global Atmosphere
3. Making the Global Environment
4. Climate, the Environment, and Scientific Activism
5. The Politics of Dissent
6. The IPCC and the Primacy of Science
7. The Gospel of the Market
Selected Bibliography

"Howe's strong insight into how individuals, institutions, and governments interact produces a fascinating yet distressing story, proving that despite its aspirations towards objectivity, applied science historically is a flawed, human tale approaching a classical tragedy."
-Publisher's Weekly

"Fastidiously researched....there are no clear heroes and villains...Howe relates a multi-layered conflict that is leading us to a catastrophe of biblical proportions."
-Nick Walker, South China Morning Post

"In Howe's Behind the Curve we have a good story, and an instructive one. It is not the only story to tell about climate change and it won't be the last. But it is one that should be listened to."
-Mike Hulme, Climatic Change

"Page after page, Behind the Curve demonstrates the profound tension between science and politics-or more accurately, the anxiety among scientists that their credibility would be torpedoed if they allowed themselves to be lured from the safe harbor of factual inquiry into the treacherous shoals of politics."
-Chris Lydgate, Reed Magazine

"An exhaustive look at scientific, political and social responses to climate change, starting with the discovery of the greenhouse effect in 1958."
-James Helmsworth, Willamette Week

"Howe's take on the role of scientists as advocates for political action will be of interest to anyone concerned with the politics of climate change."
-Martin Mahoney, Topograph

"[E]xcellent...the first study to explore the links between climate science and postwar politics in depth."
-Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Public Books

"As the debate rages about it here."
-Robert E. Hoopes, Wildlife Activist