Hotting up, Karen Hartshorn

Melting Point: New Zealand and the Climate Change Crisis 
Eric Dorfman
Penguin Books, $37.00,
ISBN 9780143008682

There are several worthwhile reasons for a book such as this to exist. Firstly, there is no longer any serious scientific debate about whether climate change is happening. Regardless of the views of some current politicians, most of the recent global warming is the result of human activities. And the simple fact is that if humans carry on emitting greenhouse gases as they now do, the climate will continue to warm up with increasingly dire consequences for people and the planet in the near future.

Secondly, those people aware of the potential implications of climate change have already begun calling for action and change. They point out that change needs to happen at every level, from individual to community to political, and quickly. However, confusion still reigns as to what exactly this “action” means, how we go about significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and what individuals can do to slow down the effects of climate change.

Finally, up until now there has not been an accessible reference work written for the general public that both details the potential consequences of climate change specific to New Zealand and outlines actions that could be taken. This book is intended to fill that gap and, in some respects, it does so admirably.

Dorfman opens with a brief explanation of the science of climate change. In subsequent chapters he discusses the expected effects of climate change on New Zealand landscape, agriculture, population health, ecosystems, and social and economic systems. Each chapter begins with a global perspective, and then narrows in to look at New Zealand-specific change: what animals we could rear instead of sheep and cows, which suburbs may end up under water, and what may happen to some of our prized native species. A lengthy chapter entitled “Choices” details the specific actions that people can take at the personal or community level that will effect positive change. Advice ranges from growing your own vegetables to using more public transport to writing to your local MP.

Despite its laudable goals, this book does not quite manage to fill its intended niche.  No one can doubt the feelings of the author. He wrote the book entirely as a personal response to his own concerns as he learned more about the subject. But one gets the feeling that sometimes he was slightly overwhelmed by the sheer enormity and complexity of the topic. There is a good argument for not letting a climate scientist write a popular book on climate change, as the result may be far too detailed or complex to interest the average reader. There are, though, good reasons for any science writer to make the most of available scientific resources and assessments when tackling such a complex subject.

In this case, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC ) 4th Assessment Report on global climate change should be by far and away the main source of information. Though dense (the IPCC synthesis report alone is 52 pages long, not including appendices, a summary for policymakers, and the three reports of about 900 pages each that preceded it), it is the most comprehensive, up-to-date, globally credible and universally recognised authority detailing both the science of and policies affecting climate change. By contrast, in some parts Dorfman seems to rely on the summaries of other people to tell him most of what he needs to know. A summary of some of the relevant parts of the IPCC 4th Assessment is usefully included as an appendix, but within the body of the book Dorfman sometimes seems to rely more on what he learned from An Inconvenient Truth.

The science presented is therefore basically solid and accurate, but there are a few (important) small examples that, while not entirely incorrect, draw the wrong conclusions or present data in a slightly misleading way. In one section, he asserts that, in a computer model predicting future scenarios, the Greenland ice caps melt and “global sea levels rise 12m”. However, all the ice in Greenland equals, at most, a seven-metre sea-level rise; the figure of 12 metres would have to include melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Perhaps more importantly, the book sheds no light on the time scales over which such large amounts of sea-level rise could occur, which leaves a major gap for those concerned with coastal issues in New Zealand or the global implications of sea-level rise.

In another example, a graph showing the increasing number of insurance claims due to weather and flooding events since 1968 is used to illustrate that weather events are getting more extreme. In reality, governments and scientists have already tried to prove such connections, and found that it is simply not possible at this stage. Too many variables exist around the records of insurance claims through time, including increasing numbers of people with insurance, the value of claims versus number of claims, and the various definitions of “weather-related” claims.

Individual chapters continue this theme – mainly making solid, strong arguments, but of occasionally variable quality. One of the strongest chapters looks at possible future effects of climate change on natural ecosystems. This reflects the area of the author’s expertise, and is a comprehensively referenced and researched chapter. Chapters outside of his area of expertise are slightly weaker. The chapter detailing, for example, the effects of climate change on population health gives very little useful New Zealand-specific information, and limits itself to extensive referencing of World Health Organisation data (normally quite limited with respect to New Zealand). It mentions, briefly, the effects climate change may have on mental health, an area that may become of great concern if entire Pacific island nation populations are displaced due to rising sea levels.

The book, although just published in 2008, appeared before the change to a National government. Dorfman spends a long time talking about the strengths of the Emissions Trading Scheme and New Zealand’s global leadership, stating the former Labour government’s aims to become a carbon neutral nation. This reviewer was surprised that there was no “future-proofing”, or discussion about consequences to New Zealand on a local or international stage if subsequent governments reverse or abandon current climate change legislation. Given Dorfman’s obvious advocacy for the previous government’s initiatives, this omission might be a purposeful tactic. He may simply feel that the previous government had it right, and their way was the best way. One wonders, though, if this book may have been helped by a thorough discussion of other policies as well, including the winners, losers and motivations behind alternative approaches.

Overall, then, one gets the feeling that Dorfman is sometimes slightly confused as to who his readership is, or whom he is trying to convince. In some sections, he lectures at us (the ignorant petrol-guzzling, tree-felling, red-meat eating us), sometimes in almost condescending fashion, and comes across as a self-appointed apostle of the sustainability movement sent to educate and enlighten us. Pages later, however, he points out that we are all “hungry for information, believing that as a nation we aren’t doing enough” or that “we New Zealanders are thinking about climate change not only from a global perspective but from a personal one.” While heartening statements, if they were entirely true we wouldn’t need this book in the first place.

And that is the problem with the book: it is needed, there is no doubt about that, and some of it hits the mark. However, in the end one finishes Melting Point wondering if it was entirely the right book, approach or author for this important task.


Karen Hartshorn is a science communicator and scientist based at the University of Otago.


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Posted in Natural History, Non-fiction, Review
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