Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming
(University of Washington Press, 2014)

Prof. Joshua Howe [history 2012–]

In 1958, an obscure young chemist named Charles Keeling began measuring the concentration of CO2 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 know-ledge of climate change. Despite more than 50 years of research, however, our global society has yet to find real solutions to the problem of global warming. Why?

Behind the Curve

In Behind the Curve, Prof. 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-infamous Keeling Curve—through a number of historical contexts, highlighting the relationships among scientists, environmentalists, and politicians as those relationships have 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 50 years ago, carbon dioxide continues to rise. In 1958, Keeling first measured CO2 at around 315 parts per million; by 2013, glo-bal CO2 had soared to 400 ppm. The problem is not getting better—it’s getting worse. Behind the Curve offers a critical look at how this happened, along with an introduction by William Cronon. 

Joshua Howe teaches environmental history, the history of science, and 20th-century American history at Reed.