Last month, Brian Buma, PhD, associate professor of integrative biology, released his first book, The Atlas of a Changing Climate (Timber Press, $35). The 280-page book is filled with more than 100 maps, charts, and infographics to help readers without a science background envision the shifting reality of our imperiled ecosystems. Buma, who is a National Geographic Explorer, covers climate change, shrinking wildlife habitats, rising sea levels, and vanishing species.
CU Denver News spoke with Buma this week about how the book came together over the course of the pandemic. To read an excerpt from his book, click the link at the bottom.
Had you been thinking about this book for a while?
I know I wanted to write a book for non-scientists on broad-scale environmental science. I know how fascinating this science is when you look at it with scale, but how hard that is to do—our scale of personal experience is so different from how things work at a global scale. Global systems are so much bigger—they move slower and take place over thousands of miles, but they are incredibly beautiful and interesting. I actually wasn’t originally planning on making it about climate change!
It had been bouncing around in my head when Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) brought a snowball to the Senate as evidence that the Earth isn’t warming. The logic, which resonated with some people, is that if it’s unusually cold, climate change can’t be real. But on that day, I was in Alaska and it was way warmer than normal; it was the middle of the winter and we could wear shorts. I knew I needed to share how the world works on a big scale—most people, like Inhofe, don’t think that way unless they’re trained to, which makes sense. I am fortunate enough to do that for a living and wanted to share how interesting the world’s biosphere and environmental systems are when viewed at the proper scale.
What made you pivot to focus on climate change?
Once you talk about how the environment works, you inevitably must talk about what it’s doing—and that leads directly to anthropogenic climate change. Talking about the environment without talking about change would be like writing a book about a car and forgetting to mention that cars also move!
But the book isn’t preach-y, it’s not oriented around doom and gloom. We’ve tried that with the public for 20 years, and that hasn’t worked yet. There is a large part of the population that simply doesn’t respond to that, and we need to talk to them, too.
Why do you think scare tactics miss the mark?
I think it goes wrong for a lot of folks the minute a scientist says, “take my word for it.” Especially in the U.S. If a person in authority says, just trust me, you get a knee-jerk reaction. In my book, I focus on how these things work at broad scale, with a lot of visual evidence. In effect, it’s trying to say “don’t take my word for it: here is a map and showing how high the sea has risen so far, and here is why it will continue to rise.” People can draw their own conclusion about the magnitude of the problem, which I think is self-apparent once you understand the basic implications.
What were the challenges in pulling a book of this complexity together?
The hardest part was keeping it short. The book seems big, but it’s only 40,000 words, which would take you a short afternoon if you sit down to read it straight through. So my challenge was picking what to put in and what to exclude.
The second big challenge was to figure out how to link the science to more local stories so it resonated with readers. I had to shrink atmospheric circulation across the atmosphere down to local stories. For example, there’s the story of the 1927 Mississippi floods and how they influenced blues music, and a story about how tree cover was planned in Washington DC. There was also the challenge of finding and securing the beautiful imagery from the artists and cartographers—images that were compelling and self-contained, so readers can pick up the book, enjoy the beauty, and experience it that way. Thanks to that beautiful artwork, I think it works.
Do you have any upcoming readings?
On Dec. 2, the Rocky Mountain Hub of National Geographic Explorers put on a wonderful night of stories and audio from around the world that was cohosted by Denver Botanic Gardens and CU Denver’s Integrative Biology department. And on Jan. 12 at 6:30 p.m., I’ll be speaking at the Boulder Book Store. Because of covid, most interviews have been remote so far, but I hope once folks pick up the book, it’ll capture their imagination!