Climate change books review

At the moment, the COP21 climate change summit is taking place in Paris. The conference is into its second week and the news reports say that the negotiators are working through the night to try and sort out a binding agreement amongst the countries taking part. As it's going on, I thought it would be a good moment to review two climate change books; ‘Storms of my Grandchildren’ by James Hansen and ‘Six Degrees’ by Mark Lynas.

James (or Jim) Hansen is possibly the most well-known climate scientist in the world today. He has been conducting research and campaigning to tell people how serious is the threat of climate change to the entire planet. In his book, Hansen thoroughly and extensively explains how he and other climate scientists have gathered the evidence that shows what the huge emission of carbon dioxide is doing to our planet and the likely outcome of this act. Hansen focuses particularly on evidence from Earth’s past. By studying what happened in historic episodes of global warming (particularly the Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum or PETM), Hansen shows how easily and quickly the Earth’s climate can shift to a very different state. He also draws on evidence on what’s been happening to our planet in recent, recorded history and how this matches the pattern of change from previous-era events.

Hansen’s book is excellent for anyone who wants to be convinced of the depth of research that supports the climate change science. Unfortunately, the book isn’t the easiest read and I found it sluggish at times. Hansen also, I think, makes the mistake of apportioning blame to different groups. There seems little benefit to this strategy, as one of the biggest problems of the 'humanity and climate change' situation is one that is shared by nearly everyone; that the vast majority of people on Earth who can burn fossil fuels do burn them, and in large amounts. Also, the ecological catastrophe that is approaching us will punish everyone. We’re effectively all in this together.

There’s no doubt that Hansen has immense knowledge on the subject of climate change. It's also clear that he is extremely worried at what we face. As the title of his book shows, he fears what sort of lives his and our grandchildren will have. It's unlikely to be pretty. He also fears that our grandchildren will hate us for what we’ve done. He does talk at length about how the developed world might reduce its carbon footprint but the overall feeling, based on his research and personal history of climate campaigns, is that any actual efforts that are made will be too little and too late.

The second climate change book is ‘Six Degrees’ by Mark Lynas. Lynas’s book is much easier to read than Hansen's. Lynas is a journalist, rather than a scientist, but that doesn't mean that the book is shallow. Lynas has drawn upon a wealth of scientific evidence in the form of hundreds of scientific papers and scholarly articles. He also made the clever choice of making each chapter a description of the effects on the planet of increasing degrees of warming. In this way, as the reader progresses through the book, he or she witnesses the planet slowly warming; experiencing heat waves, floods, rising sea levels, forced migrations, starvation and the transformation of larger and larger areas of the globe from productive agricultural areas into parched savannah and finally inhospitable deserts. When the book reaches chapter 6 and the IPCC 'worst case' prediction of six degrees of warming is described, the situation has become apocalyptic. 'Six Degrees' isn’t exactly a fun read, but it’s an important one and Lynas has done a brilliant job of talking about climate change to a general audience in an engaging, clear and thought-provoking way.

It’s interesting to note that these books aren't new; they came out in 2009 and 2007 respectively, which gives us an opportunity to test their predictions, even over five-or-so years. It's sobering to see that since that time, events have unfolded in line with the authors’ predictions and in most cases, faster than they predicted. The Amazon rainforest in undergoing the worst drought for 100 years. California, Mexico, Namibia, Spain, Portugal and other areas are also all suffering severe drought. While the West of the U.S. dries up and bakes, the East is pummelled by super storms. Closer to home, Lynas’s prediction that British winters would be milder and become peppered with intense rainstorms that would cause severe flooding is now a regular occurrence. Both authors warn of the huge danger of the Indonesian Peat Forests drying up and then burning up in enormous forest fires that will release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This has started to happen in recent months. The clock is most definitely ticking. Promises by countries to reduce their carbon output by 2050 is ridiculous as the climate tipping points will have been reached and passed by then.

Both authors are afraid that once the planet’s temperate is raised by two degrees, self-reinforcing mechanisms will kick in, such as a) drought parched forests burning up, along with their peat stores, thus ending their role as carbon absorbers and b) warming waters releasing stored, cold reserves of sea-floor methane hydrates into the atmosphere with cataclysmic globe-warming results. The end-game of such a chain of events is a planet that’s barely habitable and only supports less than 1% of the current numbers of animals and planets.

Can we stop this happening? I’d like to say, ‘yes’ but I would be lying if I did. As Lynas points out in his book on page 263, the majority of the world's population now regards a high-carbon lifestyle as the ultimate aim in life:

‘A high energy lifestyle is often seen as a badge of social success. TV and cinema adverts seek to establish high-performance cars as status symbols, whilst professional people may boast about how much international travel they do.’

In other words: High carbon footprint (big car, big house, plane trips, kids, dogs, horses, speedboat, steaks) = social success. Low carbon footprint (no kids, bicycle, small, crowded house, second-hand clothes, small meals, old kit) = social failure. Climate knowledge does not change this situation; scientists are just as likely to pick the ‘success’ option as bricklayers. The vast majority of people on this planet regard a low-carbon lifestyle as indistinguishable from being poor and they avoid it with fervour. This attitude is deeply entrenched and is one built over millennia of tribal competition. Centuries will be needed to dismantle such a mind-set and unfortunately we only have a few decades at the most to turn things around, before the feedbacks kick in and everything goes to Hell in a hand-basket.

But there is, I think, one way to look at our situation positively; why not treat it as a personal challenge? I'm probably saying this because I think life is supposed to be a personal challenge, but perhaps the idea is true whatever one's philosophical viewpoint. Let's ignore the politicians and the televised debates and ask ourselves ‘what can I do to reduce my own impact? What can I do in order to feel good about myself, deep down? What sacrifices can I make to prove that I cared? What can I do so that when I’m old, I can say to the embittered young “I did try!”’ If we asks ourselves these questions, we can come up with meaningful answers. We can then act on them and in that way, find a personal salvation.