The Hot Topic, By Gabrielle Walker & David King
Friday 18 January 2008
So, another book about climate change. The rising curve of global temperature struggles to keep up with the rising tide of literary output: books about the science of climate change, about its causes and consequences; books by artists, journalists and politicians; books by sceptics, books by doomsayers, books about low-carbon living. Books from the IPCC, books from the Stern Review, books converted into films and films converted into books. Is there anything we don't know about climate change? Is there anything that hasn't been said? Do we need another book about "humanity's most pressing problem"?
The Hot Topic, nicely countering on the temperature scale Bjorn Lomborg's Cool It, is written by two prominent UK scientists: Gabrielle Walker, an award-winning science journalist, and Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific advisor from 2001 to 2007. Their credentials are impeccable; the endorsements from that triumvirate of spokesmen for the climate – Tim Flannery, Jim Lovelock and Al Gore – likely to add a few more copies to the sales. At least these authors offer something new – a book more considered than George Monbiot's Heat, more synoptic than Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers and less polemical than James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia. Walker offers the clever journalistic touches which keep the story light and agile, for example referring to the climate system as being either "thick skinned" or "highly strung", as a nice metaphor for the scientific jargon of climate sensitivity. King deploys first-hand observations of some of the battles between science and policy in which he has been a participant, for example the extraordinary scientific mission to Moscow in July 2004 which nearly ended in a diplomatic incident.
But The Hot Topic remains a book about climate change written by two scientists. And herein lies its main weakness. For a scientist to write a book about climate change is like a Catholic theologian writing a book about human consciousness: we definitely need this perspective, but it's hardly the whole story. Walker and King deliver a science, engineering and technology reading of climate change, with some economics and politics thrown in.
The offerings from the social sciences, the arts and humanities, from religion and ethics, are meagre indeed. Culture is mentioned three times, public opinion and ethics once each, the latter in the context of the Stern Review's judgements in calculating how much climate change might cost – a figure about which Walker and King show suitable scepticism.
The human psychology doesn't seem up to the task either. Walker and King's stated goal to "tell the facts" and not to find a disaster around every climate corner is laudable. Yet the 15 pages of chapter 5, "Wild Cards", offer enough material to keep even the most optimistic of us lying awake at night. In 4,500 words we have 37 separate depictions of climatic fear, one for every 120 words. We have climate change that is "frightening" six times and "alarming" twice, four "disaster scenarios", four "tipping points", three "collapses", two "abrupt dramas", not to mention the "bleak outlooks", the "catastrophe" and the three "grave dangers to our civilisation".
Set against this litany, the book ends by urging the reader not to feel guilty, "not to despair", but to "be positive" and "cheer up". Understanding the psychological impact of this linguistic roller-coaster ride needs a book in itself. These deficiencies in their diagnosis and proposed solutions are significant. It means that some of the controversies and deep challenges about the various responses to climate change are skated over or ignored. On the one hand, disputes about the technologies of biofuels and of nuclear energy (both fission and, David King's favourite, fusion) and about the economics of the Stern Review are discussed. Yet the role of GM plants, the structural dependence of the world economy on endless growth in consumption and – the elephant in the room – global population are never mentioned. Well, the "population boom" is mentioned once, but only for the purpose of shifting attention away from population to individual lifestyle choices. This evasive, ostrich-like tactic will not do. If there is an "optimal" or "stable" climate, why are we not prepared to discuss whether there is an optimal or stable population?
This unbalanced set of analytical tools reveals both the power and the weakness of the current framing of the phenomenon. Science has defined the problem of climate change; technology, politics, and economics – with a bit of individual low-carbon living thrown in – can find the solutions.
Climate change is cast in the big language of a problem-solution dialectic: the problem is big – indeed, "the biggest one facing mankind" – but the solutions exist, even if they are many-sided. But does such a dialectic really work in this case? Is it possible to "solve" climate change any more than one can "solve" violence?
What we make of climate change and what we do about it have to be tracked back to our human values, our view of ourselves and our purpose on Earth. The real question is not climate change as such, but rather what do we mean by the good life (consumption and values); how many people do we think it right to enjoy the good life (population); and why we should care (ethics). On these big questions, The Hot Topic has too little to say. So, maybe, we do need some more books.
Mike Hulme is professor of environmental sciences at UEA, Norwich; his book 'Why We Disagree About Climate Change' is due from Cambridge University Press later this year
Bloomsbury £9.99 (318pp) £9.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
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