The Hot Topic, By Gabrielle Walker & David King

Overheated, underpowered

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

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones