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
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?