Review of ‘On Time and Water’ by Andri Snӕr Magnason
‘Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument acknowledges that we know what is happening and what needs to be done.
Only you know if we did it.’-
In 2019, a solemn warning to the future was unveiled, via a memorial plaque on the Okjökull glacier, as the first glacier worldwide was lost to climate change,
The memorial on the lost glacier can surely be compared to Armstrong’s ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ in 1969. Armstrong’s words will be etched in history as a time of expansion for the human race. In much the same way, these words on this memorial to the first of the glaciers to have been lost will be etched in history, as a time when humanity’s expansion threatened the existence of humanity- all within the short span of 50 years.
‘You can tell stories. You must tell stories.’
‘This book is about time and water. Over the next hundred years, there will be foundational changes in the nature of water on our Earth. Glaciers will melt away. Ocean level’s will rise…All this will happen during the lifetime of a child who is born today and lives to be my grandmother’s age, ninety-five.’
Magnason defines clearly the purpose of his book quite early on and identifies one of the biggest issues facing climate change- that of communication and action. ‘For most people the phrase ‘climate change’ is just white noise.’ He asks the question about how we connect people to a global crisis in a way that moves them- what language will they understand? ‘Should we draw words for discussing the Earth from science, emotion, statistics or religion? How personal and sentimental can we get?’
He acknowledges the difficulty of trying to fully grasp the issue of the climate crisis for an individual and what that means as a priority for them. ‘It affects everyone we know, everyone we love. We are confronted by changes that are more complex that most of what our minds typically deal with.’ At the same time, he reinforces that we do have the tools to better engage a public, who can be afflicted with mass apathy regarding a global problem that they see as being too big for them to be a part of the solution. ‘The only way to write about the subject is to go past it, to the side, below it, into the past and the future, to be personal and also scientific and to use mythological language.’
It’s not often in a book review where I can squeeze in a quotation from Tolkien- but it seems fitting considering his connections with Iceland. The character of Pippin says to his friend that maybe they are too small to make a difference. ‘Pippin: Maybe Treebeard’s right. We don’t belong here, Merry. It’s too big for us. What can we do in the end? We’ve got the Shire. Maybe we should go home.’ To which, Tolkien has the character Merry respond, ‘The fires of Isengard will spread. And the woods of Tuckborough and Buckland will burn. And all that was once green and good in this world will be gone.’
Magnason rightly suggests that what connects us all is mythology and that language is bound up in identity. ‘Words affect our emotions, our feelings. Words enable us to get a handhold on the state of being.’
How do we tell stories that are bigger than ourselves? How do we build the foundations of culture and connection?
It is not an accident that we have been telling the story of a family travelling on a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for almost 2,000 years.
We have been telling the story of a cataclysmic flood, across multiple cultures, for thousands of years.
We’ve told stories of Norse Gods and Greek heroes in a way to understand our world and our place in it.
We have always been storytellers.
We are a bridge over time
The personal and intimate cadence of Magnason’s story fills the spaces of this book and echoes the refrain throughout. The book starts with personal familial connections, to know who we are and where we are from- in a bid to honour our ancestors and descendants. Magnason’s message repeated throughout is that ‘this world is heavily interdependent. We are all interdependent. That’s the reality.’ The language used in the media of the phrase ‘by the end of the century’, Magnason argues is one which is blinding us to the reality of the crisis. He argues that humans are bad at understanding the geological age of the Earth and that using phrases like ‘by 2100’ can make us miss that connection with our responsibilities to the future.
Magnason repeats his argument that, ‘Two hundred and sixty-two years. That’s the length of time you connect across. You’ll know the people who span this time. Your time is the time of the people you know and love, the time that moulds you. And your time is also the time of the people you will know and love.’ He does this through memories and conversations of family members, who calculate how many years will pass between generations. This part of the book and this message really connected with me, as it will with many people who have young families.
My son is 5 and he is lucky enough to have great-grandparents who are 95. This means that they were born in 1927. If my son also lives to be 95, then he will see the year 2112. 12 years past the ‘end of the century’. Continuing this idea, if my son, also becomes a great-grandparent when he is 90, and that child lives to be 95, then that child will see the year 2202.
Over 270 years of connections and history within one family, with one child being the bridge across generations. What will the Earth be like by 2112, with current emissions and global temperature rise?
What will the Earth be like by 2202?
Magnason makes the point that, ‘For the Earth, one hundred years is like a moment.’ He continues more intently that there is an obligation to the future, as well as a recognition of the past. If my life is in danger, if my earth and my descendants are in danger, aren’t I obligated to understand what’s at stake? What words manage to define the world?
Unfortunately, Magnason laments the banality of our lives and our attention spans. He states that ‘The same week in October 2018, the United Nations IPCC issued a kind of ‘final warning’, the internet was consumed by an array of variously trivial things.’ A phenomenon that we have seen repeated as COP15 closed. A critical, once-in-a-decade biodiversity crisis disappeared in a torrent of social media activity over what the owner of Twitter would do next. There’s always a celebrity who generates much angst and anger over their comments online- more anger than is ever generated by the plight of the planet. Indeed, these climate and biodiversity summits are sometimes ridiculed as achieving little, ‘The Earth has abandoned geological speed; it is changing at human speed. And yet our response happens at a glacial pace. We hold a conference to determine the location for the next conference.’
The risks to humans
Although Magnason repeats the scientific evidence of the risk to humans, this does not feel like his primary message. The repetition of warnings about the climate crisis have not yet been heeded. Either we are not listening properly, or the story needs to change.
Magnason, perhaps rightly then, gives the headline statements, in case his reader is new to this topic. In a carefully neutral voice, he intones:
- ‘Glacial melting can have the most drastic consequences; millions, even billions of people are at risk.’
- Earth’s most densely populated regions lie around the Himalayas. Three nuclear powers surround them; Pakistan, India and China.
- Scientists have pointed out that we are experiencing the sixth mass extinction period for animal species in the Earth’s history.
- According to a 2019 UN assessment, just under a million animal species are in danger of extinction.
This is the point. If you are ‘climate literate’, you will be aware of this information- though what you are doing with this knowledge in terms of climate action is debatable. If this is the first time that you have seen and read this information, then how do you respond and on what level? Magnason identifies that perhaps we do not understand the immediacy of the crisis and that we view it still as a problem ‘tomorrow’. What people really mean here is that they will be dead and gone and so they won’t be impacted and so they feel it has nothing to do with them.
This degree of a lack of connection with the future lies at the heart of this text. Rhetorically, if you were told- ‘Your behaviour and actions right now could significantly alter the quality of life that your child has for the worst’- would you quit that behaviour? The concept of sticking to boundaries may be the inherent fault in humanity’s stars. Magnason suggests that, ‘The problem is, humans don’t seem to know any boundaries. They do not know when they are satisfied, nor when they’ve gone too far.’
We are standing at a crossroads
With humanity’s goal of lowering carbon emissions and reducing the ever-increasing global average temperature, we really are at a crossroads.
By 2050, we may have wide ranging government action across countries, as we did when the ozone layer was threatened. We acted quickly and collectively.
Knowing where we are and our point in time is crucial. As Magnason states, we must notice the present. ‘In the last ten years, we’ve seen the eight hottest years since temperature record-keeping began in the mid-nineteenth century. Since the turn of the century, the Icelandic glaciers have retreated more than they retreated in the entire previous hundred years. There’s a reason to take notice of the present. The time of greatest change is upon us.’
Will we seize this as an opportunity to agree at a global level, that we need to change. That what we have done to this point cannot serve our futures. What we owe to the future, from parent to child, has always been the opportunity that their life will be better that ours. That our children do not need to face the same struggles that we have faced. That we have sacrificed, so that they can benefit.
Why has this responsibility been lost?
Magnason notes that ‘Nothing we have done will be considered remarkable if achieving it has meant closing our eyes to science and throwing away the life and happiness of future generations.’
As a species, we have lost our compass as well as our path.
It is fitting to return to metaphorical language of directions, bearings and journeys, as this book is littered with journeys. From the physical journeys on glaciers from Magnason’s family, to the emotional and spiritual journey of Magnason himself, to that of the journey of the glaciers themselves. Stories about journeys that are connected. We all journey.
Magnason closes the text by driving home the responsibility that is owed to future generations not to rob and deprive them of so much of this Earth that is of value. For us to begin to tell the stories of why we value what we value, so it can be protected before it is lost.
‘And now we need to think and behave differently than we did before. We have the tools, all the devices and all the knowledge to do it.
And, if we do not, we fail both our ancestors and our descendants.’
Review of ‘The Insect Crisis’ by Oliver Milman
Global wildlife populations have plummeted by 69% on average since 1970.
Flying insects numbers have plunged 64% since 2004.
‘A landmark United Nations finding in 2019 outlined how 1 million species across the animal kingdom are facing extinction in the coming decades. Half of these lost species will be insects.’
Our apathy to these headline figures lies at the heart of ‘The Insect Crisis’ by Guardian journalist Oliver Milman. And although the book came out in early 2022 and was shocking then, more information on global species decline continues as 2022 comes to an end. With COP15- the biodiversity conference being held in Montreal- finishing with no real progress from targets set almost a decade ago, Milman’s message deserves to be repeated.
‘The next few days couldn’t be more significant in laying the foundations to avoid what is potentially a mass extinction event.’ Was the warning from the Chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper, who emphasised the critical nature of the once in a decade opportunity to set global ambitious targets at COP15 to protect and potentially reverse the catastrophic and relentless attack on nature.
Milman makes the point early in ‘The Insect Crisis’ that, ‘The public’s awakening to the insect crisis has come in waves and is far from complete’ and acknowledges that ‘The alarm over insect declines has rung intermittently for some time, if not quite so loudly as now.’ The interconnected web between human survival and insect life thriving on Earth is repeatedly made by Milman, with the argument made that insect loss, although drastic, would not wipe out insects, but instead be more of a human emergency. Humans are not innocent bystanders- we are the guilty parties in our own demise. ‘Through the destruction of insects’ habitats, the spraying of toxic chemicals, and increasingly, the heating up of the planet, we have unwittingly crafted a sort of hellscape for many insects, emperiling all we rely upon them for.’
Milman also highlights the global inequalities of the biodiversity crisis that are similar to the global inequalities of the climate crisis and points out that hundreds of millions of people who are already malnourished before the crisis and which are already being felt. ‘But for the majority of humanity, the loss of insects would be an agonizing ordeal eclipsing any war and even rivalling the looming ravages of climate breakdown.’ He continues, ‘The question of how long human civilization would withstand the loss of insects is both hideous and unfathomable.’
Milman closes a hard-hitting first chapter by highlighting the level of inaction and indifference regarding the biodiversity crisis and quotes Brad Lister. ‘We are looking at a global collapse of insects and we have yet to sense the urgency of what that means for us.’
‘A sense of disquiet’
Milman continues in Chapter 2 to emphasis the consequences of a world without insects by quoting several scientific experts. “The consequences are clear; if insect declines are not halted, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems will collapse, with profound consequences for human wellbeing”- Dave Goulson. “I can’t imagine how a world without many insects would look like but I don’t want to see it”- Sebastian Seibold.
He uses academic papers to demonstrate that ‘Insects that pollinate crops are vital to our food security, yet “substantial concern exists over their current and future conservation status”’. Though there do exist issues with the scientific approach, as Milman chronicles the dangers of scientific rectitude, where messaging and a narrative compared with actual events can make the public feel that the issue is less important. ‘If we are primed to brace ourselves for a certain adverse impact, a lesser blow can feel like an acceptable rate.’ He warns that the shifting baseline syndrome, with its gradual shift of accepted norms, can make comparisons between decades and years difficult. Despite this, the public unconsciously realise that all is not as it was, through anecdotal evidence of insects on windshields. ‘There are still sparks of understanding, a sense of disquiet that windshields are clearer now, that outdoor lights aren’t swarmed as often, that those skimmed headlines about bees probably don’t bode well.’
This sense of disquiet is matched with the research indicating that, ‘British butterfly numbers have nearly halved in the past fifty years.’ And that in other locations such as the US, ‘the abundance of four species of bumblebee has plummeted by as much as 96 percent in recent decades, with the bees’ geographic ranges shrinking by nearly 80 percent.’
The Windshield test- “Zero Insect Days”
We know there is a problem with insect decline, but we didn’t have the visual imagery to connect with biodiversity loss until the evidence completed by Anders Pape Møller, revealing that the number of insects on windshields, represented ‘dramatic declines.’ ‘The lack of bugs on cars windshields is becoming the accessible emblem of insect decline, much the way dejected polar bears are now a sort of shorthand for the climate crisis.’ 2022 was the year when repeated news stories on fewer dead insects on windshield began to cut through with the public, as anecdotally, they could observe this for themselves. Milman also points out that eco-systems are fragile inter-connected systems, where food chains are more precariously balanced than humans choose to acknowledge. ‘In other words, as the insects vanished, so did the birds, probably due to a lack of food. The local eco-system had been hollowed out, from its base upward.’
The cause of the crisis
In a word- humans. But oddly, humans can also be the saviours of the situation and their own endangerment. Milman reveals that, ‘Insects have been devasted by the way we’ve altered the world around us, physically but also chemically. The battery of pesticides now routinely applied to our landscapes has created a toxic miasma for insects that scientists have only recently begun to quantify.’ Big agriculture and the chemical industry come under scrutiny from Milman, as he delves into the ‘peak of the pesticide’ and the narrative that has been created that insects are pests and are there simply to be eliminated, with neonicotinoids being especially harmful. ‘Over the past century, however it has been the chemical industry that has shaped a whole new arsenal of deadly weapons against invaders that nibble away or choke crops.’ He draws on Brazil where, ‘around 500 million bees died in just a few months, the piles of dead bodies riddled with fipronil, an insecticide banned by the European Union’.
He further notes that habitat spaces have been destroyed, leaving insects with ‘nowhere to go’, where ‘half of all hedgerows, key habitats for pollinators and insect predators of crop pests, have disappeared in just a few generations.’
‘More than a billion animals perished in the fires’
MIlman then draws the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis together, explaining that rising temperatures impact the delicate eco-systems where insects thrive. as ‘Rising temperatures are pummeling monarchs everywhere.’ The climate crisis then acts as a threat multiplier for insects.
He acknowledges with sadness the horrific loss of animal life in the recent Australian fires- fires which have been largely forgotten by western Europe. The scale of insect life means that it can be difficult for humans to grasp the numbers involved as Milman explains, ‘Insects’ huge numbers make them appear both inconspicuous yet omnipresent.’ He also draws out the significant global impact of the loss of insect life and makes the comparison that although the loss of one endangered species, like the rhinoceros may be tragic, this is dwarfed by the growing silence from the insect world. ‘In terms of impact, the insect crisis drowns out any other alarm bells in the domain of animals.’
Despite all of this, Milman is at pains to offer hope and practical solutions. He argues, in tandem with the experts, that allowing nature a chance, as observed during the global pandemic, can create the gaps, for biodiversity to bounce back. ‘Butterflies, like other insects, are being assailed by a barrage of threats. But if we give them just a few gasps of breathing space, even those most delicate, fragile-seeming species can find a way to make it.’
Bees and Butterflies
Milman then heads into his conclusion with a detailed and forensic analysis of the loss of two of the most recognisable symbols of biodiversity loss- bees and butterflies. He quotes Henri Clement, “If we lose the bees, we lose fruits, vegetables, even grains. And without those, we begin to lose birds, mammals and so on. Bees are a cornerstone of diversity.” And highlights the colony losses, especially in the US in the season 2018-2019 where ‘around 50 billion bees were wiped out in just a few chilly months.’ The point is made that multiple simultaneous threats are narrowing the chances for insects to recover. ‘There are so many intertwined threats facing insects that there is no simple escape for them.’
A human emergency
How to finish a detailed book on the demise of many insect species and biodiversity was always going to be a difficult task, especially with new reports emerging regularly noting the loss of yet more species and a future world filled not with the hum of bees and the noise of insects, but with an empty silence. Milman makes final pleas to his readers that attention must be brought to this topic and urgent action taken- ‘We need them far more than they need us. The insect crisis is, from our self-interested point of view, a human emergency.’ He urges that we can take actions to mitigate and potentially rebuild insect colonies and the natural world, while warning that this is a problem of our own making- that we have been the actors in our threatened environment. ‘By flattening and poisoning our landscapes, altering the chemical composition of our atmosphere, and creating biological deserts in the pursuit of progress and aestheticism, we are conducting a high-stakes experiment with hideous risks.’
Although, this book is almost a year old now, the media silence surrounding the recent COP15 is thunderous. Without information about biodiversity loss being a dominant news story, the public cannot be fully informed about the size of the issue, nor about what actions they can take to make their lives more connected with nature. At the same time, the information is available for people who search for it. To quote the legal sector, ‘Ignorance is not a defence.’ As we witness the lacklustre response to the clear and present danger of the climate crisis, I for one, am not convinced, yet, that the public have recognised the urgency or pressing nature of the crisis.
If we wait until the skies become silent, it will be too late.
“We are at the beginning of a major extinction level event. Things are just going to get worse if humanity chooses to do nothing differently.”
Review of ‘The Climate Book’ by Greta Thunberg
Waiting for some other person, or some other time, is no longer an option.
‘The Climate Book’ really is the one-stop shop for all climate issues. There are contributions from over 100 global experts in their fields, some of which are summaries of their own books, but which address the latest position on the climate crisis and what needs to be done to avert the worst of the climate disasters. My fear in listing some of these climate leaders is that the list needs to include everyone. Reducing the list, or offering a preference for some articles over others would only indicate my own European and Northern hemisphere bias. Thunberg sets out her aim for the book- that the knowledge from the range of experts will help each reader on their own journey of climate education, ‘The idea behind this book, is that, taken together, their knowledge in their respective areas of expertise will lead you to a point where you can start to connect the dots yourself.’
There may not be a representative voice for every reader in this collection, but that is precisely Thunberg’s point- that we can all be our own representation.
Waiting for some other person, or some other time, is no longer an option.
How it is structured
The book is helpfully colour coded throughout, with Thunberg’s own words contained as introductions to the main chapter headings, before she gives way to the scientists and experts.
Thunberg breaks down the climate issues into a holistic chronological approach, outlining for a general audience the basics of how climate works, before moving on to how our planet is changing. Thunberg then focuses on how the changing planet affects us, outlines what we as a species have done about this impact, and then concludes with a strong message on what needs to be done now. The climate stripes, pioneered by Ed Hawkins, are used at the start of each chapter, as a visual representation of our progress and an alignment of what stage we are at now.
‘The climate and ecological crisis is the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced.’
The opening chapters to ‘The Climate Book’ are deliberately stark and blunt, as Thunberg is famous for ‘telling it as it is’- indeed, this is the charge that gives to her readers. She states, ‘When it comes to the climate and ecological crisis, we have solid unequivocal scientific evidence of the need for change…That ship has sailed. The science is as solid as it gets.’ She then suggests that what is needed is for scientists to speak a different language, ‘What largely remain is tactics. How to package, frame and convey the information. How disruptive do scientists dare to be?’
Thunberg’s comments in this book are stylistically unique. She lays out the facts and then offers simple choices. She dismisses despair and ‘doomerism’ and instead focuses on the positives of action. ‘And there is no time for despair; it is never too late to start saving as much as we can possibly save.’ She reminds us that the debt we owe to the past is also owed to the future, but that we should be grateful that we are alive now, so that we can be part of the greatest movement for change in humanity’s history. ‘We have the unfathomably great opportunity to be alive at the most decisive time in the history of humanity. The time has come for us to tell this story, and perhaps even change the ending. Together, we can still avoid the worst consequences.’
What about COP27?
There will be some who will claim that the timing of the book release by Thunberg is no accident though. That, with COP27 starting barely a week after the publication date, that she is trying to switch the spotlight onto her views. More cynical observers may categorise this as simply good marketing. As Thunberg resolutely and regularly advocates the listening to climate scientists and has done since she started her climate protests in 2018, it would seem churlish to argue genuinely that the timing of the book release is just self-serving for Thunberg. She makes the relevant case that ‘the EU will not update its climate targets in time for COP27’ and points out that when the media focus during COP fades, then urgency is lost and that ‘this is exactly how you create a catastrophe.’
On the other hand, do we really need another book telling us that time to act on the climate is running out and that time for climate action must now happen. Some readers may feel that there are few new messages in this book and that climate books by themselves will not be the tipping point for climate action. Thunberg acknowledges this claim head on, ‘There is nothing new about this…All the words that we say have been spoken by others. All our speeches, books and articles follow in the footsteps of those who pioneered the climate and environmental movement.’
In recent times though, we have seen an upsurge in non-violent political protest, which has been both applauded and criticised for not winning over any new followers, as some are ‘put off’ by the more direct action from protesters. Thunberg demonstrates in the book that, ‘Social norms can easily be changed’, which is a hopeful outlook on the necessary speed that is needed from an active society. Thunberg argues that ‘We need a whole new way of thinking’ as a main priority to wake people up from a deeply flawed system.
Yet, the climate clock is only getting louder and louder, as the sands of time disappear and the window narrows for options, leaving only the truly desperate measures left available. ‘All geoengineering schemes are attempts to manipulate the Earth with the same domineering mindset that got us into the climate crisis in the first place.’ Niclas Hällström, Jennie C Stephens and Isak Stoddard
Thunberg argues that this collision course of time and action must be met bravely and advocates for systemic change, ‘Our safety as a species is on a collision course with our current system.’
An unprecedented time
Perhaps this book comes at the perfect time then, to remind us that not everyone needs to be convinced of the need for climate action, nor perhaps that everyone could be convinced of the need. Instead of wasting time trying to win over the remaining ‘dismissives’ and ‘delayers’, perhaps an awakening and activation of social behaviour is what we need. Thunberg herself comments that ‘We as individuals should use our voices, and whatever platforms we have, to become activists and communicate the urgency of the situation to those around us. We should all become active citizens and hold the people in power accountable for their actions and inactions.’ Thunberg also reminds us of the stark warning from the IPCC that ‘limiting global warming to 1.5°C will require rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.’
The idea of better climate communication, especially in the face of an unwilling media and fossil fuel interests, is a solution that is returned to many times in the ‘The Climate Book’. There is perhaps quite a shocking statement from George Monbiot that, ‘If you were to ask me which industry is most responsible for the destruction of life on Earth, I would say the media.’ Thunberg is typically blunter, ‘We have been lied to.’ Although this is more in reference to the fossil fuel industry which knew about the impact of their actions, but which choose short-term capitalistic growth, over planetary interests.
‘This is not the ‘new normal’- this is only the very beginning of a changing climate’
‘The Climate Book’ focuses heavily on the science. There are over 80 articles from leading scientists, experts and community leaders, with most articles being a manageable 3 or 4 pages only. Almost every page and article has a quotable message that sums up a narrative that has been allowed to continue for too long.
Thunberg herself comments, ‘We are all in the same storm, but we are definitely not in the same boat.’ She continues, ‘But the climate is not just changing. It is destabilizing. It is breaking down.’
This is supported by the argument from Dr Friederike Otto, who has a similar blunt style to that of Thunberg. ‘Today, those of us who are not completely delusional have realized that climate change is not something happening somewhere else, at some point in the future, but a phenomenon that is killing people here and now.’
As you would expect, there are repeated messages in the book: humanity’s reliance and dependence on fossil fuels has to stop, holistic solutions are best, and the evidence that humanity can change quickly in the face of global emergencies.
‘We need to take immediate action. First and foremost, we must immediately and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.’ Jennifer L. Soong
‘We must immediately stop extracting fossil fuel from reserves in the Arctic’ Örjan Gustafsson
‘The climate crisis is upon us, powered by our addiction to fossil fuels.’ Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
‘And still, instead of taking steps to overcome our fossil fuel dependency, we are deepening it,’ Thunberg
The other repeated message in the book, is that holistic solutions are needed to face a multi-faceted problem of the climate crisis- that there is no one silver bullet that can be used quickly to solve and perhaps absolve governments and companies from years of inaction. Margaret Atwood argues that, ‘The climate crisis is multidimensional; any solution to it will have to be multidimensional as well.’ On the other hand, Naomi Klein believes that this transformational approach has yet to be attempted, ‘Holistic transformations, on the other hand, have never been tried in the face of the climate crisis.’
The equality of climate justice and the acceptance that ‘loss and damages’ is a requirement and not just a political phrase is argued strongly. As Saleemul Huq says ‘Loss and damages’ is also a diplomatically negotiated euphemism for something we’re not allowed to talk about: ’liability and compensation.’ Finally, the principle that the polluter must pay echoes throughout the text and is given space and time by Thunberg.
What we can learn from recent global emergencies such as COVID, is that humanity has demonstrably acted in self-preservation before, be that during world wars, managing the hole in the ozone, or in the face of global pandemics. As Seth Klein argues convincingly in the book, better communication can lead to better outcomes. ‘In frequency and tone, in words and in action, emergencies need to look and sound and feel like emergencies. The Second World War leaders we remember best were outstanding communicators who were forthright with the public about the gravity of the crisis yet still managed to impart hope.’
‘Winning slowly is the same thing as losing.’- Alex Steffen
Thunberg concludes ‘The Climate Book’ by heading straight into the imagery and language of ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, both the original and the remake. The iconic 1951 film concludes with the words, ‘this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.’ The remake in 2008, uses similar language about the human species reaching their adaption point. ‘You say we’re on the brink of destruction and you’re right. But it’s only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve. This is our moment.’
Thunberg finishes using a similar metaphor to that of film fiction, ‘There is still time to undo our mistakes, to step back from the edge of the cliff and choose a new path, a sustainable path, a just path. A path which leads to a future for everyone. And no matter how dark things may become, giving up will never be an option. Because every fraction of a degree and every tonne of carbon dioxide will always matter. It will never be too late for us to save as much as we can possibly save.’
Correctly, the final word should not go to Thunberg, indeed she advocates against that herself.
George Monbiot calls up the cultural imagery and reference to the public awareness, boosted by Rachel Carson when he states,‘We can replace our silent spring with a raucous summer.’
Perhaps what is required, expected and demanded of each individual now, is that they renew their view of the relationship with nature and realise that there is no planet B and that our environment is worth fighting for.
‘Do not gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ -Dylan Thomas
‘The Intersectional Environmentalist’, by Leah Thomas
Review of ‘The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet’ by Leah Thomas
‘Climate justice is only justice if it includes all of us.’ Vanessa Nakate
An environment book that made a soft landing in September was ‘The Intersectional Environmentalist’ by Leah Thomas. In recent weeks, this book has made a larger impact, as audiences have noted its authenticity and values of caring.
‘The Intersectional Environmentalist’ is rooted in identity, advocacy and people.
Thomas lays out in depth how climate injustice has impacted communities such as Black Americans, Latinx Americans, Indigenous communities, and Asian American and Native Hawaiians/ Pacific Islanders. For each group, she identifies the challenges of air quality, extreme heat, food security and water access that each group historically had had to face, as well as outlining the continuing issues faced by each group. Although Leah Thomas is an intersectional environmental educator, writer, and creative based in Southern California, she’s also passionate about advocating for and exploring the relationship between social justice and environmentalism globally and feels that every voice needs to be amplified.
Thomas builds on the work of Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who is a Black feminist legal theorist, who in the late 1980s, focused heavily on the intersecting identities of discrimination that were identifiable then in the legal courts. “Intersectionality was a prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren’t being appreciated by the courts”. For Thomas then, intersectionality is the ‘complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism and classism) combine, overlap , or intersect, especially in the experience of marginalized individuals or groups.’ She aims to focus on the ‘sometimes double or triple marginalization that people with several oppressed identities faced.’
As Thomas states in her introduction, ‘We can’t save the planet without uplifting the voices of its people, especially those most often unheard. As a society, we often forget that humans are a part of our global ecosystem and that we don’t exist separately from nature; we coexist with it each and every day.’
Thomas acknowledges that, in 2020, she felt ‘alone and unheard, without much acknowledgement from the wider environmental community.’ She comments that ‘Our identities flow through our politics, our advocacy, what we care about- whether we realize it or not.’ When her intersectional environment graphic went viral, Thomas realised that there was a global audience wanting to hear this message and that her identity and her voice, were part of the narrative. Thomas’s aim in this book is to inform and acknowledge that ‘social justice and environmentalism are deeply intertwined and that addressing this interconnection is crucial for attaining justice for both people and planet.’ Her drive for an audience to seek out stories of marginalised groups and address the relevant social injustices echoes strongly throughout her message. Indeed, she comments that ‘It is an immense privilege to create space for and hold a piece of their magic and legacies every time the word ‘intersectionality’ is said or written down.’
Thomas divides her book into clear focus areas- Intersectional theory, Feminism and Intersectional Environmentalism, Environmental Justice, Unpacking Privilege, Who’s Affected: the Reality for BIPOC Communities and then effectively concludes with People and Planet.
Thomas argues that ‘Intersectional Environmentalism (IE) is an inclusive approach to environmentalism that advocates for the protection of both people and the planet. IE argues that social and environmental justice are intertwined and that environmental advocacy that disregards this connection is harmful and incomplete.’ She continues that ‘Intersectional environmentalism argues that the same systems of oppression that oppress people also oppress and degrade the planet.’ As Diandra Marizet puts it: ‘Intersectional environmentalism is the lens. Environmental justice is the goal.’
As a white male, in the Northern hemisphere, I questioned whether I was being challenged with this book to feel uncomfortable. I felt that it was not Thomas’s goal to finger point and blame, but rather to acknowledge the past and understand that our present is rooted in the past. As Thomas says, ‘The more we talk about our identities and the ways they influence how we experience the world, the better we can understand how they’re connected to both the privileges and prejudices we might experience. The truth is, ignoring our differences doesn’t stop discrimination or lead to systemic change.’ Am I being asked to listen and to understand? Yes. Is this a negative? No.
It is important to note that repeated point in the book, that social injustices didn’t magically stop at some point in the 1970s or 1980s. Thomas points to the many examples of recurring prejudice towards minority communities, whether in Flint, Michigan, or post hurricane disasters. She cites Paul Mohai, an environmental justice expert and professor who found that ‘even when socioeconomic factors are similar across white and non-white communities, the community of color is still more likely to be near environmental hazards.’ ‘Startingly, as of 2019, race is still the number one indicator of where waste facilities are located in the U.S.’
What can I do?
Thomas asks of us all that we abide by the IE tenet: ‘I will amplify the messages of Black, Indigenous and POC activists and environmental leaders. I will not remain silent during pivotal political and cultural moments that impact Black, Indigenous, and POC communities and all marginalized identities.’
She argues that ‘This tenet of the pledge is one of the most important. It’s twofold: it encourages you to 1) amplify the messages of diverse climate leaders and activists and 2) not remain silent.
Silence is what allows the status quo to continue. Together all of our voices are so powerful—much more powerful than we might think.’
Thomas concludes her inclusive approach by saying, ‘One day I hope that when people think of an environmentalist, they’ll automatically envision a person who cares very deeply about both people and planet.
The future can and will be intersectional.’
Review of ‘Nomad Century- How to survive the Climate Upheaval’
by Gaia Vince
‘A great upheaval is coming. It will change us, and our planet.’
Vince tackles the elephant in the room with regards to the climate emergency with a refreshing frankness. Climate migration and the protective regulations surrounding migrants need to be front and centre, as tens of millions continue their migration.
Vince makes the early point, that, as a species, we have always been migrants. ‘Migration will save us, because it is migration that made us who we are.’ She argues that ‘a radical rethink’ is required and that ‘Migration is not the problem; it is the solution.’
This is not a simplistic nor naïve proposal by Vince, suggesting that millions of migrants would simply converge on countries that are least impacted by the climate crisis, but rather an admission that as a species, we have always moved and adapted to our environment. ‘Migration is our way out of this crisis. Migration made us. This might be hard to see in the context of today’s geopolitical identities and constraints, where it can feel like an aberration, but, viewed historically, it is our national identities and borders that are the anomaly.’
With numbers of migrants estimated to be in the hundreds of millions, the attitudes and ideology that we have been taught about migrants is tackled well in this book. Vince urges us to look beyond the narratives of country borders and to recognise that we are a global species, with global responsibilities. Although fully aware of the narrowing window for action, she delivers the clear positive argument that we can be bystanders, or that we can be active participants in the solutions. She states, ‘Human movement on a scale never before seen will dominate this century and remake our world….
Have no doubt, we are facing a species emergency – but we can manage it. We can survive, but to do so will require a planned and deliberate migration of a kind humanity has never before undertaken.’
The Four Horsemen of the Anthropocene
Vince takes the time to describe the situation that humanity has placed itself in and with a wonderfully titled chapter (above), outlines the risks, challenges and impacts of the Four Horsemen of fire, heat, drought and flood. She outlines that, ‘Fire, heat, drought and flood will transform our world this century.’ With news stories almost on a daily basis on these four amplified risks, it is hard to disagree with her analysis- especially now, with tens of millions of people displaced owing to floods in Pakistan. She persuasively argues that ‘We are leaving the sanctuary of an unusually stable climatic era in Earth’s history- one which enabled crops to be grown and the flourishing of human civilizations.’ Into a world which has already reached 420 parts per million, the highest that it has been for at least the past 3 million years and one which will likely hit 450ppm by 2032. She castigates countries and companies who are ‘not making anywhere near enough progress to meet the pledged emissions standards.’ Climate attribution studies are already concluding that extreme weather events are many times more likely as a result of human caused climate change and are on the increase. Vince argues convincingly that, ‘A liveable planet is not a lost cause. It is still within our agency to turn this around and we must try. Every degree of temperature rise we avoid, the safer we will be; every tenth of a degree matters.’
Global and social cooperation is a must
As Vince states that migration will be essential to human survival, collaboration and social cooperation need to embedded within ideologies and beliefs. She highlights the recent judgment in 2020 where ‘the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that climate refugees cannot be sent home, meaning that a state would be in breach of its human rights obligations if it returns someone to a country where – due to the climate crisis – their life is in danger.’ Our shared humanity and shared reminder that we only have this one Earth, need to be paramount. Legal protections for climate migrants, whether moving from repeated drought or flood zones, need to be enshrined. Accepting and accommodating migrants enriches societies and countries Vince points out, as she details GDP increases that occur and increased rights that are developed by policies that are accommodating. ‘Decades of anti-migration rhetoric and misinformation means there is massive misconception in rich nations about the basic facts of migration.’ Decoupling the political and arbitrary lines on maps that ‘define’ identity and recognising that the world faces a crisis which can only be solved through cooperation and a shared sense of humanity is the necessary step.
Diverging on geoengineering
I finally found myself disagreeing with Vince on her views on geoengineering, though I accepted the moral position from where she was coming. She accepts the dangerous uncertainty of geoengineering when she says ‘If we turned down the temperature of the planet, fewer people would be forced to migrate, and those who have been displaced could return. However, the methods for doing so, known as geoengineering, are mostly untried and controversial.’ Her reasons for at least keeping an open mind on geoengineering are certainly laudable and centred in the needs of migrants.
‘For me, the morally right thing is to do whatever we can so that our fellow humans can live in a safe climate where they have enough to eat. This will mean helping those living in danger and hardship to migrate to safety; and reducing global temperatures so that climate stability is restored.’ To continue to quote her fully ‘It means all efforts for cooling must be considered, with the more feasible all propelled forward.’
Vince begins to close her arguments by exploring the food and water crises; accepts that these will lead to conflicts and explores options that could be considered. Her final points are that colossal migration is inevitable, but how we respond to it is not. ‘The question is whether we will manage the transition through calm preparation or wait until hunger and conflict erupt – an unconscionable outcome that would endanger us all.’
The absurdity of migration
This is not a text about reducing emissions, nor about corporate blame. This is a text that simply acknowledges where we are and looks for future management of an inevitable problem. Vince makes the repeated point that simply being passive bystanders, responding to the latest climate disaster with a wringing of the hands, is no longer an acceptable or palatable choice. ‘But today we lack a coherent plan; we are simply experiencing our world heating up, and reacting to each new shock – each drought, each typhoon, each blazing forest, each heaving boat of migrants – with a new patch-up.’
Her final point is that it is absurd that we have reached this point, but that it would be even more absurd if we continued to ignore the mass migration of people.
‘It is absurd that we are considering the mass migration of billions of people. It’s absurd that we are continuing to heat the planet, knowing the consequences.
Migration is inevitable, often necessary, and should be facilitated. But a situation in which billions of people are forced to leave their homes because parts of the world have been made unliveable is a tragedy. To a degree, this situation is not yet inevitable.’
‘Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come, in yours and my discharge’
Review of ‘Saving the Planet Without The Bullshit: What They Don’t Tell You About The Climate Crisis’, by Assaad Razzouk
‘We must resist oil, gas and coal companies trying to shift the burden for solving the climate crisis to individuals. Instead, we must compel them to assume their immensely larger responsibility.’
Razzouk’s frank and frustrated rancour against the duplicity and mendacity of Big Oil, is well argued and justified throughout this entirely readable journey through the unwieldy narratives we have about the climate crisis and the systematic change that is desperately required.
As a clean-energy entrepreneur and high-profile climate communicator, his extensive knowledge and experience, as well as sardonic tone, are brought to bear in this message about demystifying and simplifying the multitude of climate messages and reducing the main focus to simple, clear aims.
In the opening five chapters, he adroitly sets the scene and concisely describes the state of the environmental world in which we live. He ends this section with a topical and provocative examination of the systematic change that is required and argues that capitalism does not have to be the villain. In each chapter, he carefully explains the problem, before outlining simple solutions, which are not naïve, but which are heavily delayed by oil, gas and coal companies who see the end of their profits in these markets. Razzouk then leads us to where our focus should be and the positive steps that we can take, before circling back to his central, repeated message that for too long, oil, gas and coal companies have been expert at abnegating their responsibility and have controlled the ‘consumer responsibility’ narrative to shine the focus away from their actions.
Tragically, Razzouk begins with his personal experiences of climate change-fuelled destruction and lists Pakistan as being heavily impacted. ‘I witnessed the incredible vulnerability of Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, China, India and Pakistan to floods.’ With over a thousand dead and over 30 million people being affected over the last few weeks in the most recent flooding in Pakistan, it serves as a sad reminder that history repeats the cycle until it is broken. ‘Today it’s Pakistan. Tomorrow, it could be your country.’ were the words of the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, to remind the world that climate change needs our attention.
Razzouk makes it clear in his introduction that, ‘It’s time to change the conversation.’ He does not shy away from pointing the finger firmly at polluting companies and decries the ongoing strategies of Big Oil companies, arguing that they haven’t learned from past behaviour. ‘The fact that Shell, still has the gall to try and mislead the public shows that the road ahead continues to be paved with the bad intentions of wealthy and destructive corporations.’ Throughout this book, the author attempts to offset the pressure on individuals to change their behaviour and does focus more on corporations and companies. He does not criticise individuals for their changes in lifestyle, but urges that these, by and of themselves, will not bring down the rising emissions swiftly enough to reduce the climate impact as soon as we can. ‘Individual action, while good and important from a moral standpoint, makes little actual difference and may even be counter-productive in some cases. We are in critical need of major systemic changes.’
Razzouk challenges the need for a plastic pervasive society and argues that this has been created to benefit gas and oil companies. He comments that, ‘We eat, drink and breathe plastic because it’s a waste product of the oil and gas industry and because of the obscene money that has been made available to petrochemical companies to manufacture a lot more of it, insanely cheaply.’ Their need for money has become the hazard to our environment. He examines in depth the hazards of plastic pollution, fast fashion, mass industrial fishing, the exporting of recycling to developing countries, with an ‘out of sight and out of mind’ mentality, the damage caused by air pollution, the environmental impact of fracking and all the time highlights the only beneficiaries of such a system. ‘It really is an extraordinary gig: unleash poisonous pollutants everywhere, free of charge, and make lots of money doing it.’
Boycotting doesn’t work
As the book develops, Razzouk highlights one of the main difficulties with customer led action- that boycotting products doesn’t work. In the case of plastics, or palm oil, the reach of these products as ingredients is so great, that customers could not have the knowledge to avoid them all sufficiently enough to put pressure on companies to change. Legislation and regulation need to be strong and powerful. Razzouk advocates for accountability, transparency and responsibility from directors of oil and gas companies, which does not seem unreasonable. ‘If the directors were held legally responsible for the environmental harm caused by their supply chains and as a result insurance companies stopped covering environmental destruction in their policies, everything would change overnight.’ He argues that the default positions for companies, corporations and countries should be sustainability, or cutting carbon emissions- that these, should not be ‘targets’, but that prevention is better than the cure and that this should be the starting position for any decision-making process.
Fresh air is a myth
Thankfully, awareness and information about air pollution has been growing, so Razzouk’s chapter on it comes as no real surprise. Air pollution is a global killer. He states that, ‘The fundamental driver of air pollution is the burning of fossil fuels over the past 150 years, using the air as a free garbage can.’ He once again zeroes in on the fossil fuel companies who have given no thought to the consequences of their product and instead have focused on short- term company gain, at the expense of everyone else. This is a repeated message, that oil and gas companies have been given free rein to pollute and abuse eco-systems and now that attention is focused on them, they attempt to switch responsibility onto the individual consumer, with their ‘carbon-footprints’.
Overthrowing Capitalism Is A Waste of Time
Up to this point in the text, Razzouk sets the scene and lays out solutions clearly and carefully. We then come to one of the two chapters which I found personally challenging and provocative. Chapter 6, ‘We Don’t Have Time to Overthrow Capitalism’, came as a shock, as Razzouk had been suggesting radical system change in earlier chapters. Indeed, he begins this chapter by stating, ‘Only capitalism is likely to provide the answers to the climate emergency.’ What he does in this chapter is highlight that any ideologies or narratives that take us away from the central goal of reducing emissions, should be discarded as a waste of time and energy. He sets out the challenge that those who call for degrowth and system change are not perhaps being as practical as they could be. He suggests that no alternatives are suggested to replace capitalism and changing the system for multiple countries around the world would be counter-productive. ‘Instead of naively calling for the abolition of capitalism, we should focus on holding companies to their commitments and pushing more towards sustainability, whether in the production of goods or the supply…Capitalism is perfectly suited to regulate the system from within.’ Razzouk cautions about falling into narrative and ideological traps which distract from the main goal of reducing emissions. He states that the broad church of the climate movement is too broad and that it is ‘unwieldy and unfocused.’ He notes that as long as this is the case, polluting companies will continue to prosper. He highlights in this chapter that abolishing fossil fuel subsidies would be a powerful method of dismantling the fossil fuel juggernaut. ‘Yet according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), we continue to this day to subsidize the production and burning of coal, oil and gas to the extent of $5.9 trillion, or 6.8 per cent of global gross domestic product. That’s $11 million every minute of every day paid to Big Oil to make the climate emergency more acute.’
Razzouk is clear on solutions. ‘We need to build circular economies.’ He explores the benefits of ‘green’ hydrogen, compared to ‘black’ and ‘blue’ hydrogen, though admits that ‘we’re not there yet.’ He is clear that change can happen very quickly and cites as an example of this, the global response to the dangers of CFCs. He makes the persuasive point that nuclear power ‘is so over’ and that there hasn’t really been growth in this industry over the last 30 years. Storage of waste, subsidies for the industry, the significant use of water and the cost implications of nuclear power are all examined fully. Again, Razzouk cuts through the noise and simplifies the issue. ‘But we know what we have to do to fight climate change. We have to stop using fossil fuels-oil, gas and coal- by 2050. We know how to do that: we need to decarbonize our economies and lifestyles using clean and green energy.’
He advocates for more climate litigation, though later warns that law firms may risk their ‘green’ reputations if they continue to have fossil fuel companies as clients. Razzouk outlines the dangers of ‘greenwashing’ done by companies in their efforts to ‘look good’ and states that carbon offsets and tree-planting have been used repeatedly in bad faith by companies. ‘Hundreds of thousands of companies think that they can continue doing what they do while generating carbon emissions and looking great doing it.’
The inexorable rise of emissions has continued with the obfuscation of fossil fuel companies over the last four decades. Razzouk’s point is that ‘The last time the atmosphere contained this much CO2 was more than three million years ago, at a time when global sea levels were several metres higher than they are today…We are now fast moving towards 450 PPM…We add approximately 3 PPM each year, so to reach 450 will take just 10 more years.’
By 2032 then, we could be living in a world of 450 PPM, if the rise continues at the same rate.
How do we avoid this?
Razzouk uses history to set out a successful strategy to avoid this potential future.
- Crystallise and zoom in on Big Oil
- Have a single compelling message (ideally positive)
- Have a coherent movement that has clear goals
- Convince the public that the cost of effecting change is low
- Create stable institutions that can give the message permanence.
Razzouk believes that having this clear focus on the ‘Nasty Ninety’ companies responsible for two thirds of the harmful emissions generated since the industrial age began, can help campaigners coalesce around narrower objectives. He chooses not to be distracted by other messages such as flight shaming, or the choice of having children, or the choice of veganism, or even global population. His view appears to be that these individual actions are morally laudable, but that they don’t effect the necessary change for emissions to be reduced by the fossil fuel companies. ‘Don’t lose focus on the fight that really matters: phasing out our existing oil, gas and coal use as soon as possible and stopping deforestation. Both are driven by big corporations with no moral compass that desperately need to be more regulated to be responsible.’
As a climate communicator, Razzouk finishes on the interesting point about how information about climate news is presented by the media and how it is received by the public. He compares the coverage of the failure of biodiversity, with more ‘positive’ news stories of royal babies or celebrity lives. He closes with two powerful images: one, if health warnings appeared of diesel-powered buses and cars, plastic products, gas stations, ships and planes. When Big Tobacco was forced to label their products with ‘Smoking Kills’, the propaganda spell was broken. This could be the same for the oil, gas and coal companies. ‘Fossil Fuels Kill.’ Secondly, he again uses the tobacco industry as an example and imagines oil executives from ExxonMobil testifying in court that they had knowing misled the public, with the possible bankruptcy this could bring to mutiple companies.
With the rise in climate litigation around the world, surely this day may not be too far away.
Don’t be distracted- be prepared to cut through the noise and focus on narrow objectives. Make those responsible for the continued rise in carbon emissions actually responsible.
Instead, of a conflicted unwieldy climate community, sometimes at odds with itself, Razzouk reminds us that we have a common enemy, as well as a common aim.
At present, what are we doing in terms of reducing emissions?
Razzouk’s answer: ‘It’s not enough’.
‘Sustainable biomass’ doesn’t make any sense
There have been some mixed messages regarding the Drax bio-mass plant in Yorkshire. The Guardian recently reported the business and energy secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng commenting that ‘importing wood to burn in Drax power station was not sustainable and doesn’t make any sense.
’More publicly, Kwarteng is actively promoting ‘sustainable biomass’, when he recently tweeted, ‘Sustainable biomass powers 4m homes – a critical part of our energy mix. Today’s plans will kick-start a new industry in the UK: bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Clean, affordable energy – and thousands of jobs.’
In 2021, Drax’s own annual report revealed that they had earned £893 million in government subsidies, or tax-payer money, for burning biomass. Over the last decade, the UK Government has given Drax £5.6 billion in subsidies.
In the July document ‘York and North Yorkshire Routemap to Carbon Negative’, the council revealed that they would continue to invest significantly in Drax
‘As one of the few areas within the UK which has the potential to go beyond net zero, York and North Yorkshire can sit at the heart of the UK’s decarbonisation plans and create significant economic opportunities. We can build on the region’s existing industry strengths, including: · Drax – significant investment in Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and associated supply chain opportunities.’
It appears simply that funding is delayed for projects that reduce carbon emissions such as electric vehicle infrastructure, while investments continue in power plants which are ‘not sustainable’.
Is the UK prepared for the climate emergency?
UK Water companies waste 3 billion litres of water every day
With heatwaves, droughts and hosepipe bans part of Yorkshire summers, how effective is our response?
With Yorkshire Water today calling for a hosepipe ban to start in two weeks’ time, we can now add water restrictions to the growing list of heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and rivers drying up that are now part of the UK summer.
Neil Dewis, Yorkshire Water’s director of water, said: ‘“Parts of Yorkshire have seen the lowest rainfall since our records began more than 130 years ago. The hot, dry, weather means that Yorkshire’s rivers are running low and our reservoirs are around 20% lower than we would expect for this time of year.”’
Could this drought have been prevented?
Jim McMahon, the shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, commented on social media that, ‘This crisis in our system was entirely predictable. The government and water companies should have anticipated and planned for it. In a country with plenty of rain outside of mid-summer, we should not need to rely on hosepipe bans to get us through the dry months.’
Climate scientist, Ed Hawkins, of University of Reading echoed the predictability of this drought, stating that this was not a ‘one-off’ event.
‘It’s not just the summer – this is the 4th consecutive season of low or very low rainfall. And warmer temperatures cause more evaporation and soils to dry out faster, making the drought worse’
The Independent reports Kathryn Brown, the director of climate change and evidence at The Wildlife Trusts as saying, “Government doesn’t have a plan at all for dealing with the effects on the natural environment from these drought conditions.”
What were the warnings?
As well as having the data from the last 4 years in order to create a plan, there seems to have been more political posturing than climate action. Only last month, the Climate Change Committee highlighted the urgent and immediate need to plan to mitigate ‘risks to soil health from increased flooding and drought.’
Yorkshire Water, like many water companies had produced a drought plan, where they asserted that ‘we also develop scenarios to represent events worse than those we have experienced previously to ensure we are as resilient as possible to future, more extreme events.’ They have clear measures that they adopt, with customer communication, to reduce the demand on the service. This is the first hosepipe ban that Yorkshire Water have called in 27 years.
Although Yorkshire Water claim that ‘Our level of service has improved since 2001 through leakage reduction, grid extension and additional abstraction licences. Customers place a high value on the reliability of water supply, and we have the same level of service for all of our customers’, the leakage reported per property per day through 2021-2021, was 130 litres of water. With over 5 million customers, that would amount to approximately 650 million litres lost through leakage a day.
The BBC reported today that water companies lose approximately 3 billion litres of water a day through leakage.
Proactive planning needed to mitigate losses
North Yorkshire Council, although declaring a climate emergency in July of this year, has been criticised for its plan lacking in concrete detail. North Yorkshire Councillor Andy Brown told me that, ‘Like so many other councils, North Yorkshire are very good at grand announcements. When the Green group asked to see an actual costed plan with timescales and for a scrutiny committee to be set up, the ruling group blocked any discussion of the plan in full council.’ More locally, Harrogate Borough Council never declared a climate emergency at all, despite two motions, instead passing a motion for a much softer ‘this Council supports measures to address the climate emergency.’
Local strategies to reduce carbon emissions
Harrogate Borough Council have 8 Strategic Themes as part of their Carbon Reduction Strategy and it is through this strategy plan that measures emerge to reduce emissions. Their themes range from Domestic Energy demand, which includes retrofit housing, to Land Use, which includes tree planting. Other themes include council buildings and the Harrogate Convention Centre, as well as reducing emissions through operations and staff transport. One of their core strategic themes is sustainable transport, which focuses on improving the district’s electric vehicle infrastructure.
Harrogate Borough Council are keen to promote their roll-out of electric vehicle charging points, with 34 spaces being created on council owned property across Harrogate, Ripon, Pateley Bridge, Masham and Knaresborough. A council spokesperson told me that they were waiting for a funding bid to be approved, but that this has been delayed from the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles. ‘We always intended to get more than this through using the approved funding at match for central government funding. We have just had word that the NYCC bid we supported was meant to let us know ‘early August’.
Cllr Keane Duncan, executive member for highways and transport, also commented on the funding bid, saying: “We are currently developing plans to deliver charging points across the county so that more residents and visitors are able to choose electric vehicles and charge up conveniently. “In the meantime, we continue to pursue funding opportunities through central government. We have recently submitted a bid to the Government’s Local Electrical Vehicle Infrastructure (LEVI) Fund, which will enable us to deliver around 70 chargers in deeply rural areas that would otherwise be left behind due to a lack of private investment.”
With Harrogate Borough Council being abolished in 2023, it is hoped that NYCC’s Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle Strategy will continue to maintain the contract with Connected Kerb. The council will receive the money from residents charging cars, with any revenue raised being used to expand the network further, but this is all still uncertain at this point as the transition between councils takes place.
Environmental impact of electric vehicles?
As of July 2022, there were approximately 520,000 battery electric vehicles in the UK, out of a global total of 16 million electric vehicles and a UK total of 32.9 million cars. The rise of popularity of electric vehicles prompts those critical of EVs to complain about the environmental impact of lithium mining- lithium being one of the components in electric vehicles.
Lithium is also a component in the 6 billion smartphones in the world, the 16 million laptops and other household electronics. Yet there only appears to be criticism of the lithium needed for electric vehicle batteries, rather than for all goods.
For example, between 1955 and 1980, 125,000 tonnes of lithium were mined globally, without the level of concern about the environmental impact of lithium mining, leaving me to conclude that these criticisms are not about the impact of mining, but as the last bastion of the fossil fuel car industry holding on.
We have opportunities at a local council level to reduce the impact of the climate emergency, if we choose to implement them.
We have opportunities at a national level to reduce the impact of the climate emergency, if we chose to implement them.
Review of ‘Hothouse Earth’ by Prof Bill McGuire
‘To have even the tiniest chance of keeping the global average temperature rise below 1.5°C, we need to see emissions down 45% by 2030.’
Over the last few days, Prof Bill McGuire’s latest book ‘Hothouse Earth’ came out. The Guardian newspaper gave a review/summary here, which gave the impression that Prof McGuire was saying that it was too late to do anything about the climate crisis. The article and headline claimed that ‘total climate meltdown cannot be stopped according to a leading UK scientist.’
I raised this with Prof McGuire, who responded ‘My message is NOT that it’s too late. We need to act now to stop dangerous climate breakdown becoming cataclysmic.’
In a separate tweet, he then made it even more abundantly clear and distanced himself from the headline in the article: ‘Just wanted to say, the ‘total climate meltdown’ is the headline writer, not me. I don’t say this, nor does the article. And I still believe we can avoid #climate cataclysm is we act now.’
With this context, I wanted to see for myself what the message in his text was and what I found is below.
McGuire structures this book very coherently, opening with his vision and charting the difference between how generations have experienced life on the planet. The aim is simple: ‘To have even the tiniest chance of keeping the global average temperature rise below 1.5°C, we need to see emissions down 45% by 2030. In theory, this might be possible, but in the real world- barring some unforeseen miracle- it isn’t going to happen.’
If it doesn’t happen then we will have made a commitment to the generations that follow, as well as betraying those who have come before- ‘…this is the hothouse planet we are committed to living on; one that would be utterly alien to our grandparents.’
McGuire does not shy away from the charge that he is raising an alarm, when he states: ‘Raising the alarm, in our current circumstances, is a good thing. It fits with the precautionary principle and also with the idea that we need to really know our enemy…’ He sets out that this text should be seem as the one of the most pressing call to arms that we have had and in this call makes it clear that he still believes there is time.
‘The fact that the future looks dismal is not an excuse to do nothing, to imagine it’s all too late. On the contrary, it is a call to arms.’
He does acknowledge the ‘waste of breath the years behind’ at the end of the text where he makes the point that we are running out of time and have few straws left, owing to interference from bad actors intent on delay tactics. ‘In the decades since the first Un COP Climate Change Conference in 1995, we have used up an entire bale in prevarication and inertia, so all we are left to clutch is the last straw. We cannot fail to grasp it.’
‘We have repeatedly refused to listen and chosen not to act.’
McGuire charts the number of times that the IPCC has sounded the alarm since its inception and, like a tanker, we have been very slow to change direction. ‘We have been put on notice time and time again about the potentially catastrophic impact of rising greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, but we have repeatedly refused to listen and chosen not to act.’
With over 30 years of positive, assertive action, the world could be in a much better position that that in which it now finds itself. Instead we find ourselves in a situation where hardly any countries are on target with their emission reductions and where total greenhouse gases have risen by 43% in roughly the last 30 years. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 354ppm to 420ppm, an increase of 19%. We cannot wait for a ‘tipping point’ to occur before acting- by this time it will be far too late. Prevention is always better than impact management.
‘From Narnia to Eden’
In a stroke of mythological genius, McGuire takes the time to explore the transition of our species from Narnia to Eden, or from Ice Age to present. The impact of humans on the environment ‘is written across every corner of the natural world; a time when our pollution, be it carbon dioxide, radioactive isotopes, or microplastics, infiltrates and contaminates everything, down to pristine Antarctica ice and the placentas of pregnant women.’
He also makes the crucial point that more desperate measures may be considered the ‘longer we maintain the human greenhouse’ and we have seen these already being discussed in geoengineering terms.
As this text was written in 2021, McGuire has missed out on many of the temperature records that have tumbled this year. With the UK temperature record of 38.7°C significantly broken at 40.3°C- a country that is not prepared or suited to temperatures of this high, but one which needs to prepare dramatically, as more will follow. Most days will feature climate stories, whether these are wildfires, heatwaves, or flooding, causing untold financial damage and cost to human life. Climate breakdown is happening today and we can all be witnesses to this. Climate breakdown is ‘not something that belongs to the distant future’, as McGuire phrases it. An issue that used to be thought of impacting grandchildren and future generations has sped up and we care now impacted by it today- at only 1.2°C higher than pre-industrial times.
Not everywhere is heating at the same rate and McGuire concisely focuses on the Arctic and the impact of rapid heating there. The different scenarios from the IPCC are also outlined clearly for new readers, but McGuire does not do this flippantly. He emphasises the point that ‘every degree of temperature rise, even every tenth of a degree, chips away that little bit more of our previously benign climate’ and therefore every tenth of a degree is worth fighting for, so that we can save ‘All We Can Save.’
The end of the century and 2100 seem so far away from 2022. But with fewer than 80 years to go, this can easily be in the lifetime of children born today. With heatwaves increasing in frequency and extremity, many different parts of the world may be uninhabitable well before this ‘target’ date of 2100.
The danger of switching off
As images of wildfires and climate disasters such as droughts and floods continue to feature more regularly on our screens, will this be enough to prompt action? In short, how bad does it have to become and for whom, before countries act with purpose with global collective action? It seems that already the Australian fires of recent years have disappeared from our memories- floods seem to happen to ‘other people’.
How long can our attention be focused on climate action and what part does the media and politicians have in sustaining this attention?
Will there be enough fresh water in case of water shortages and emergency response management? Will there be enough food as harvests fail and famines occur?
How high will sea level rise be under different scenarios? Why is the rate of rise increasing? Who is being impacted by this just now and who is likely to be impacted by this in the future? How will sea level rise impact coastal infrastructure?
These are some of the questions that McGuire takes time to explore in this book and these are questions that need to be addressed and solutions thought of now, now only in response to events. Prevention and mitigation are both key.
What I like about this text is that McGuire explains clearly about some of the big topics relating to the climate: soil, oceans, Greenland, Antarctica, methane, AMOC, etc and after explaining each, evaluates how likely each could be and how they are being impacted by the continuing ‘business as usual.’
Climate migrants, refugees
The Sahel, Yemen, Syria are places which are outlined as being in need of humanitarian response, but on whom does this responsibility lie: financially? Legally? or morally? Which countries are prepared to take in hundreds of millions of possible climate migrants and will conflict over water and fertile land produce more future climate flashpoints. McGuire warns that ‘There is no easy way to say it, but the world of our children and their children will be a far more perilous one. As resources and habitable land diminishes will turn against in an effort to maintain or gain what they feel is their share and their right.’ As this has been the history of our civilisation and tribal people, there is no reason to assume that mankind will suddenly stop this behaviour.
Serious questions need honesty
There are serious questions raised in this book, which McGuire does not shy away from. He addresses them honestly and calmly. He acknowledges the difficulty and uncertainty of the future and this approach is a welcome one. Consequences are not absolute, nor does the climate crisis necessitate binary, drastic solutions. McGuire offers pathways to action that are available to all of us to make us empowered rather than being crippled by eco-anxiety and eco-grief. ‘Fossil fuel companies, responsible for leaking around half of all methane emitted by human activities, need to be made-by law- to clean up their act immediately.’ McGuire calls for punitive measures for fossil fuel companies and argues that there can be no fossil future, when he describes the continuation of new exploration licences as ‘bordering in the insane.’
McGuire has been criticised for the seeming rushed ending to this book, where ‘solutions’ are listed, almost in a list. In truth though, we know what the solutions are, as equally we know who is causing much of the problems. With a renewed focus on the impact of decision makers on the climate and with everyone asking the same question, is this decision good or not for the climate, McGuire argues that ‘the coming decade is very likely the most critical in human history’. A point of view that is not new to the climate crisis narrative.
Who is failing whom?
McGuire concludes by offering the moral argument that the mark of great societies is one where all the citizens are looked after, regardless of status and that stewardship of the planet should be a priority. To act otherwise, makes us no better than the smoking companies and fossil fuels companies, who know their products were dangerous, but did nothing, so lonely as the profits came in.
‘The measure of the maturity of any society must be how well it looks after the needs of every one of its people, and how it cares for the planet and all life thereon, by which metric we are little more than toddlers flailing about aimlessly in the dark.’
Those resident in the UK, and indeed in other countries, may watch helplessly on the side-lines, as we see politicians focus on any topic other than the climate crisis, as a means to foster short term support.
But we are not helpless. We are not voiceless. And we can be powerful.
Fossil Future- Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas- Not Less’
No need to read this book- his supporters haven’t. Despite the author handing out copious free copies.
This is a somewhat over-hyped ridiculous book, which endlessly quotes the author himself.
Epstein makes ‘straw men’ arguments throughout- where he creates extreme scenarios and then attacks those, despite these never been said or written. For example, he bases an early foundation premise on the lack of electricity in a hospital ‘Africa’ on an unverified blog and bases his argument on that. The hospital is not named nor is there a date for when this is supposed to happen.
The countries of Africa get barely a mention in the book, despite huge programmes in renewables and solar energy being implemented ‘there’.
The author, in Chapter 9 makes a big point about levels of carbon dioxide being good for ‘life’. He is very careful not to say ‘human life’- plant life may well benefit from carbon dioxide. Omissions are important.
This leads me to the biggest gaps in the argument.
Epstein not once addresses how his ‘mastery methods’- which of course are not outlined in specific detail, just waved at- will lower the rising global temperature or lower the rising carbon dioxide level.
This is a central point, for the future use of fossil fuels, which he ignores.
He also does not address the impact of rising CO2 or temperature on countries, infrastructure and people, meaning there can be no justification for continued fossil fuel use.
The author is a philosophy graduate, in no way qualified or experienced to write on energy matters.
And it shows.
Far too many general vague points- for example, he spends 3 pages outlining why fossil fuel machines will help people have ‘thinking time’ (for real, this isn’t a joke) and how that will be a benefit. Avoiding of course the impact on the labour market. Another 3 pages are spent describing what a ‘tool’ is. (Feel free to make your own jokes here)
Epstein avoids information that counters his argument and delays arguments in his book, constantly repeating ‘I’ll deal with that later’, which of course, he doesn’t do.
He claims that his ‘motivation’ ‘for writing this book is to prevent the U.S. and other free nations from embracing unilateral disempowerment’. The saviour of the U.S. A heroic role needed for Epstein. Of course, he doesn’t really explore who these ‘other free nations’ are and frankly this is code for ‘China is bad. We need to be more powerful than China.’ He overlooks China’s expansion in solar and wind which dwarf other countries. He overlooks China dropping their emissions. He overlooks that it is the U.S. that historically has the highest emissions.
This is a book that can easily be dismissed by simply looking out your window and seeing the impact of the climate crisis. Yet supporters are lapping this book up, despite not having read it themselves, which is peculiar.
The fear of China is explicit in this quote from the introduction ‘this with unfree China, which has an explicit goal of being the world’s leading superpower by 2049 and is using an 85 percent fossil- fueled economy to get there— including by using fossil fuels to produce unreliable solar panels and wind turbines’. Of course the solar panels aren’t ‘unreliable’ at all and Epstein’s only claim is that these somehow contribute to ‘higher prices and lower reliability of the U.S. electrical system’, as if having a competitive market isn’t a positive aspect for industry.
Epstein makes the underlying claim that ‘fossil fuels will contribute to further warming going forward. But I will argue that the negative climate impacts of fossil fuels will be far, far outweighed by the unique benefits of fossil fuels.’ What are these ‘unique benefits’ that no other energy source can possibly aspire to? That they are cheap and reliable. Ignore then that the use of fossil fuels will contribute to further warming, it will not cost us as much to heat the planet. Result.
Be that as it may, Epstein believes that the climate impact will ‘continue to be ‘masterable’ by fossil fuel machines’. ‘Continue’ is an interesting verb to use in this context, because we are not mastering the climate impact, not with 1.5°C being approached. For him, it doesn’t matter how hot the global average temperature becomes, climate mastery will be achievable- of course, at no point in the text, does he prove how these mastery methods will help reduce the global temperature. Nor does he explain how they have failed to do so yet.
Despite this pretty big gap in his argument, Epstein states that, ‘expanding fossil fuel use as essential to global human flourishing, I regard “net- zero” proposals as apocalyptically as others regard fossil- fueled climate change. Net- zero policy, if actually implemented, would certainly be the most significant act of mass murder since the killings of one hundred million people by communist regimes in the 20th century’. Nowhere in the rest of the book does he explore how this would happen, this is simply one of his statements that the rest of the book will rely on, with ‘communist regimes’- read China- being presented as the villain.
Now that his foundation is set, Epstein makes his first claim in Chapter 1 that the benefits of fossil fuels have been ‘ignored’. This chapter is full of the filler phrase ‘I’m going to try and persuade you’, so we know that we are not going to have a balanced argument, as this is not the point of persuasion. This chapter becomes highly repetitive with Epstein stating that a person is ‘50 times less likely to die from a climate- related disaster than they were in the 1 ° C colder world of one hundred years ago’. Of course, he doesn’t say where in the world that might be and how this is calculated. He uses EMDAT information for this claim. This is a favourite ploy of Lomborg as well to use this data and unfortunately for them both, there are gaps in this information. EMDAT information calculates deaths from the drought in the 1930s America as being 3,000 people and Lomborg himself suggests that this number is a low estimate. If the EMDAT data isn’t accurate, then why do so many of these people use it to craft the narrative.
Epstein never explores what factors may explain why these deaths have come down, but simply states that fossil fuels have helped. He also doesn’t explain why this is a bad thing. High numbers of climate deaths cannot be what he is hoping for surely? This is a great example and one of many in the book, where he assigns causation without evidence. The phrase ad hoc ergo propter hoc could well be revisited.
This chapter is where Epstein makes the claim that because ‘experts’ have been wrong in the past, then ‘experts’ can be wrong today and therefore we shouldn’t listen to them- perhaps instead we should listen to him. Although this, on the face of it, looks reasonable, the opposite is also true. If experts have been right in the past, then experts can be right today.
We then have one of the oddest tales in this text, once which he distances himself from as much as he can. He claims that he is a ‘sharing a story’ that was ‘told by a visitor to The Gambia’ about the lack of electricity at a hospital being directly responsible for the deaths of babies. Oh if only those African people could be able to use as much fossil fuels as America all would be okay and babies’ lives would be saved. There are a few issues with this story apart from the distancing. The first is that it is completely unverified. Following the reference, we see it leads to a blog where the hospital is not identified and the author is not identified. This perpetuates the myth that ‘many African countries desperately need energy.’ The Gambia was one of the few countries until recently which was actually on track to meet its 1.5°C pledges, but it fits the racist narrative of ‘Africa’ all being the same. Another issue with this ‘story’ is that he then assumes it is true and reflects on ‘the tragedy of babies dying for lack of the energy needed.’ Well, this hasn’t been proved, as his own reference doesn’t lead to verified data and factual evidence.
Is he resting on scientific information that the rest of us do not have? Sadly not. In his own words, he says that his expertise is ‘As a philosopher who has studied the history of ideas extensively’. He makes the repeated claim that we have ‘no direct access to experts’, which is patently false by the ability to use email and social media to contact experts who enjoy reaching out with their knowledge, but instead that we are relying on the ‘systems’ that give us this information. He uses the example of the nefarious IPCC keeping the decline in ‘climate related deaths’ (a term not actually defined by Epstein) away from the public ‘Whatever the IPCC’s motives for omitting the fact of plummeting climate-related disaster deaths.’ This is a narrative and spin that he is busy weaving- that the experts are hiding things from you, but I will bring the truth- there is a huge conspiracy but I have cracked it and I am telling you, not to sell my book and make money, oh no, no, no, but it is my duty. He then proceeds to quote Michael Crichton of ‘Jurassic Park’ fame.
Epstein also cherry picks in this chapter and if this is what he is doing in Chapter 1, you can rest assured that this is typical of his approach. Look, he quotes an IPCC report- remember they are hiding things from you and you have no direct access to experts…no, hang on, that can’t be right…- that states ‘There is low confidence that human influence has affected trends in meteorological droughts in most regions…’ Howzat! Checkmate.
He knows that you are not going to check the AR6 Report, because if you agree with him, you will take it as read. He also knows that the ordinary public don’t know how the IPCC makes judgements on high, medium and low confidence and that it doesn’t mean the same in ordinary speech. He also knows that if the IPCC does not have historical data, then they will not assign medium or high confidence to any event, as they only support their comments with evidence. Epstein knows this, but he is banking on you not knowing.
In Chapter 11 of the AR6 report, it actually read,’ There is low confidence that human influence has affected trends in meteorological droughts in most regions, but medium confidence that they have contributed to the severity of some single events. There is medium confidence that human-induced climate change has contributed to increasing trends in the probability or intensity of recent agricultural and ecological droughts, leading to an increase of the affected land area. Human induced climate change has contributed to global-scale change in low flow, but human water management and land-use changes are also important drivers (medium confidence).’
His use of ellipsis to hide the rest of the statement was carefully chosen. Remember, this was the person who said you had to rely on the ‘system’, instead of the experts. What a system he has turned out to be in Chapter 1, not even giving you the same information that the experts did.
This chapter was all about the public failing to understand the benefits of fossil fuels, which he has stated already will continue to drive temperature up. The question that he has not answered is a simple one.
What are the benefits of a 4/5°C world?
Advance warning- he never answers this.
Instead, he rounds off this chapter by quoting from BP and the Heartland Institute and splits the world into ‘empowered’ and ‘barely empowered’.
I think this has to be my favourite chapter in this book for its complete irrelevance to the point he is making. Epstein makes the point in this chapter that ‘how do we identify whether and how much our knowledge system is distorting fossil fuels’ climate side-effects?’. He hasn’t actually proved that ‘the knowledge system’ is distorting climate side effects in chapter 1, but on her rolls regardless. His first point is that there is an inherent problem because, ‘This is difficult to do given that most of our knowledge system’s claims about climate involve predictions.’ This is blatantly not correct. Some climate models are used of course, but most of our knowledge comes from data, gathered from satellites and proxy information- so why is Epstein suggesting otherwise?He is doing this, so he can set up this chapter’s attack, that if climate predictions were wrong in the past, then climate predictions made today will be wrong about the future. This is the general thrust of this chapter.
He makes huge efforts again to distance himself by saying that the views of individuals do not represent the mainstream views, ‘While Ehrlich’s, Holdren’s, and Schneider’s views in no way represented what most climate researchers thought,’, so if he knows this, then why is he going down this line of argument? This entire chapter is to placate a certain demographic who make the wrong assumption that if some climate models and/or predictions were wrong in the 1960s, then that must mean that some models and/or predictions will be wrong in the 2022s. This is a false equivalence.
He then basically introduces the ‘zombie list’ of ‘Environmentalists’ predictions from 1970s that didn’t come true!!’ A list, in case you are unaware, of unknown provenance, but which has about 50 statements or ‘predictions’ on it, all supposedly said by environmentalists. Of course, once you start to explore the list, you see that many of them are newspaper editorial comment, rather than direct quotes. It’s not often that people refer to the ‘Redlands Daily Facts’ or the ‘Noblesville Ledger’ to prove their point, but there we are. Despite fact checkers being used to debunk many of them on a regular basis, supporters of this list like Epstein assume that if they throw enough suspect claims then at least one will stick. But then, let’s see how the argument goes- Person X predicted this in 1965 and it didn’t come true! Ha!
Okay, why didn’t it come true?
Oh, I don’t know, but they were wrong and we know that now.
Could it be that policies were put in place to avoid it happening and that’s why it didn’t come true?
No! How come these experts were wrong eh?!
So what is Epstein doing in this chapter?
He is trying to get your attention away from his mastery methods (remember?) on how to neutralise the rising temperature of 3/4°C, but he now has you on a wild goose chase.
The other thing that he slips in during this chapter, is the ‘Nuclear is good’ argument.
What he doesn’t mention is any country which has over 50% dependency on nuclear power.
Whether nuclear can be described as a renewable energy supply in the first place is definitely contentious.
Either way, he has your attention well away from the negatives of continual use of fossil fuels. Look he claims, U.S. air pollution goes down despite increasing fossil fuel use. What about other countries? No, that’s less important, because they are not ‘empowered’.
Back to nuclear- Epstein claims ‘Nuclear energy, as I mentioned in the last chapter, has historically been the most promising competitor to fossil fuels.’ And it emits no air pollution or CO2.’ We all know that omissions are important. Epstein makes no comment on the pollution or CO2 during plant build, or the long-term waste storage pollution- he just says quite neatly ‘there are no emissions’.
But look, he says, compared to the emissions of CHINA, nuclear energy is amazing. ‘Remember we’re talking about a world before China, India, and others used enormous amounts of fossil fuels to industrialize and lift literally billions out of poverty.’
Not a word about the historic emissions leader that is the U.S.
To summarise Chapter 3, as I think you get the point now, that a simple study of the gaps between what he is saying and what Epstein is not saying is getting larger- remember his aim was to persuade you- not present you with the arguments and let you make your own mind up- even though that’s what he claims his ‘knowledge system’ is.
Summary of Chapter 3
If you are anti fossil fuels, then you are anti-human and want us to die.
References to the Nazis.
References to the Lion King.
‘Advancing human flourishing is a long- term and wide- ranging goal. It doesn’t just mean thinking about the next year; it means thinking generations ahead.’
When by continual use of fossil fuels, the global average temperature will be what?
Ah, he didn’t say.
But how does Epstein know all this? After all, he is a Philosophy graduate- where is his experience? Where are his qualifications?
What does he say? ‘I decided to become a general expert on fossil fuels myself, drawing on the best sources and specialists.’ Does he say who these are? Or who calls him an expert? No and no. ‘This book is my synthesis of everything that I’ve learned.’ Ah, so it’s a knowledge system- the very thing he decried in Chapter 1. A synthesis also logically means that not everything is included. So what checks did he have on his ideas to ensure that his selection of arguments and ideas was robust and scientifically accurate? No checks? Ah.
So ends Part 1.
This is a fairly embarrassing chapter for Epstein, in which he suddenly remembers that he was supposed to say something new in the text. He was supposed to build the case that fossil fuels are great and should be continued. He even begins ‘What are the full, current benefits of the world’s massive use of fossil fuels? As we have seen, our knowledge system is constantly ignoring these benefits.’ And rather embarrassingly ‘Those benefits are far, far greater than I have been able to explain so far’.
Why are fossil fuels alone so great? Why should we continue with them? What are the great benefits? He says that they are ‘unique’ in that they are:
- Cost effective
- On demand
Epstein then goes off on his own little ‘frolic’ spending this important chapter explaining his pet theory of ‘human flourishing’.
He effectively takes the time to set up his own ‘straw man’ that he is arguing that rising carbon dioxide is good for a ‘livable planet’? The impact on humans is neatly side-stepped.
He then realises that he does not know which metrics to use, so sets up his own, by now, you will be so persuaded by him, that you might not question these? A livable planet is one which can be defined by ‘average life expectancy, average income and total populations.’
He then ignores any civilsation that does not include these definitions by focusing only on the last 2000 years. ‘While these charts go back only two thousand years, we know from historical records that they were preceded by tens of thousands of years of even less flourishing and progress.’
Ancient civilisations are defined as being ‘lesser’ as they are not fossil fuel based. That is the level of argument here.
He ignores the rising heat of the last 200 years and the climate impacts that we are seeing in the last 20 years. Why?
This is where the chapter becomes stranger. He spends pages defining what a ‘tool’ is and how a benefit of fossil fuels is that it has given us time…time to think apparently is what was needed. Not sure how the classic philosophers- all the ones that Epstein must have studied- manged to find the time to do their thinking.
Is he finally going to explain the benefits of fossil fuel, now that he has had all this thinking time? No, ‘I will explain in more detail in the next chapter, fossil fuels today provide a uniquely cost- effective form of energy.’
Who does this benefit? Well, Epstein has an idea here. ‘In places like Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nepal, Ethiopia and Niger, more than two out of three people are farmers. For these unempowered people, the world is not a nourishing place whatsoever.’
He then decides to talk about drinking water and tap water, forgetting clearly the polluted tap water in the U.S. Remember that the U.S is what he calls an ‘empowered’ country.
The rest of the chapter is filler and waffle- apart from the wonderful line ‘today we have achieved mastery over food.’ I’m really not sure who he means here, with malnourished people around the world and food being a constant battle. He then makes the somewhat surprising claim that ‘In reality, fossil fuels’ side- effects are overwhelmed by fossil fuel energy’s benefits,’
Epstein makes an interesting admission towards the end of this chapter, a quite sizable one.
‘[n]ew CO2 emissions will lead to higher CO2 levels- and as I will explain in chapter 6, there is no remotely low-cost method of capturing CO2 on a global scale.’
Finally, a point with which I can agree with.
This chapter begins with the endearing thought that Epstein had in a New York subway while looking at a young mother. ‘Whatever her job is, more and better machine labor could enable her to make more money. And whatever her home life is like, more and better labor-saving devices could certainly help her out.’
This is the chapter where Epstein gets caught by his own argument earlier. He writes about solar and wind energy and argues that ‘the full cost of energy is determined by the cost of the full process necessary to produce it.’ An argument that oddly he did not use in his analysis of nuclear energy.
Epstein continues to bang on the fossil fuel drum some more, ‘If a form of raw energy does not exist in enough abundance to scale to billions of people, it cannot do what fossil fuels can do— at least not for long. Because oil, coal, and natural gas are based on staggeringly abundant quantities of ancient dead organisms that harness ancient sunlight, they exist in staggering amounts.’ Or we could capture actual sunlight.
Epstein goes back to looking at reduced ‘climate events’ such as storm danger. There are no graphs in this chapter with reference to the financial cost of storm damage, which plays an integral part in an ‘empowered’ economy’. He tries to side step this issue by claiming that ‘Damage should be measured as a percentage of wealth or income, not in absolute terms.’ Despite the clear evidence that this is not how this is calculated.
Again he uses EMDAT information, correctly thinking that few people will have downloaded the database. He tries valiantly to make the case that death rates from storms have come down, but CO2 has been rising, therefore rising CO2 is not a danger to life. If this is not what he saying, then his argument is not clear. This is a chapter where he throws everything at the wall hoping it will stick- flood damage, rising sea levels, etc, but skips away from the central point of whether rising CO2 is a danger to life or not and at what levels and how can we bring this down.
Here Epstein finally asks the question: What will be the likely impact of rising CO2 levels on the global climate system? He then spends three pages arguing over the semantics of the word ‘likely’, before changing the question to ‘what are the likely impacts of rising Co2 levels on the global climate system from a human flourishing perspective?’ Then after about 4 pages, he makes the point that plants grow more when there is more CO2.
He then talks about fertiliser (really) and makes the claim that ‘there are massive amounts of good from warming that must be considered.’ To be really clear here, he doesn’t answer the question that he first posed then changed. At no point does he address the impact on human life. He does spin quickly to something to mask this and that is the scientific consensus argument, as he hopes his supporters will agree with him here and not notice that he hasn’t actually answered the first question, before criticising the IPCC, another big hit with his crowd. The rest of the chapter is just filler.
In chapter 9, he realises that actually his book is calling for more fossil fuels and therefore he needs to address rising CO2 levels. He claims that rising CO2 levels are ‘-the one and only side-effect of fossil fuels that could hypothetically justify restricting their use going forward.’
This is probably the most insidious chapter, where Epstein claims that he ‘will endeavor to hold my explanations to the standards of objective explanation I hold others to,’ to build the narrative of an honest searcher after truth. Throughout this chapter, Epstein treads a very careful line, where he makes little reference to the impact on human life and instead repeats the statement that ‘the widespread idea that rising CO2 will make the Earth unlivable is literally impossible.’ Here is the dishonesty and the lack of objective explanation. He knows that we are talking about the impact on human life and yet he avoids this question. He then goes into the typical and tired claims that there was abundant life on the planet when CO2 levels were much higher! But again, does not explore specifically, the impact on human life over the last 200,000 years.
He simply makes the case that there may be some ‘disruption’ but that folks near the coast could simply move. He claims that global climate-cooling technology- no doubt led by fossil fuel industries will save us long before CO2ppm rose above 500.
He then takes another pop at the IPCC- remember he relied on them earlier when a line suited his narrative but now he calls them an ‘catastrophist organization’ and claims that they are ‘incentivized’ to make extreme predictions.
This chapter closes with his claim that ‘Logically, there is no reason to believe that continuing fossil fuel use will cause anything resembling a species decline that would be catastrophic for humans’. Quite clever wording here isn’t it? Suggesting that if a species of bird goes extinct, well that’s sad and all, but not catastrophic for humans.
All through this chapter, I hoped that we might have Epstein exploring in good faith what the upper limit of CO2 might be for the human species. He didn’t.
Instead, he makes the absurd claim that there ‘is no direct correlation between temperature and CO2’, despite major scientific organisations demonstrating clearly that there is. He also claims that we should ignore the ‘likely overstatement’ of the IPCC of a sea level rise of 33 inches. Why? Because he says so.
Here we painfully return to the theme of ‘freedom’- that ‘empowered’ countries should be free to do what they want and if you don’t agree then you are anti-human. He claims that we need to ‘decriminalize nuclear energy’ because of the influence of ‘anti-impact activists’.
Literally repeats Chapter 1. But then adds another caveat that if you believe in a fossil fuel future then you might also be feeling ‘fear and helplessness’. In the same breath, he dismisses climate anxiety as felt by many and calls this an ‘indoctrination’. I am not sure who he is trying to persuade here and throughout this book, but it definitely worth asking this question. Which demographic is he targeting? And why?
He claims that ‘one of my motivations for writing this book is to prevent the U.S. and other free nations from embracing unilateral disempowerment.’ Which needs a lot of unpacking.
Epstein finishes with a call to arms and of course his own vanity project, where he claims that ‘the persuasiveness of my approach is what has enabled me, despite starting out as an obscure person with virtually zero financial resources, to -write one of the bestselling and most influential energy books of the last decade.’ He puffs himself up and shares anecdotes from his ‘readers’ and tries to present himself as ‘one of you’ once, but now I am informed.
There are two key things that I wanted to learn from this book- both of which were sadly missing.
- What are his ‘mastery methods’ for reducing global temperatures and what impact have these had?
- What are his ‘mastery methods’ for reducing rising CO2 emissions and what impact have these had?
Epstein admits that continual use of fossil fuels will lead to more rising CO2 emissions. But stops short of exploring the limit for humans.
This is a showman, trying and failing to get your attention with one hand, while he does the trick with the other.