Friday essay: how many climate crisis books will it take to save the planet?



Ben White/Unsplash, CC BY

Ian Lowe, Griffith University

It’s that time of the year again. Brochures and emails spruik a bumper crop of new books about the climate crisis.

Book cover: Bill Gates How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

Goodreads

This time there are some really big names: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates, Climate Crisis and the Global New Deal by Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin, All We Can Save by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson, What Can I Do? The Truth About Climate Change and How to Fix It by Jane Fonda, as well as new efforts from David Attenborough and Tim Flannery.

The incoming tide of new books makes me reflect and wonder whether writing still more books about climate change is a waste of precious time. When the UN is calling for governments to act to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, are books just preaching to the converted? My answer is no, but that doesn’t mean publishing, buying or reading more books is the answer to our climate emergency right now.




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Decades of books

In April, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the New York Times told readers this might be the year they finally read about climate change. But many already have.

The earliest titles date back to 1989: The Greenhouse Effect, Living in a Warmer Australia by Ann Henderson-Sellers and Russell Blong; my own contribution, Living in the Greenhouse, and the first book aimed at the US public, Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature.

Book cover: planet earth image. By Al Gore.

Goodreads

The science was still developing then. We knew human activity was increasing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Measurable changes to the climate were also clear: more very hot days, fewer very cold nights, changes to rainfall patterns.

The 1985 Villach conference had culminated in an agreed statement warning there could be a link, but cautious scientists were saying more research was needed before we could be confident the changes had a human cause. There were credible alternative theories: the energy from the Sun could be changing, there could be changes in the Earth’s orbit, there might be natural factors we had not recognised.

By the mid-1990s, the debate was essentially over in the scientific community. Today there is barely a handful of credible climate scientists who don’t accept the evidence that human activity has caused the changes we are seeing. The agreed statements by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, led to the Kyoto Protocol being adopted in 1997.

And so — as the urgency being felt by the scientists increased — more books were published.

Former US vice president and 2007 Nobel Prize winner Al Gore’s book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis was first published in 2008 and has since been issued in 20 editions. There have been more than enough books to furnish a list of the top 100 bestselling titles on the topic, recommended by the likes of Elon Musk and esteemed climate scientists and commentators. The ones I have acquired fill an entire bookcase shelf — dozens of titles describing the problem, making dire predictions, calling for action.

Girl walks through bookshop.
Preaching to the converted might not be such a bad thing.
Becca Tapert/Unsplash, CC BY



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Deeds not words

Does the new batch of books risk spreading more despair? If the previous books didn’t change our climate trajectory then what is the point in making readers feel the cause is hopeless and a bleak future is inevitable?

Book cover: What can I do? by Jane Fonda

Goodreads

No. Writing more books isn’t a waste of time, but they also shouldn’t be a high priority at the moment. The point of writing a book is to summarise what we know about the problem and identify credible ways forward.

Those were my goals when I wrote Living in the Greenhouse in 1989 and Living in the Hothouse in 2005. The main purpose of the first book was to draw attention to a problem that was largely unrecognised, trying to inform and persuade readers that we needed to take action. By the release of the second book, the aim was to counter the tsunami of misinformation unleashed by the fossil fuel industry, conservative institutions and the Murdoch press. Rupert Murdoch spoke at News Corp’s AGM this week, maintaining: “We do not deny climate change, we are not deniers”.

But there are two reasons why I’m not working on a third book right now.

The first is time. If I started writing today, it would be late next year before the book would be in the shops. We can’t afford another year of inaction. More importantly, the inaction of our national government is not a result of a lack of knowledge.

On November 9, United Nations chief António Guterres said the world was still falling well short of the leadership required to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050:

Our goal is to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Today, we are still headed towards three degrees at least.

Some believe the inaction is explained by the corruption of our politics by fossil fuel industry donations. Others see is a fundamental conflict between the concerted action needed and the dominant ideologies of governing parties. Making decision-makers better informed about the science won’t solve either of these problems.

They might be solved, however, by the evidence that a growing majority of voters want to see action to slow climate change.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has focused, rather than distracted, the community on the risks of climate change. A recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group of 3,000 people across eight countries found about 70% of respondents are now more aware of the risks of climate change than they were before the pandemic. Three-quarters say slowing climate change is as important as protecting the community from COVID-19.

The growing awareness and sense of urgency are backed by another recent study looking at internet search behaviour across 20 European countries. Researchers found signs of growing support for a post-COVID recovery program that emphasises sustainability.

Kids climate books on shelf.
Books have also educated young readers on the climate emergency.
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Change is happening, more is needed

Still, preaching to the converted is not necessarily a bad thing. They might need to be reminded why they were persuaded that action is needed, or need help countering the half-truths and barefaced lies being peddled in the public debate. Books can fulfil that mission. So can speaking to community groups, which I do regularly.

I tell audiences the urgent priority now is to turn into action the knowledge we have about the accelerating impacts of climate change and economically viable responses. Our states and territories now have the goal of zero-carbon by 2050, so I am giving presentations spelling out how this can be achieved. We urgently need the Commonwealth government to catch up to the community.

Climate action protest sign above crowd.
Mass protests have called for environmental leadership.
Unsplash/Markus Spiske, CC BY

Change is happening rapidly. More than 2 million Australian households now have solar panels. Solar and wind provided more than half of the electricity used by South Australia last year and that state achieved a world-first on the morning of October 11: for a brief period, its entire electricity demand was met by solar panels.

The urgent task is not to publish more books on the crisis, but to change the political discourse and force our national government to play a positive role.The Conversation

Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Two new books show there’s still no goodbye to messy climate politics


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

As atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations rise, so too does the number of books telling us what the consequences are, and what we can do. Two more have been released in the past few weeks – Anna Krien’s brilliant Quarterly Essay The Long Goodbye: Coal, Coral and Australia’s Climate Deadlock, and the worthy Climate Wars by Labor’s shadow environment minister Mark Butler. Both deserve a wide audience.

Krien, author of Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests has a sharp eye for the right anecdote and a brilliant turn of phrase. Her reportage can be spoken of in the same breath as Elizabeth Kolbert’s seminal Field Notes from a Catastrophe. She has read extensively (I for one was not familiar with the Myxocene – the age of slime) and in researching her latest essay has clocked up thousands of miles as she dives on the Great Barrier Reef and travels inland to areas that will be affected by the proposed coal mine developments in the Galilee Basin.

Krien offers valuable insights into issues such as coal firm Adani’s negotiations with traditional owners, the battles over coal seam gas, and Port Augusta’s rocky transition from coal to – possibly – renewables. She talks to “ordinary” people, weaving their perspectives into the story while not losing sight of the climate deadlock in her title – the ongoing fight within the Liberal and National parties over climate and energy policy.

In one of many telling phrases she writes of the “Stockholm syndrome built on donations, royalties, taxes and threats” that bedevils Australian politics, pointing out that the fate that befell Kevin Rudd still looms large in the collective political memory. In the end, she returns to the Great Barrier Reef, and her final paragraphs pack an emotional punch that will stay with the reader for a long time.

My only quibble with Krien’s fastidious reporting is that, unlike previous Quarterly Essays, there are no footnotes. But maybe that’s only really an issue for nerds like me.

This is Quarterly Essay 66. Number 33 was Guy Pearse’s equally alarming Quarry Vision. In years to come, perhaps Quarterly Essay 99 might explain how we continued not to take action, as the consequences of climate change piled ever higher around us. Or how – alongside unexpected technological breakthroughs – we began finally to race against our nemesis, our own hubris. Time will tell.

Mark Butler is aiming to do something else besides just telling us about climate politics: as a shadow minister he is setting out Labor’s stall for the next federal election, whenever that might be.

Butler was climate minister in Rudd’s second, brief, government. In 2015-16 he undertook extensive consultations with business, community groups, academics and other “stakeholders” (surely everyone in the world is a stakeholder when it comes to the climate?). His book is essentially an extended advert for that process and its outcomes.

Butler’s prose is solid, and occasionally stolid, as he throws fact after report after statistic at the reader. However, he generally seeks to strike a constructive balance between “problem” and “solution”. There are only a few short chapters on the climate policy mess, with the bulk of the book concentrating on what a future Labor government proposes to do about it.

Inevitably, Butler is more critical of his political rivals, the Liberals and the Greens, than of his own party. You wouldn’t know from reading this book that it was Paul Keating’s Labor government who first began to use economic modelling to argue against emissions reductions, or that it was a Labor government who, in 1995, refused to institute a small carbon tax that would fund renewable energy.

Butler is also, oddly, flat-out wrong when he writes that former Labor minister Graham Richardson persuaded Prime Minister Bob Hawke to agree a 20% emissions reduction target before the 1990 federal election. It was actually his colleague Ros Kelly, in October 1990, and the “commitment” was carefully hedged.

These historical details matter, because we need to be able to hold politicians (and even ex-politicians) to account over their climate pledges. But many readers will nevertheless be more interested in what Butler says a Labor government will do, rather than what previous Labor governments didn’t.

Butler obliges, giving us chapters on “Labor’s clean power plan”, “Manufacturing and mining in a low-carbon world”, and “Low-carbon communities”. Occasionally he raises thorny problems (refugees, the coal industry) without really grappling with them. Given the ugly history around these issues (and the political Stockholm Syndrome identified by Krien), this is perhaps unsurprising.

Curiously, both books make a similar omission: they contain very little on the failures of policymakers and social movement organisations in the period from 2006 to 2012. In 2015, at the Labor Party’s national conference, I asked panellists – Butler was one – what had gone wrong during this time, which encompassed Kevin Rudd’s first prime ministership – in light of the fact that we had known about climate change since the late 1980s.

The other panellists gave thoughtful, sometimes self-critical answers. Butler kept schtum. Yet the question is worth asking if we are to avoid history repeating itself, this time as farce. We need smart people – and Krien and Butler are among them – to be asking how citizens can exert sustained pressure on existing governments and to build capacity to keep holding governments’ feet to the fire until they really and truly take climate policy seriously instead of just using it to score points and kill careers.

Ultimately, anyone interested in the future of Australia – and the future of climate policy – should read both of these books carefully. While Krien’s has some immediate use, its greater function will be something we can pull out of a time capsule to explain to young people 20 years hence that we knew exactly what was coming and what we had to do. It will help them understand why we didn’t do it.

The ConversationButler’s book will serve well over the next five years, as citizens try to hold a putative Labor government to its fine (if still inadequate) promises on the great moral challenge of our generation.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.