Category Archives: BOOK REVIEW

Climate denial? Flat Earth? What’s the difference?

People who deny that climate change is happening have something in common with people who believe in a flat Earth.

LONDON, 30 August, 2021 − Dover, a town in the county of Kent in the United Kingdom, was during the 1960s rich in eccentrics: one of them was Mr Samuel Shenton, founder and secretary of the International Flat Earth Research Society.

He was regarded with affection and merriment by local and even national newspaper reporters, and so was solemnly consulted during the US Apollo programme, the race to the moon. In 1965 he refused to believe that a photograph of the curvature of the Earth, taken by astronauts on a Gemini mission, proved that the planet was a sphere. Or that it was moving in space at 30kms a second.

“If we were going at such a tremendous speed through space you wouldn’t be able to get out of your house,” he told a Guardian colleague, “and you’d see the effects on the clouds and the waterways.”

Reportedly at his death his society had no more than 100 members. Then it crossed the Atlantic, and something started to happen.

Shared rejection

By 2018, Lee McIntyre, a researcher at Boston University in Massachusetts, could attend a Flat Earth International Conference in Denver, Colorado and use it as a starting point for an enjoyable and even mildly sympathetic new book called How to Talk to a Science Denier (MIT Press, $24.95).

The event became his template for a study of that stubborn phenomenon known as science denial, the outright refusal to accept data, experimental evidence or patient explanation of findings that you have already decided to reject.

In the course of this reporter’s lifetime, such conspicuous refusals have included the link between smoking and cancer and other health conditions; the connection between HIV infection and illness and death from Aids; the value of vaccination as a protection against disease; and most conspicuously, the connection between human exploitation of fossil fuels and the swelling climate crisis.

And although each act of denial begins from an apparently different starting point, the machinery of resistance − that determination not to be persuaded − shares five common factors.

“You cannot change someone’s beliefs against their will, nor can you usually get them to admit there is something they don’t already know”

One is a refusal to accept aspects of the evidence that do not suit your beliefs, but seize upon those that might seem to. This is called cherry-picking: you just believe the bits you like and ignore the rest.

The second factor is a commitment to the notion of massive conspiracy: a global conspiracy if need be, to declare that Covid-19 isn’t a real disease; or alternatively that it is spread by radiation from 5G radio masts; or that all the world’s science academies, almost all the world’s meteorologists and even governments, are in some monstrous plot to pretend that the climate is changing dangerously, when it isn’t, or if it is, it’s because of natural causes.

The third factor is the denunciation of real experts and the reliance on self-appointed experts. The fourth factor almost always involves logical error (we have an example above from Mr Shenton). And the last and − the deniers seem to think − the most clinching tactic is to say: “But you cannot deliver 100% proof.”

In the chapters that follow, McIntyre explores the different forms that denial takes: he talks to coal-miners in Pennsylvania about climate change; he talks to activists and campaigners about the rejection of genetic engineering as a technique for improving crops; to people who reject vaccination as a protection against disease, and to climate deniers. In all cases, he identifies evidence of the five techniques deployed to resist argument.

Selective acceptance

However, not all forms of rejection are quite as uncompromising as faith in Flat Earth. His miners know about climate change, and yes, know the costs too, but they’re miners. Mining coal is what they do.

Those against genetically-modified crops may turn out to be more concerned about economics, or choice, or the growth of corporate power. People can be vaccine-hesitant (“Is it safe? How do you know?”) rather than flat-out deniers. In each case there are separate issues underlying the unease.

Greek astronomers worked out more than 2,000 years ago that they lived on an orb; to believe the Earth is a stationary disc supported on pillars, Flat Earthers must reject the physics, astronomy and radiation science of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Einstein, while at the same time using cellphones and the Internet, products of that science.

Climate deniers have the slightly more tricky challenge of acknowledging the value of science except when it’s climate science.

Oil money

Each group believes in a massive, worldwide conspiracy to deceive. Two Flat Earthers told McIntyre that the conspiracy to foist the globalist view of the planet was the work of “the Adversary”, the Devil himself.

Climate deniers have the slightly harder task of persuading themselves that climate scientists − Chinese, British, American, Australian, Brazilian or from anywhere in the world − are all conspiring to issue a false message confected for some kind of pecuniary gain or political motive, or for the sake of a hoax, which is a bit more complicated.

There is another compounding factor addressed by this book: the big oil companies decided in 1998 to actually systematically challenge the science, with of course big money: altogether almost a billion dollars a year now flows into an organised climate change counter-movement.

In the US, climate science, like the Covid-19 pandemic itself, has become a party political issue. Nobody gets rich by denying that the Earth is round. Quite a few already very rich people will be yet richer because concerted global action on the climate emergency has been delayed, by systematic cherry-picking, conspiracy theorising, a small army of fake experts and some wilfully illogical reasoning. A very large number are likely to become miserably and even catastrophically poorer.

Winning ways

Meanwhile, how do you talk to a science denier? McIntyre’s suggested approach involves patience, courtesy, a willingness to listen, and to address the denier’s arguments directly.

“You cannot change someone’s beliefs against their will, nor can you usually get them to admit there is something they don’t already know. Harder still might be to get them to change their values or identity.

“But there is no easier path to take when dealing with science deniers. We must try to make them understand … But first we have to go out there, face-to-face, and begin to talk to them.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason, by Lee McIntyre (MIT Press $24.95 ISBN: 9780262046107)

People who deny that climate change is happening have something in common with people who believe in a flat Earth.

LONDON, 30 August, 2021 − Dover, a town in the county of Kent in the United Kingdom, was during the 1960s rich in eccentrics: one of them was Mr Samuel Shenton, founder and secretary of the International Flat Earth Research Society.

He was regarded with affection and merriment by local and even national newspaper reporters, and so was solemnly consulted during the US Apollo programme, the race to the moon. In 1965 he refused to believe that a photograph of the curvature of the Earth, taken by astronauts on a Gemini mission, proved that the planet was a sphere. Or that it was moving in space at 30kms a second.

“If we were going at such a tremendous speed through space you wouldn’t be able to get out of your house,” he told a Guardian colleague, “and you’d see the effects on the clouds and the waterways.”

Reportedly at his death his society had no more than 100 members. Then it crossed the Atlantic, and something started to happen.

Shared rejection

By 2018, Lee McIntyre, a researcher at Boston University in Massachusetts, could attend a Flat Earth International Conference in Denver, Colorado and use it as a starting point for an enjoyable and even mildly sympathetic new book called How to Talk to a Science Denier (MIT Press, $24.95).

The event became his template for a study of that stubborn phenomenon known as science denial, the outright refusal to accept data, experimental evidence or patient explanation of findings that you have already decided to reject.

In the course of this reporter’s lifetime, such conspicuous refusals have included the link between smoking and cancer and other health conditions; the connection between HIV infection and illness and death from Aids; the value of vaccination as a protection against disease; and most conspicuously, the connection between human exploitation of fossil fuels and the swelling climate crisis.

And although each act of denial begins from an apparently different starting point, the machinery of resistance − that determination not to be persuaded − shares five common factors.

“You cannot change someone’s beliefs against their will, nor can you usually get them to admit there is something they don’t already know”

One is a refusal to accept aspects of the evidence that do not suit your beliefs, but seize upon those that might seem to. This is called cherry-picking: you just believe the bits you like and ignore the rest.

The second factor is a commitment to the notion of massive conspiracy: a global conspiracy if need be, to declare that Covid-19 isn’t a real disease; or alternatively that it is spread by radiation from 5G radio masts; or that all the world’s science academies, almost all the world’s meteorologists and even governments, are in some monstrous plot to pretend that the climate is changing dangerously, when it isn’t, or if it is, it’s because of natural causes.

The third factor is the denunciation of real experts and the reliance on self-appointed experts. The fourth factor almost always involves logical error (we have an example above from Mr Shenton). And the last and − the deniers seem to think − the most clinching tactic is to say: “But you cannot deliver 100% proof.”

In the chapters that follow, McIntyre explores the different forms that denial takes: he talks to coal-miners in Pennsylvania about climate change; he talks to activists and campaigners about the rejection of genetic engineering as a technique for improving crops; to people who reject vaccination as a protection against disease, and to climate deniers. In all cases, he identifies evidence of the five techniques deployed to resist argument.

Selective acceptance

However, not all forms of rejection are quite as uncompromising as faith in Flat Earth. His miners know about climate change, and yes, know the costs too, but they’re miners. Mining coal is what they do.

Those against genetically-modified crops may turn out to be more concerned about economics, or choice, or the growth of corporate power. People can be vaccine-hesitant (“Is it safe? How do you know?”) rather than flat-out deniers. In each case there are separate issues underlying the unease.

Greek astronomers worked out more than 2,000 years ago that they lived on an orb; to believe the Earth is a stationary disc supported on pillars, Flat Earthers must reject the physics, astronomy and radiation science of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Einstein, while at the same time using cellphones and the Internet, products of that science.

Climate deniers have the slightly more tricky challenge of acknowledging the value of science except when it’s climate science.

Oil money

Each group believes in a massive, worldwide conspiracy to deceive. Two Flat Earthers told McIntyre that the conspiracy to foist the globalist view of the planet was the work of “the Adversary”, the Devil himself.

Climate deniers have the slightly harder task of persuading themselves that climate scientists − Chinese, British, American, Australian, Brazilian or from anywhere in the world − are all conspiring to issue a false message confected for some kind of pecuniary gain or political motive, or for the sake of a hoax, which is a bit more complicated.

There is another compounding factor addressed by this book: the big oil companies decided in 1998 to actually systematically challenge the science, with of course big money: altogether almost a billion dollars a year now flows into an organised climate change counter-movement.

In the US, climate science, like the Covid-19 pandemic itself, has become a party political issue. Nobody gets rich by denying that the Earth is round. Quite a few already very rich people will be yet richer because concerted global action on the climate emergency has been delayed, by systematic cherry-picking, conspiracy theorising, a small army of fake experts and some wilfully illogical reasoning. A very large number are likely to become miserably and even catastrophically poorer.

Winning ways

Meanwhile, how do you talk to a science denier? McIntyre’s suggested approach involves patience, courtesy, a willingness to listen, and to address the denier’s arguments directly.

“You cannot change someone’s beliefs against their will, nor can you usually get them to admit there is something they don’t already know. Harder still might be to get them to change their values or identity.

“But there is no easier path to take when dealing with science deniers. We must try to make them understand … But first we have to go out there, face-to-face, and begin to talk to them.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason, by Lee McIntyre (MIT Press $24.95 ISBN: 9780262046107)

Forest people offer the best hope of saving them

Trees are vital for solving the climate crisis. But there’s nothing simple about the forested world, as forest people know.

LONDON, 23 August, 2021 − Here’s something you perhaps didn’t know (but you can be sure forest people did). Rainforests make their own rain. Just how much rain they make is a revelation. The process starts with evaporated ocean, which condenses over coastal forest: thereafter, the trees get to work.

The initial deposit of rain will be transpired through the foliage, back into the air to be caught in a pattern of winds that might even be helped by the trees themselves: the same water will fall again across the forest five or six times before journey’s end.

The scale of this natural corporate utility service is colossal: one pilot followed the Amazon’s own flying river from Belém near the Atlantic coast across to the Andes, where the airstream and clouds of vapour turned south to reach the coast again at São Paulo, at the same time transporting 3,200 cubic metres of water a second.

There’s no case for doubt. One of the plane’s passengers collected air samples along the way: once inland, the water vapour had the molecular signature associated with vegetation rather than freshly evaporated seawater.

And somehow the forest actually adds to the delivery: at one place near the ocean, the fall is 215 cms a year; at the heart of Amazonas it is somehow 245 cms a year.

Trees as rainmakers

The phenomenon that is the flying river is not unique to the Amazon. Others cross North America, the Congo rainforest, the Sahel and Ethiopia. The world’s most mighty high-altitude aquifer runs for 6000 kms west-to-east across the Eurasian landmass, taking six months, at the end of which four-fifths of the rain in northern China has been generated by the great boreal forest that begins in Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Trees make the rain. Arid places may be treeless not because they are arid; they could be arid because someone cleared the foliage.

A Trillion Trees: How We Can Reforest Our World, by Fred Pearce, (Granta, £20) is a reporter’s book. Pearce has been reporting the science and impacts of the environment for the New Scientist and other journals for four decades or more.

He doesn’t just deliver the big picture: he illuminates the detail. He goes to forests and the desolate landscapes where forests had once flourished. He meets scientists, activists, campaigners, government officials, loggers, farmers, businessmen, politicians and where possible the indigenous peoples of the forest.

He isn’t just there for the rainforest: he knows the American landscape, the great forests of the north, the plantations of Israel, the woodlands of Europe and the mangroves of the African shore, and he introduces the people to whom these places matter.

“If natural regrowth has to be the basis for the renaissance of the world’s trees, then the custodians of that process must be the people who live in them”

This is the book’s strength, and occasionally its weakness: just as the dense understory slows the trek through the great forest, so the vigorous tangle of evidence and counter-argument sometimes leaves the reader a little confused.

That seeming weakness is best considered part of the book’s big message: forests and trees may be simply marvellous, but they are never simple. There is good evidence that trees cool the planet, and manage their own airflow, but not so good that it is not disputed.

There is convincing evidence that trees emit volatile organic compounds that help the rain-making process but also extend the life of that potent atmospheric greenhouse gas, methane: convincing enough to permit at least one scientist to argue, seriously, that forests might not cool the world after all, even as they absorb that other greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

And along the way Pearce and his articulate arboreal experts deliver other challenges to the orthodoxies of popular ecology. Big money and unthinking greed help in the destruction of forests everywhere, but the richer the nation, the more likely it is to be extending its own canopy. Between 1990 and 2015, high-income countries on average increased forest cover by 1.3%. Low to middle-income countries however lost 0.3%, while the poorest of all bade farewell to 0.7%.

It would be nice to think that “levelling-up” would play its role in slowing climate change. But, of course, the rich nations are exporting deforestation in the service of trade. The poor world’s forests are being felled and land cleared for our beef and cattle fodder, our coffee, our chocolate.

Second thoughts

In the course of this absorbing book, Pearce undertakes some enthusiastic root-and-branch re-examination of other arboreal orthodoxies. North America was not once covered by “endless pristine forest”. For millennia, forests have been managed by indigenous peoples; the same is true for African and South American jungles.

Plantation − commercial or otherwise − may not be a good way to restore global canopy. Systematic, government-endorsed “greening projects” may not be the best solution to either carbon absorption or biodiversity restoration. It might be better to leave nature to do what nature does best: the results of “wilding” what was once degraded or deserted land can be remarkable.

Agroforestry, − partnering of trees and crops − on the other hand, also has a lot going for it. Unexpectedly, the seeming connection between land degradation and over-population isn’t really there. In the words of one research paper, “population density is positively correlated with the volume of planted woody biomass.”

And on the evidence so far, centralised policy and government initiatives might be less effective than indigenous or local guardianship. Where communities do have genuine control of their own woodlands, community management of the world’s forests “works staggeringly well.”

There is a case for people power after all. Pearce writes: “If, as I believe, natural regrowth has to be the basis for the renaissance of the world’s trees, then the custodians of that process must be the people who live in, among, and from them … They know them best and need them most.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

A Trillion Trees: How We Can Reforest Our World, by Fred Pearce: Granta, £20, ISBN: 9781783786916

Trees are vital for solving the climate crisis. But there’s nothing simple about the forested world, as forest people know.

LONDON, 23 August, 2021 − Here’s something you perhaps didn’t know (but you can be sure forest people did). Rainforests make their own rain. Just how much rain they make is a revelation. The process starts with evaporated ocean, which condenses over coastal forest: thereafter, the trees get to work.

The initial deposit of rain will be transpired through the foliage, back into the air to be caught in a pattern of winds that might even be helped by the trees themselves: the same water will fall again across the forest five or six times before journey’s end.

The scale of this natural corporate utility service is colossal: one pilot followed the Amazon’s own flying river from Belém near the Atlantic coast across to the Andes, where the airstream and clouds of vapour turned south to reach the coast again at São Paulo, at the same time transporting 3,200 cubic metres of water a second.

There’s no case for doubt. One of the plane’s passengers collected air samples along the way: once inland, the water vapour had the molecular signature associated with vegetation rather than freshly evaporated seawater.

And somehow the forest actually adds to the delivery: at one place near the ocean, the fall is 215 cms a year; at the heart of Amazonas it is somehow 245 cms a year.

Trees as rainmakers

The phenomenon that is the flying river is not unique to the Amazon. Others cross North America, the Congo rainforest, the Sahel and Ethiopia. The world’s most mighty high-altitude aquifer runs for 6000 kms west-to-east across the Eurasian landmass, taking six months, at the end of which four-fifths of the rain in northern China has been generated by the great boreal forest that begins in Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Trees make the rain. Arid places may be treeless not because they are arid; they could be arid because someone cleared the foliage.

A Trillion Trees: How We Can Reforest Our World, by Fred Pearce, (Granta, £20) is a reporter’s book. Pearce has been reporting the science and impacts of the environment for the New Scientist and other journals for four decades or more.

He doesn’t just deliver the big picture: he illuminates the detail. He goes to forests and the desolate landscapes where forests had once flourished. He meets scientists, activists, campaigners, government officials, loggers, farmers, businessmen, politicians and where possible the indigenous peoples of the forest.

He isn’t just there for the rainforest: he knows the American landscape, the great forests of the north, the plantations of Israel, the woodlands of Europe and the mangroves of the African shore, and he introduces the people to whom these places matter.

“If natural regrowth has to be the basis for the renaissance of the world’s trees, then the custodians of that process must be the people who live in them”

This is the book’s strength, and occasionally its weakness: just as the dense understory slows the trek through the great forest, so the vigorous tangle of evidence and counter-argument sometimes leaves the reader a little confused.

That seeming weakness is best considered part of the book’s big message: forests and trees may be simply marvellous, but they are never simple. There is good evidence that trees cool the planet, and manage their own airflow, but not so good that it is not disputed.

There is convincing evidence that trees emit volatile organic compounds that help the rain-making process but also extend the life of that potent atmospheric greenhouse gas, methane: convincing enough to permit at least one scientist to argue, seriously, that forests might not cool the world after all, even as they absorb that other greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

And along the way Pearce and his articulate arboreal experts deliver other challenges to the orthodoxies of popular ecology. Big money and unthinking greed help in the destruction of forests everywhere, but the richer the nation, the more likely it is to be extending its own canopy. Between 1990 and 2015, high-income countries on average increased forest cover by 1.3%. Low to middle-income countries however lost 0.3%, while the poorest of all bade farewell to 0.7%.

It would be nice to think that “levelling-up” would play its role in slowing climate change. But, of course, the rich nations are exporting deforestation in the service of trade. The poor world’s forests are being felled and land cleared for our beef and cattle fodder, our coffee, our chocolate.

Second thoughts

In the course of this absorbing book, Pearce undertakes some enthusiastic root-and-branch re-examination of other arboreal orthodoxies. North America was not once covered by “endless pristine forest”. For millennia, forests have been managed by indigenous peoples; the same is true for African and South American jungles.

Plantation − commercial or otherwise − may not be a good way to restore global canopy. Systematic, government-endorsed “greening projects” may not be the best solution to either carbon absorption or biodiversity restoration. It might be better to leave nature to do what nature does best: the results of “wilding” what was once degraded or deserted land can be remarkable.

Agroforestry, − partnering of trees and crops − on the other hand, also has a lot going for it. Unexpectedly, the seeming connection between land degradation and over-population isn’t really there. In the words of one research paper, “population density is positively correlated with the volume of planted woody biomass.”

And on the evidence so far, centralised policy and government initiatives might be less effective than indigenous or local guardianship. Where communities do have genuine control of their own woodlands, community management of the world’s forests “works staggeringly well.”

There is a case for people power after all. Pearce writes: “If, as I believe, natural regrowth has to be the basis for the renaissance of the world’s trees, then the custodians of that process must be the people who live in, among, and from them … They know them best and need them most.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

A Trillion Trees: How We Can Reforest Our World, by Fred Pearce: Granta, £20, ISBN: 9781783786916

Musings on a threatened world: the path to hope

To acknowledge the realities of the climate crisis is the path to hope, towards finding a way to overcome them.

DUBLIN, 26 May, 2021 − Several decades ago Michael Viney packed in his job as a newspaperman in Dublin and moved out to an isolated cottage on Ireland’s west coast to indulge his passion for nature and the environment.

From there, for the past 45 years, he has regaled readers of the Irish Times with a weekly column full of lyrical observations on nature and life on the Atlantic shore.

There is talk of insects demolishing cow pats, of coconuts swept in by the tide from far away places, of the simple pleasures of digging.

“A handful of my garden soil has a cool, silky feel,” he writes.

In his contribution to Empty House, an anthology of Irish and international  writing on the climate crisis by various writers and poets, Viney adopts a more ominous tone. Climate change, he says, is the new and disconcerting background to our lives.

“It’s no longer so hard to think it possible that the great human experiment will doom itself to extinction, leaving a mangled planet to lick its wounds.”

Empty House has a lot of anxiety within its pages – little wonder, considering the dire environmental state the Earth is in.

Alice Kinsella, one of the book’s editors, points out that the eco in ecosystem and ecology comes from the ancient Greek οἶκος (oikos), meaning the house, family, household or home.

Eco-anxiety, she says, is the fear of losing our home. A poem by Catherine Phil MacCarthy imagines Earth as a house:

Could it be sometime
we are not there,
gone without trace,
planet earth, an empty house.

There is fear of what the future holds – and humour. Michael Whelan describes a flooded Dublin:

The year could be 2098 but no one there will know it
as the last polar bear surfs down O’Connell Street
on the flotsam of a rushing tide, balancing on the curved
upturned roof of a long-rusted tour bus…

There is talk of the joys of simple things. Arnold Fanning walks to quell his worries:

Walking lessens the grip anxiety has on me, step by step, and in walking I can breathe deeply again, more easily, appreciate life more, even as I absorb nature around me, feel the healthy functions of my body, and so walk on, less burdened, less afflicted, more bountiful.

For Orla ní Dhúill, gardening is the great salvation:

My mother says when her hands are inside the soil
that is how she goes to church.
It took me two decades to really understand.
It took me finding my own piece of land,
five square feet of neglected backyard, but it was mine.

There is an acute awareness of how the world around us is changing, of how nature shows signs of shutting down. John Sexton talks of the loss of bees, the planet’s pollinators:

On the sills the bees are dying. Bumbles
fuzzing in their humming. Their furred knitwear
losing lustre; their breathing visible,
their wings crisply stopped. The dustpan will share
them to the hedged garden…

This is a brave book: the climate crisis is not an easy subject for either poetry or prose. Readers do not want too much gloom. Many look instead for possible pointers towards the path to hope.

As Alice Kinsella says in her introduction, it isn’t pessimism to acknowledge the peril we now face, to know that action on a global scale is our only hope.

“To engage with the realities is to be optimistic. Because it’s only by acknowledging the very real threats that we have any hope of preventing them.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Empty House: Poetry and Prose on the Climate Crisis. Doíre Press, €15/£12 Eds. Alice Kinsella & Nessa O’Mahony

To acknowledge the realities of the climate crisis is the path to hope, towards finding a way to overcome them.

DUBLIN, 26 May, 2021 − Several decades ago Michael Viney packed in his job as a newspaperman in Dublin and moved out to an isolated cottage on Ireland’s west coast to indulge his passion for nature and the environment.

From there, for the past 45 years, he has regaled readers of the Irish Times with a weekly column full of lyrical observations on nature and life on the Atlantic shore.

There is talk of insects demolishing cow pats, of coconuts swept in by the tide from far away places, of the simple pleasures of digging.

“A handful of my garden soil has a cool, silky feel,” he writes.

In his contribution to Empty House, an anthology of Irish and international  writing on the climate crisis by various writers and poets, Viney adopts a more ominous tone. Climate change, he says, is the new and disconcerting background to our lives.

“It’s no longer so hard to think it possible that the great human experiment will doom itself to extinction, leaving a mangled planet to lick its wounds.”

Empty House has a lot of anxiety within its pages – little wonder, considering the dire environmental state the Earth is in.

Alice Kinsella, one of the book’s editors, points out that the eco in ecosystem and ecology comes from the ancient Greek οἶκος (oikos), meaning the house, family, household or home.

Eco-anxiety, she says, is the fear of losing our home. A poem by Catherine Phil MacCarthy imagines Earth as a house:

Could it be sometime
we are not there,
gone without trace,
planet earth, an empty house.

There is fear of what the future holds – and humour. Michael Whelan describes a flooded Dublin:

The year could be 2098 but no one there will know it
as the last polar bear surfs down O’Connell Street
on the flotsam of a rushing tide, balancing on the curved
upturned roof of a long-rusted tour bus…

There is talk of the joys of simple things. Arnold Fanning walks to quell his worries:

Walking lessens the grip anxiety has on me, step by step, and in walking I can breathe deeply again, more easily, appreciate life more, even as I absorb nature around me, feel the healthy functions of my body, and so walk on, less burdened, less afflicted, more bountiful.

For Orla ní Dhúill, gardening is the great salvation:

My mother says when her hands are inside the soil
that is how she goes to church.
It took me two decades to really understand.
It took me finding my own piece of land,
five square feet of neglected backyard, but it was mine.

There is an acute awareness of how the world around us is changing, of how nature shows signs of shutting down. John Sexton talks of the loss of bees, the planet’s pollinators:

On the sills the bees are dying. Bumbles
fuzzing in their humming. Their furred knitwear
losing lustre; their breathing visible,
their wings crisply stopped. The dustpan will share
them to the hedged garden…

This is a brave book: the climate crisis is not an easy subject for either poetry or prose. Readers do not want too much gloom. Many look instead for possible pointers towards the path to hope.

As Alice Kinsella says in her introduction, it isn’t pessimism to acknowledge the peril we now face, to know that action on a global scale is our only hope.

“To engage with the realities is to be optimistic. Because it’s only by acknowledging the very real threats that we have any hope of preventing them.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Empty House: Poetry and Prose on the Climate Crisis. Doíre Press, €15/£12 Eds. Alice Kinsella & Nessa O’Mahony

Big Oil’s malign influence is waning at last

It has enriched us, even dictated our politics, but now we know Big Oil’s malign influence we want no more of this black gold.

LONDON, 12 May, 2021 − Despite the hold that oil has had on our lives for the last century through cars, chemicals, plastics, pesticides and almost every facet of daily life, including keeping millions of people in employment, it is something few of us ever think about. Big Oil’s malign influence has left us unaware.

But oil has a remarkable story to tell: its rise, its ascendancy in all our lives, and now, if civilisation is to survive, its fall. These phases are all described in a new book, Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation.

Although the book is specifically about oil’s role in shaping the United Kingdom, it is also concerned with the way oil changes the politics and national economies of the rest of the world.

This is because, more than with any other industry, the scramble to own and distribute oil is a multi-national business controlled by some of the world’s biggest and most powerful companies, which have frequently influenced the destiny of nations.

The authors, James Marriott, a writer who has been studying the industry for 35 years and Terry Macalister, former energy editor of the Guardian, detail just how pervasive oil is in our lives. They visit towns that were once thriving hubs of industry, places of full employment which are now hollowed-out relics.

“ . . . they are hidden and largely closed to scrutiny, except by their own public presentations. They are privately owned, often by individuals tax-domiciled abroad . . . ”

More illuminating though is their series of interviews with former and current oil executives, speculators, politicians and civil servants. Some of them have been all of those things at different times in their lives.

They have managed this because, as the book demonstrates, there has always been a revolving door between governments and the oil industry that allows powerful individuals to shape policy and wield undue influence.

The history of the industry and its effect on our lives is fascinating. We are reminded that it is the reason for the existence of many products we use and benefit from daily. Then there is the downside: the wars fought over oil, the way that the industry has used its influence to protect its position and its profits, undermining democracy and ruining many thousands of lives.

Perhaps, for those involved in the battle over climate change who want to see the back of Big Oil, it is the last part of the book that is most illuminating. It describes how the multi-nationals BP and Shell have striven to brush up and green their image.

This is partly because of pressure from shareholders and environment groups, but also because the companies themselves realise that the game will soon be up for fossil fuels and they will need to invest elsewhere.

An era ends?

Although the book explains that it may be a case of too little, too late for both the planet and the companies, Shell and BP are currently reducing their exploration in sensitive and expensive areas and selling oil assets to hedge funds and shadowy offshore companies. At the same time, they are beginning to invest heavily in renewables.

This diversification may help some oil majors survive, but according to the authors the new oil barons who buy their assets face none of the pressures that steer the companies to go green. The barons’ sole aim is to squeeze every drop of oil and dollar they can from the industry as it gradually winds down.

This change signifies a new kind of institution in the industry. It has scant need of journalists, unlike the traditional corporations which used the media to build a positive profile as they lobbied ministers, largely behind the scenes.

“Instead they are hidden and largely closed to scrutiny, except by their own public presentations. They are privately owned, often by individuals tax-domiciled abroad,” the authors say.

In a final chapter, entitled rather hopefully Heading for Extinction, the book concludes that the era of oil is over, or at least rapidly fading. It charts the rise of Extinction Rebellion, the school strikes, and the growing awareness of the danger the human race is in. It is an optimistic end to a fascinating and detailed account of how we have all let oil dominate our lives. − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation. Pluto Press, hardback £20.00:  to be published on 20 May, 2021. By James Marriott & Terry Macalister

It has enriched us, even dictated our politics, but now we know Big Oil’s malign influence we want no more of this black gold.

LONDON, 12 May, 2021 − Despite the hold that oil has had on our lives for the last century through cars, chemicals, plastics, pesticides and almost every facet of daily life, including keeping millions of people in employment, it is something few of us ever think about. Big Oil’s malign influence has left us unaware.

But oil has a remarkable story to tell: its rise, its ascendancy in all our lives, and now, if civilisation is to survive, its fall. These phases are all described in a new book, Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation.

Although the book is specifically about oil’s role in shaping the United Kingdom, it is also concerned with the way oil changes the politics and national economies of the rest of the world.

This is because, more than with any other industry, the scramble to own and distribute oil is a multi-national business controlled by some of the world’s biggest and most powerful companies, which have frequently influenced the destiny of nations.

The authors, James Marriott, a writer who has been studying the industry for 35 years and Terry Macalister, former energy editor of the Guardian, detail just how pervasive oil is in our lives. They visit towns that were once thriving hubs of industry, places of full employment which are now hollowed-out relics.

“ . . . they are hidden and largely closed to scrutiny, except by their own public presentations. They are privately owned, often by individuals tax-domiciled abroad . . . ”

More illuminating though is their series of interviews with former and current oil executives, speculators, politicians and civil servants. Some of them have been all of those things at different times in their lives.

They have managed this because, as the book demonstrates, there has always been a revolving door between governments and the oil industry that allows powerful individuals to shape policy and wield undue influence.

The history of the industry and its effect on our lives is fascinating. We are reminded that it is the reason for the existence of many products we use and benefit from daily. Then there is the downside: the wars fought over oil, the way that the industry has used its influence to protect its position and its profits, undermining democracy and ruining many thousands of lives.

Perhaps, for those involved in the battle over climate change who want to see the back of Big Oil, it is the last part of the book that is most illuminating. It describes how the multi-nationals BP and Shell have striven to brush up and green their image.

This is partly because of pressure from shareholders and environment groups, but also because the companies themselves realise that the game will soon be up for fossil fuels and they will need to invest elsewhere.

An era ends?

Although the book explains that it may be a case of too little, too late for both the planet and the companies, Shell and BP are currently reducing their exploration in sensitive and expensive areas and selling oil assets to hedge funds and shadowy offshore companies. At the same time, they are beginning to invest heavily in renewables.

This diversification may help some oil majors survive, but according to the authors the new oil barons who buy their assets face none of the pressures that steer the companies to go green. The barons’ sole aim is to squeeze every drop of oil and dollar they can from the industry as it gradually winds down.

This change signifies a new kind of institution in the industry. It has scant need of journalists, unlike the traditional corporations which used the media to build a positive profile as they lobbied ministers, largely behind the scenes.

“Instead they are hidden and largely closed to scrutiny, except by their own public presentations. They are privately owned, often by individuals tax-domiciled abroad,” the authors say.

In a final chapter, entitled rather hopefully Heading for Extinction, the book concludes that the era of oil is over, or at least rapidly fading. It charts the rise of Extinction Rebellion, the school strikes, and the growing awareness of the danger the human race is in. It is an optimistic end to a fascinating and detailed account of how we have all let oil dominate our lives. − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation. Pluto Press, hardback £20.00:  to be published on 20 May, 2021. By James Marriott & Terry Macalister

Bill Gates: A stark and simple message for the world

His new book affirms what climate scientists have been saying for decades. But Bill Gates says it well, all the same.

LONDON, 15 February, 2021 − Bill Gates − yes, that Bill Gates − has for years been financing studies in geo-engineering: he calls it a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” kind of tool.

But he also says, in a new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, that he has put much more money into the challenge of adapting to and mitigating climate change driven by global heating powered by greenhouse emissions that are a consequence of our dependence on fossil fuels.

The founder of Microsoft, now a philanthropist, says all geo-engineering approaches − to dim the sunlight, perhaps, or make clouds brighter − turn out to be relatively cheap compared with the scale of the problems ahead for the world. All the effects are relatively short-lived, so there might be no long-term impacts.

But the third thing they have in common is that the technical challenges to implementing them would be as nothing compared with the political hurdles such ambitions must face.

Not for dummies

There are some very encouraging things about this disarming book, and one of them is that on every page it addresses the messy uncertainties of the real world, rather than an ideal set of solutions.

People who have already thought a lot about the hazards and complexities of global temperature rise might be tempted to dismiss it as Climate Change for Dummies. They’d be wrong.

First, Gates addresses a global audience that includes (for instance) US Republican voters, fewer than one in four of whom understand that climate change is a consequence of what humans have done.

Then Gates write as an engineer. He starts from the basics and arrives swiftly and by the shortest route at a series of firm conclusions: sophisticated, but still outlined with considerable clarity and a happy trick of pinning big answers to down-to-earth analogies.

“There are two numbers you need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion. The second is zero”

Crude oil, he calculates, “is cheaper than a soft drink”. By mid-century “climate change could be just as deadly as Covid-19, and by 2100 it could be five times as deadly”.

And population growth creates prodigious demands: by 2060, the world’s building stock will double. “That’s like putting up another New York City every month for 40 years.”

I call it a disarming book: yes, he concedes that the world is not lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do; yes, he flew a private plane to the Paris Conference in 2015. He doesn’t deny being a rich guy with an opinion and an “absurdly high” carbon footprint. But he believes it is an informed opinion, and he’s always trying to learn more.

And then he gets on with clarifying the big challenges. Yes, there’s no choice: the world has to get to zero-carbon. It’s going to be difficult to achieve the technologies, the political will, the international consensus. Humans have to accomplish something gigantic, much faster than anything ever done before.

Simple message

He turns to the details: the questions that need to be addressed; the separate problems of electrical energy, of manufacture, of diet and agriculture, of transport, of adaptation; government policy, citizen choice and so on.

He touches on biofuels, nuclear power (“this might sound self-serving, given that I own an advanced nuclear company”), global development, global health, international co-operation and individual choices, all with the same brisk clarity. There already exists a huge literature of climate change: this is a useful addition.

That may be because he keeps the message simple from the start. Right now humans add 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere every year. To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we have to emit none.

“There are two numbers you need to know about climate change,” he writes in his opening sentences. “The first is 51 billion. The second is zero.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need: Allen Lane, £20. By Bill Gates

His new book affirms what climate scientists have been saying for decades. But Bill Gates says it well, all the same.

LONDON, 15 February, 2021 − Bill Gates − yes, that Bill Gates − has for years been financing studies in geo-engineering: he calls it a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” kind of tool.

But he also says, in a new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, that he has put much more money into the challenge of adapting to and mitigating climate change driven by global heating powered by greenhouse emissions that are a consequence of our dependence on fossil fuels.

The founder of Microsoft, now a philanthropist, says all geo-engineering approaches − to dim the sunlight, perhaps, or make clouds brighter − turn out to be relatively cheap compared with the scale of the problems ahead for the world. All the effects are relatively short-lived, so there might be no long-term impacts.

But the third thing they have in common is that the technical challenges to implementing them would be as nothing compared with the political hurdles such ambitions must face.

Not for dummies

There are some very encouraging things about this disarming book, and one of them is that on every page it addresses the messy uncertainties of the real world, rather than an ideal set of solutions.

People who have already thought a lot about the hazards and complexities of global temperature rise might be tempted to dismiss it as Climate Change for Dummies. They’d be wrong.

First, Gates addresses a global audience that includes (for instance) US Republican voters, fewer than one in four of whom understand that climate change is a consequence of what humans have done.

Then Gates write as an engineer. He starts from the basics and arrives swiftly and by the shortest route at a series of firm conclusions: sophisticated, but still outlined with considerable clarity and a happy trick of pinning big answers to down-to-earth analogies.

“There are two numbers you need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion. The second is zero”

Crude oil, he calculates, “is cheaper than a soft drink”. By mid-century “climate change could be just as deadly as Covid-19, and by 2100 it could be five times as deadly”.

And population growth creates prodigious demands: by 2060, the world’s building stock will double. “That’s like putting up another New York City every month for 40 years.”

I call it a disarming book: yes, he concedes that the world is not lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do; yes, he flew a private plane to the Paris Conference in 2015. He doesn’t deny being a rich guy with an opinion and an “absurdly high” carbon footprint. But he believes it is an informed opinion, and he’s always trying to learn more.

And then he gets on with clarifying the big challenges. Yes, there’s no choice: the world has to get to zero-carbon. It’s going to be difficult to achieve the technologies, the political will, the international consensus. Humans have to accomplish something gigantic, much faster than anything ever done before.

Simple message

He turns to the details: the questions that need to be addressed; the separate problems of electrical energy, of manufacture, of diet and agriculture, of transport, of adaptation; government policy, citizen choice and so on.

He touches on biofuels, nuclear power (“this might sound self-serving, given that I own an advanced nuclear company”), global development, global health, international co-operation and individual choices, all with the same brisk clarity. There already exists a huge literature of climate change: this is a useful addition.

That may be because he keeps the message simple from the start. Right now humans add 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere every year. To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we have to emit none.

“There are two numbers you need to know about climate change,” he writes in his opening sentences. “The first is 51 billion. The second is zero.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need: Allen Lane, £20. By Bill Gates

Geo-engineering: It’s probably not a good idea

BOOK REVIEW

Skyseed: geo-engineering the planet might be humankind’s last desperate throw, says a tale by a geophysical hazard expert.

LONDON, 30 October, 2020 − There were always three objections to the technofix answer to climate change: that geo-engineeering wouldn’t work, that it would deliver unintended consequences that would be unpredictably distributed, and a third, rarely mentioned: that it might work all too well.

In Bill McGuire’s unexpected eco-thriller Skyseed: Hacking the Earth might be the last thing we ever do it works desperately well. Unexpected is a carefully chosen word: it’s no surprise that scientists can be good writers − I’ve argued elsewhere that they can be better writers than most writers − but the leap from factual analysis to lurid fable is a challenge.

Skyseed has what good thrillers always need, as well as geo-engineering: a world to save, characters with a bit of go in them, some plausible villains, fast-paced action, sustained tension, a big moment of reckoning and (let us be honest) as little preaching as possible.

The story is a simple one of global eco-collapse. Volcanoes are involved, and extreme weather, and ice, but not the outcome that McGuire (a volcanologist who for many years headed research into natural hazards) has spent a working lifetime warning about.

In this book, instead of taking the obvious route and abandoning fossil fuels as an energy source, a bullying, dishonest and unthinking American president, dependent on what is now called “dark money”, with help from a fawning British prime minister sorely in need of a trade deal, decides to contain global heating in a different way.

“The precise manner in this book in which civilisation perishes as a consequence of climate change is fortunately so far implausible”

The duo authorise a dangerous experiment in geo-engineering, under the cover of some so-called rain-making experiments during high-altitude military flights. That’s mistake one.

Mistake two is that they do it secretly. And they seem to think that a small army of global climate scientists − people whose career is based on sampling the stratospheric atmosphere and matching its chemistry with global temperature levels − won’t notice. And that if they do, these academic busybodies can be rubbed out without anyone else asking awkward questions.

Of course, things go wrong: horribly wrong, and it doesn’t take long for a trio of all-too human scientists, working separately and together, to tumble to the truth. As soon as they start to do so, sinister forces try to contain the secret. Our heroes survive, thanks to fortune, subterfuge and some help with the weather, and come back with the truth: don’t mess with geo-engineering.

In the course of this entertainment, the informed reader could play the game of spot-the-science: quite a lot, actually, but trailed racily and with just enough explanation to keep the story at stampede speed − advanced nano-engineering, upper atmosphere chemistry, volcanic discharges, the interplay of climate change on geological hazard, the advance of an ice front, and so on. You could both enjoy the story and learn a little more about how the planet works.

Not escapist

McGuire poses no great threat to the reputations of Len Deighton, Leslie Charteris and Ian Fleming, but who cares? Their heroes always survived, to begin a new adventure in each successive volume.

In Skyseed, whoever makes it to the last page doesn’t expect to survive for much longer, and − non-spoiler alert − McGuire cheerfully breaks that bit of bad news to the reader in the prologue. You know this one is going to end badly, before it even begins.

A declaration of interest: I know McGuire, professionally, and have done for many years. Another declaration: I can think of less readable books, by vastly better-known popular authors. And a third: the precise manner in this book in which civilisation perishes as a consequence of climate change is fortunately so far implausible.

That civilisation is threatened, and all too plausibly, by the inexorable increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, unhappily is not. You could call this book a thriller. You could not call it escapist. − Climate News Network

Skyseed: The Book Guild, £8.99. By Bill McGuire

BOOK REVIEW

Skyseed: geo-engineering the planet might be humankind’s last desperate throw, says a tale by a geophysical hazard expert.

LONDON, 30 October, 2020 − There were always three objections to the technofix answer to climate change: that geo-engineeering wouldn’t work, that it would deliver unintended consequences that would be unpredictably distributed, and a third, rarely mentioned: that it might work all too well.

In Bill McGuire’s unexpected eco-thriller Skyseed: Hacking the Earth might be the last thing we ever do it works desperately well. Unexpected is a carefully chosen word: it’s no surprise that scientists can be good writers − I’ve argued elsewhere that they can be better writers than most writers − but the leap from factual analysis to lurid fable is a challenge.

Skyseed has what good thrillers always need, as well as geo-engineering: a world to save, characters with a bit of go in them, some plausible villains, fast-paced action, sustained tension, a big moment of reckoning and (let us be honest) as little preaching as possible.

The story is a simple one of global eco-collapse. Volcanoes are involved, and extreme weather, and ice, but not the outcome that McGuire (a volcanologist who for many years headed research into natural hazards) has spent a working lifetime warning about.

In this book, instead of taking the obvious route and abandoning fossil fuels as an energy source, a bullying, dishonest and unthinking American president, dependent on what is now called “dark money”, with help from a fawning British prime minister sorely in need of a trade deal, decides to contain global heating in a different way.

“The precise manner in this book in which civilisation perishes as a consequence of climate change is fortunately so far implausible”

The duo authorise a dangerous experiment in geo-engineering, under the cover of some so-called rain-making experiments during high-altitude military flights. That’s mistake one.

Mistake two is that they do it secretly. And they seem to think that a small army of global climate scientists − people whose career is based on sampling the stratospheric atmosphere and matching its chemistry with global temperature levels − won’t notice. And that if they do, these academic busybodies can be rubbed out without anyone else asking awkward questions.

Of course, things go wrong: horribly wrong, and it doesn’t take long for a trio of all-too human scientists, working separately and together, to tumble to the truth. As soon as they start to do so, sinister forces try to contain the secret. Our heroes survive, thanks to fortune, subterfuge and some help with the weather, and come back with the truth: don’t mess with geo-engineering.

In the course of this entertainment, the informed reader could play the game of spot-the-science: quite a lot, actually, but trailed racily and with just enough explanation to keep the story at stampede speed − advanced nano-engineering, upper atmosphere chemistry, volcanic discharges, the interplay of climate change on geological hazard, the advance of an ice front, and so on. You could both enjoy the story and learn a little more about how the planet works.

Not escapist

McGuire poses no great threat to the reputations of Len Deighton, Leslie Charteris and Ian Fleming, but who cares? Their heroes always survived, to begin a new adventure in each successive volume.

In Skyseed, whoever makes it to the last page doesn’t expect to survive for much longer, and − non-spoiler alert − McGuire cheerfully breaks that bit of bad news to the reader in the prologue. You know this one is going to end badly, before it even begins.

A declaration of interest: I know McGuire, professionally, and have done for many years. Another declaration: I can think of less readable books, by vastly better-known popular authors. And a third: the precise manner in this book in which civilisation perishes as a consequence of climate change is fortunately so far implausible.

That civilisation is threatened, and all too plausibly, by the inexorable increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, unhappily is not. You could call this book a thriller. You could not call it escapist. − Climate News Network

Skyseed: The Book Guild, £8.99. By Bill McGuire