Optimistic writing

Science fiction is usually set in the future.   It’s true that quite often it is only nominally the future -much science fiction is set in worlds that are no more plausible as a depiction of a real future than, say, Arthurian romances are plausible as depictions of a real past-  but even so, one of the functions that SF performs is providing an imaginative way of thinking about where we may be headed.

An SF writer must primarily be a story-teller, though.  There has to be tension and jeopardy in the imagined world, in order to generate a story.  Fictional utopias, worlds where all humanity’s problems have been solved, are notoriously screamingly dull.  (Which sometimes makes me wonder if we would really even want to live in a utopian society, or whether, like David Bowie’s Saviour Machine, we’d feel compelled to destroy it in order to get away from the tedium of it all?)  It’s much easier to set an interesting story in a dystopia, or at least in a world which is at least as flawed as the present, and I’m not sure its even possible to set an interesting novel in a utopia unless the utopian society is placed under some kind of external threat ( as in Huxley’s Island, or Le Guin’s The Dispossessed).

I mention all this because I like to read about positive developments that might improve things in the future, and as someone who writes about the future (and worries about it, as we all do), I always feel that I’d like to disseminate what I read, but in fact it is very hard to do so through the medium of SF.  I think maybe I just need to accept that non-fiction is a better medium for writing about such things.

the switch cover

The Switch (by Chris Goodall) is a very readable book about the hopeful possibilities arising from the fact that solar power is becoming cheaper year on year, to the point where it will soon be a much more cost-effective source of energy than fossil fuels.  Early solar panels cost many thousands of dollars per watt of power,but ‘by the mid 1970s the figure had fallen to $100 a watt.  Now the cost is about 50 cents and the decline still continues’ and ‘in the sunnier parts of the world, photovoltaics already offer electricity at lower total cost than other forms of power’.  Even in more northerly countries, PV [photovoltaics] is dramatically reducing in cost: ‘In Britain the dramatic fall in the price of solar panels has already pushed PV almost to cost parity with planned gas-fired power stations’.  And ‘because PV is so utterly reliable and almost maintenance-free, it is a perfect investment for pension funds seeking consistent yearly returns for the thirty-five years of a panel’s life.’

But there’s an obvious problem with PV which is that sunlight isn’t constant and can’t be turned on and off to meet demand.   Actually no other source of power can be turned on and off at will like that without at least some cost, but clearly PV doesn’t work at all in the night,  generates power in the middle of the day whether it is needed or not, and generates less power when the sky clouds over, even if more is actually needed during those times.  Most of the book is therefore about developments around the world aimed at addressing this problem, which the author sees as eminently surmountable.

There are a number of layers to this.  One is to manage demand more effectively.   There are already schemes whereby companies are paid to enter into an agreement to cut energy use at short notice when there is a spike in demand, which can often be done without affecting productivity.  For example, a papermill produces pulp and stores it, and then turns the pulp into paper.  Provided there is a sufficient store of pulp, pulp-making can be paused at any point, without reducing the overall output of the mill.  In the same way domestic fridges and freezers can be turned off for short periods without ill-effect and chargers for electric vehicles can be set to stop charging at periods of peak demand, and resume charging at periods of lower demand.

Another way is to store the energy.  Pumped storage – that is: using surplus power to pump water uphill, and then allowing that water to flow down through a turbine to generate power at times of energy shortage- has been the main means of doing this on a large scale, but there are a limited number of suitable sites for this.   There are also new solar powerstations being built which, instead of using PV, concentrate solar energy to generate heat that can be used to power turbines even when the sun is down (Morocco has made a big commitment to this approach and is currently developing the largest such scheme in the world).  Increasingly though, large-scale storage in batteries is becoming an option, because batteries are reducing in cost year on year, much like PV, albeit not quite so quickly.   In countries where there is steady sun throughout the year, this book suggests, a combination of PV and banks of batteries may on their own be able to provide sufficient power for household use.

However in countries with long, relatively dark winters, batteries will not be sufficient.  The later chapters of this book explore emergent technologies, not yet as far advanced as PV or batteries, which can use surplus power to synthesise  fuels, by extracting hydrogen from water and combining it with carbon dioxide to make methane or ethanol.  One of the attractive things about this approach is that there is an existing infrastructure of storage tanks and pipelines which are currently used for fossil fuels, as well as gas powerstations that could equally well run on synthesised fuel.   The book describes a range of different approaches being taken around the world towards mimicking what plants do naturally, using sunlight to make fuel, and doing so on a commercial scale.

I couldn’t make a novel out of all this -perhaps some people could, but I couldn’t- and yet it is a fascinating story.  I guess the truth is that the really creative people here are not story-tellers who imagine worlds, but the scientists, engineers,  entrepreneurs and politicians, who actually make things happen in the real world that we all inhabit.  I know that a lot of people would argue that the rate of change towards these new technologies is still far too slow to tackle climate change, but that’s a question about political will.   The political choice to shift away from fossil fuels is only even theoretically possible if viable alternatives are available.  The encouraging story this book tells is that they are, and getting more viable all the time.  The other encouraging point -and I’m simply not qualified to judge how realistic it is- is that a time is arriving where market forces themselves, regardless of politics, will pull us in the direction of solar power and power storage, and away from fossil fuels.

A climate of hope

Nick Brooks drew my attention to this article about the three way relationship between science, art and imagination when it comes to our response to climate change.  My thought, as someone who plans to write a novel about climate change (I have written a few short stories about it, including Rat Island, which you can read here) is that the difficult three-way link to pull off is between (a) depicting just how bad the future could be if climate change takes hold (b) nevertheless encouraging hope rather than resignation (a lot of people are simply resigned to climate change, much as they are resigned to their own deaths) (c) managing to do both these while actually being an engaging story.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve actually heard quite a few things that have made me feel encouraged about the possibilities for the future.   The Swansea tidal barrage has moved a step nearer being a reality (harnessing a moon-powered energy source that that has the potential to generate a good deal of the world’s electricity).   A new kind of aluminium battery, durable and capable of being charged very quickly, has been developed (electricity needs to be more storable and more portable if we are going to move away from fossil fuels for power generation and transport).  A new way has been developed of producing hydrogen in a carbon-neutral way from plant waste (hydrogen being another potential clean and portable power source).

It’s very easy to pick holes in these kinds of developments as solutions to our problems.  They can be dismissed as tokenistic or impractical gestures in the face of the scale of the task to be accomplished, and of course many of them will prove to be blind alleys, like steam cars or digital music cassettes.  But blind alleys are inevitable in any dynamic evolutionary process.  It seems to me that what we have in front of us are the early prototypes of technologies that, when developed and linked up together, could take us into a post-carbon economy.  Are the technical challenges really so much greater than those involved in developing the modern car from its primitive forebears, or the modern airliner from the Wright brothers’ ramshackle flying machine?

Stanley Steamer
Stanley steam-powered racing car 1903. Public domain image.

I’ve no idea how to make these hopeful developments into interesting fiction, or how to combine them with dire warnings about what will happen if we don’t puruse them, so I’ll just lay them out right here.

I guess technology and fiction just don’t necessarily mix.   There’s plenty of fiction about space travel, because it can be used to create extreme and exciting scenarios, but how much interesting fiction has been written about communication satellites, the one application of space technology which most of us actually use?

Where are the aliens?

I enjoyed this article by David Brin.  It seems to me to exemplify the way the science fictional imagination works, connecting together, in a single speculative sweep, ideas that come from astronomy, mathematics, biology, history, politics and economics.

Beginning with the Fermi Paradox (that is: if we are not alone in the universe, how come we aren’t detecting any aliens?), Brin moves on to consider the question as to whether we should actively seek to identify ourselves to putative alien civilizations.  He’s cautious about this, and considers there to be a real possibilility of alien species having very different priorities to ours: “would our favorite models of ‘human nature’ … apply equally to a sapient race descended – say – from pack carnivores, like wolves? Or solitary hunters, like tigers? Or solipsistic omnivores (bears), or herd herbivores? Or ants?”*

Brin then discusses the way that even human societies (societies developed by “gregarious apes”) have a strong tendency to form pyramid-like hierarchies. Our present western society he sees as an exception to this:

Across the last two centuries we have experimented with a different attractor model – one that is diamond-shaped, with an empowered middle that both outnumbers the poor and is unafraid of the rich. In the Enlightenment Experiment, arenas like markets, democracy, science, courts, and sports successfully harness regulated competitiveness to create tsunamis of wealth and free exploration, while also allowing and encouraging countless opportunities for willing cooperation. The resulting society roils and froths. It may seem chaotic, especially for those who dream of simple, perfect utopias. But inarguably it has outperformed – in just two centuries – all of the preceding feudal pyramids… combined.

He thinks that this diamond shape is constantly under threat from forces seeking to pull society back to the old, stagnant, feudal pyramid, and takes a swipe here at those who think of free markets as somehow ‘natural’ states that thrive without external intervention:

Anyone who claims that competitive arenas can remain effective without carefully negotiated regulation to suppress cheating should try this experiment: set up a sports league without rules, in which the strongest players are free to unite in a single team, if they so choose. (To make the experiment perfect, establish it without even laws against violence and murder: think Rollerball.) …

When the strong can side with the strong against the less-strong, you quickly get cartels and monopolies, then inherited ruling castes, and the old cycle is re-established. It is being attempted as we speak.

It is indeed.  People like myself, whose political instincts are on the ‘leftward’ side of the political spectrum (insofar as that is even a meaningful concept: but that’s for another time!), are prone to conflate the idea of ‘free markets’ with the idea of ‘capitalism’, but in fact the idea of a free market is a false front behind which monopoly capitalism hides, much in same way as the idea of people’s power is the false front behind which communist tyrannies hide.  By calling on the idea of ‘free markets’ capitalism resists the very regulation that is necessary for genuine pluralism in the market place, and, if still unchecked, it becomes first monopolistic, and finally a new kind of feudalism.

Brin wonders if the pyramidal structure is an ‘attractor state’ so powerful that it provides a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox.  If stagnant, rigidly hierarchical pyramids are the default structure towards which societies of sentient beings are inevitably drawn, then perhaps this explains why there aren’t societies out there which are dynamic and technologically advanced enough to be detected?

At this point, though, I find his argument a bit of a stretch.  We need to bear in mind, I think, that those ‘tsunamis of wealth and free exploration’ have been acheived, not simply by a certain kind of social structure, but through an unprecedented level of exploitation of the resources of the planet**.  I’d suggest that a much more plausible explanation of the Fermi Paradox can be found in what we now know about climate change.  Perhaps to achieve a sufficient level of technological sophistication to be detectable across space, a society has to draw so massively on its planet’s reserves of stored up chemical energy, that a civilization-destroying ecological catastrophe becomes inevitable?

Obviously I hope I’m wrong, and that societies of sentient beings can find other ways of progressing that don’t involve self-destruction.   Or at least that we can, even if none of the others out there have yet managed it.

* I had some slightly similar thoughts about wolves and bears here.
**And indeed, exploitation of people: which actually suggests to me that the diamond shape is something of an illusion, and has always looked much more like the old-fashioned pyramid when seen on a global scale.  (Much as apartheid-era South Africa might seem ‘diamond-shaped’ if you only looked at the white population, but was very decidedly pyramid-shaped, if you looked at the population as a whole.)


It’s like being in a disaster movie or novel.  Not in the main story, though, not in the drama itself, but in one of those little flashback scenes where the narrative glances back at how it all began: the small apparently innocuous signs, the little details that people noticed but didn’t think much about, the other preoccupations that now look so trivial, but which seemed more pressing at the time.

This is the hottest year on recordNext year looks like it may be even hotterFourteen of the fifteen hottest years ever have been in this century.

The movie returns from the flashback to the main narrative.  “Why didn’t they see it?” the characters ask one another in bemusement.  “Why didn’t they do anything about it?”

Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer

Dyer Climate Wars coverWhile the political class still appear to give a very low priority to the problems that will be caused by climate change, the military are already planning for them.  The following quotation, cited in this book, is from a federally funded study called National Security and Climate Change, published in 2007.  Retired generals and admirals from all four of America’s armed services were invited to comment on the the security aspects of climate change.   This observation is from a Marine Corps general:

We will pay for this one way or another.  We will pay to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind.  Or we will pay the price later in military terms.  And that will involve human lives.

Conflicts occur when different groups of people are competing for scarce resources.   As climate change plays out, areas of the world that can now feed themselves will no longer be able to do so, in some cases because of flooding (for example Bangladesh) in others  because of low rainfall (southern Europe and much of Africa, China and central America), in some cases because the loss of mountain glaciers mean that rivers will run dry in the summer (Pakistan and California are both dependant on glacial meltwater to irrigate their farms.)   This will lead to pressure on land (China, for instance, might resurrect land claims in Siberia), and disputes over water. (What would Egypt do if countries upstream were to divert the waters of the Nile?  What would happen if India diverted more water from the Indus, on which Pakistan depends?)  It will also lead to huge migrations across the world in which the still relatively viable countries will either have to seal off their borders, or face an influx of climate refugges.  (How will the people of Africa react when they are starving and the North won’t let them in, even though it caused the problem in the first place?)

One of the strengths of Dyer’s book (the second book with this same title that I’ve recently read) is that he offers scenarios set at various dates in the twentieth century that illustrate the kinds of conflicts that would occur.   Another is the clear, bold way it’s written, interspersed with interview material that is woven into the overall narrative.   It is a fairly grim read but a very engaging one nevertheless.

Dyer makes a number of arresting points.   One of these is that as conflict increases, the chances of collective global action to address the underlying cause  will dwindle to zero.  Another is that climate change is itself only one of a series of global challenges that lie ahead of us for the forseeable future: the size of the human population, and its expectations, are pushing the planet’s resources to their limits, and there’s no longer any slack.

Dyer’s concluding message, one that he knows is controversial, is that we aren’t going to be able to cut carbon emissions in time – we’ve simply left it too late – and that, in the short term at least, there are going to have to be some technical fixes which will either extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of the Earth.

There are two reasons why this is controversial.  One is that it involves tinkering with some very fundamental things that we don’t fully understand.   (Dyer’s answer is that it’s a bit late to start worrying about that now.  We’ve already tinkered massively, and we’ve long since passed the point where we can simply hand the controls of spaceship Earth back to Mother Nature.)  The other is that it presents a moral hazard: as soon as we get a whiff of a technical fix we’ll stop even trying to address the real underlying problem.  Dyer acknowledges this danger – he’s already argued earlier in the book that human beings always push things to their limits – but what he seems to be saying is that, if we want to avoid the tipping point where negative feedback loops will send global warming spiralling upwards, we really don’t have much choice.

The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley


This is George Bush in Air Force One, flying back from Texas to Washington.  He’s requested that the plane divert over New Orleans, and he has invited the press to come through from their section of the plane to photograph him looking down concernedly at the city whose lower parts have now been flooded for two days, since Hurricane Katrina broke the levees.   If any single image captures the mediocrity of this man, this is surely it.   This was not a leader, but a dull little rich kid whose daddy’s friends had fixed him up with a job, and provided him with helpers to do the difficult parts.  In this case, even the helpers screwed up.

‘You’re doing a great job, Brownie!’ Bush told the Director of FEMA, the federal agency responsible, but of course as we all know the agency’s performance was very far from a great job.   In a curiously telling detail, Douglas Brinkley observes that Brownie was not in fact a nickname that anyone actually used.  The dull little rich kid was trying to suggest a level of engagement that did not in fact exist.

The Great Deluge is an account of what actually lies below him as he gazes down for the cameras: a devastated city, where bloated corpses are floating in the streets, sick and elderly people are dying alone in flooded houses, and thousands are crammed into a sports stadium without adequate food, water or medical attention, waiting for an evacuation which, for no obvious reason, has still not arrived.

There is lawlessness.  Some of the local police have simply abandoned their posts and run.  Women waiting for rescue have been raped.  Looters raid shops not only to steal but in some strange attavistic ritual (of revenge?  of triumph?) to defecate on cash registers and on goods that they can’t carry away.  But the lawlessness has been taken by many of those who should be helping the survivors as a reason for treating them all as criminals.  (Another telling moment: a new general arrives in New Orleans to get a grip on the military efforts, and one of his first acts is to instruct is to instruct National Guardsman not to point their guns at people when they’re talking to them.)

The very boundary between lawful and unlawful has in any case been blurred.  Is it really looting to break into a store for bottles of clean water, when the only other option is drinking polluted flood-water in which human and animal corpses are floating?  (Is it even exactly looting, I wonder, to steal a TV or some other valuable piece of hardware, when you’ve lost your home and have no savings to fall back on?)  In the Morial Convention Centre, some gangsters are taking it upon themselves to provide protection for the vulnerable in the absence of any formal forces of law.  Other are just terrorising the weak.

The fact that nearly all the people trapped in New Orleans are black and poor almost certainly doesn’t help.   Police officers and Guardsmen frequently treat them with undisguised contempt, and suggest that it is their own stupid fault that they stayed in the city after warnings were given that they should move.  But where would you go, if everyone you know lives in the streets around you, you have no money to pay for accomodation elsewhere and the government, though it can afford to pay for wars on the far side of the world, has provided nothing?  Some people who try to leave on foot are stopped at gunpoint by police from neighbouring areas which don’t want to take them in.

It’s outside the scope of this book but we know too that other communities which did initially respond generously were quickly to grow tired of the burden of caring for the incomers, and to begin to stigmatise them as lazy and undeserving of help.  In another book I read recently*, a woman relocated to Austin, Texas, describes her children being bullied and stigmatised at school because they are ‘people from the storm’.

I wasn’t completely enamoured of the way The Great Deluge was written – I could have done without some of the long, folksy biographies of various characters with which the account is punctuated, and the numerous quotations from songs and literature which never seemed quite as apt as the author seemed to think they were – but it provides a detailed and vivid overview nevertheless of what actually happened during that dreadful time, as well as of the things that one would expect to happen in the world’s wealthiest country but in fact did not.   I was left with a powerful sense of how quickly we human beings can shut down compassion when it asks too much of us, simply by relabelling our fellow humans as something other than ourselves.

Any one seriously interested in writing or thinking about the future should be reading this book, and books like it.   The way things are going, there are going many more flooded cities before this century is out, many more people who don’t have access to food or water, a lot more ‘people from the storm’.

*Community Lost: the State, Civil Society, and Displaced Survivors of Hurricane Katrina, by Ronald J Angel, Holly Bell, Julie Beausoleil and Laura Lein.

Among those bare and shaven hills

My sister lives in Australia, and a few years ago we visited her there, spending part of the time in Victoria where she lives, and part of the time travelling round the South Island of New Zealand.  Both Victoria and South Island famously contain some rich and unique landscapes, but in both countries I was struck by the way that, in many places, native vegetation had been entirely stripped away to leave a monoculture of grass and sheep.   There was a kind of dreary banality about these smooth shaven hills.  When you have also seen some of the strange rich bush and forest that would have existed in these places beforehand, it is difficult not to feel that you are looking at the aftermath of an act of vandalism.

But of course the hills of Britain have been stripped bare in just the same way.   As George Monbiot recently pointed out, the bare hills of the Lake District which we’ve learnt to revere so much, and to see as a kind of wilderness, would be covered in forest if they had not been deliberately cleared for sheep farming many centuries ago, and had not been kept clear ever since by grazing.   We might see these landscapes as a place to escape to from the more obviously managed landscapes of lowland Britain (such as the Fens of Cambridgeshire, where I live, which are only dry land as a result of water being constantly pumped off them into the dyked and canalised rivers), but they – the Lake District, Snowdonia, the Scottish Highlands – are actually equally articifial creations.

I spent last week in the Yorkshire Dales.  The hilltops are bare moors grazed by sheep and managed for grouse shooting, and the dales are entirely given over to pasture for sheep and cattle, criss-crossed by those famous grey dry stone walls, and dotted by barns built in the same grey stone, each one almost identical to all the others.   I enjoy the spectacle, and I don’t take the view that there is necessarily anything intrinsically superior about a landscape untouched by humans to one that humans have shaped.  (We are, after all, part of  nature).  But I found myself noticing, in a way that I hadn’t before, that this is a landscape that has been plucked and shaven almost bald, just like the landscapes I disliked in Australia and New Zealand.

New wells of violence

When I was young I studied at Bristol University, and stayed there for a year afterwards.   I still have friends and relatives living there, and visit regularly.  It is the first city I came to know and love as a place.  I still love it, with its famous and dramatic gorge, its stone-faced houses, its hills, its green spaces, the way that any street corner can open up a whole new vista.

But the things that made the city what it is are not so beautiful: Bristol grew rich on the slave trade, the tobacco industry and, more recently, the arms trade.  And of course, as in any city, there is a dark side hidden away out of sight of the parks and the gorge and the gaily painted terraces winding up and down the hills.  Behind all this, as in any British city, are pockets of grimness and deprivation (something I tried to portray in my novel Marcher) which few people ever see if they don’t have occasion to see them out.   So, like Ursula le Guin’s fictional Omelas, Bristol’s charm and beauty stands on a base of hidden suffering.

Climate wars coverThe same could be said of much that we value in the developed world.   We all know of course that what counts as an average sort of life-style in our part of the planet – car and house ownership, TV, computers, smart phones, annual foreign holidays, meat every day, an office job, a hot shower every morning – is in fact, in global terms, exceptionally wealthy and privileged.  Most of us are probably also aware that part of the reason for our ability to access so much in the way of consumer goods, is that the producers of the raw materials, and very likely the producers of the goods themselves, are paid much much less than we are.   We may also be dimly aware – Harald Welzer makes this point rather well in his interesting book ‘Climate Wars’ – that our way of life is also underpinned by more or less constant violence and warfare.  Long chains of responsibility can make this less obvious – the violence typically takes place far away from us, and is rationalised in various ways – but it takes constant and large-scale application of brute force to secure our access to the resources required to maintain our lifestyle and to secure our frontiers so that not too many people come and share our bounty with us.

There are several strategies for dealing with the potential for discomfort arising from these facts.  One is simply to shrug them off, ask ‘Who ever said the world was fair?’, and indicate our intention to defend what we own and have worked for.  Another is to place responsibility for poverty on the poor: ‘It’s up to them to sort it out.  No one ever helped us.’  Another is to absolve ourselves by pointing to some abstraction – ‘It’s capitalism!’ is a common one, as if capitalism had some sort of autonomous existence, and was not simply a name for a nexus in which most of us are complicit – or to people even wealthier than we are: ‘SUV owners’, for instance, are great targets for ordinary car owners to point to.

Another again is to argue that, wealthy as we are by global standards, we are somehow helping to bring the rest of the world up to our level (there are various versions of this last one, including a capitalist narrative of world development, socialist narratives about building a new world order, and more personal narratives built around activity such as charitable work).

What is clear though is that the whole world never can come up to our level.  There is a finite and, in many cases, steadily diminishing supply of resources: agricultural land, water, copper, zinc, coltan, oil, phospates  There is a steadily increasing number of people.   Meat every day for everyone, for instance, may require more agricultural land than actually exists (because growing crops to feed cattle is a much less efficient use of land than growing crops for human consumption), even before one factors in the future lack of availability of phosphates for fertilizers.

So the comforting idea that, wealthy and privileged as we are, we are helping others to one day reach our level, is false, because we are rich not only in purely relative terms (that is: rich by comparison with the world average), but rich in absolute terms.  We are already using more of the world’s resources than could ever be available to the entire population of the planet.

No wonder all that violence is necessary!

Pressure on resources will become more acute as increased population, and increased competition from emerging economies, and as climate change (itself a side product of our consumption of resources) increasingly provides an additional stressor: large areas of the world may soon no longer be able to support the population that they once did.  In this context, violent conflict over resources and borders will proliferate – Welzer proposes that the Darfur conflict in Sudan is an early instance of a climate war: two ethnic groups, who were once able to coexist, have there been brought into conflict by a water shortage which means they both need access to the same land – and wealthier parts of the world will have increasingly to deploy force to protect their privileged position.

It is difficult to visualise a political way out of this.  Human reason, human political structures seem so weak when compared to the magnitude of the changes that are required.  There are even moments when I think what is really needed is something more akin to a prophet, a Moses, a Mohammed, a Joseph Smith, a Mary Baker Eddy, who will come down from a mountain with a new set of commandments: Thou shalt not have more than two kids, Thou shalt not eat meat more than once a week, Thou shalt not throw anything away that can be used again…

The Burning Question, by Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark

The-Burning-Question-book-coverIf you are looking for an introductory book on the climate crisis, this is as good as any I’ve read.  It sets out the issues in a clear and focussed way, and tours the science, politics, psychology and economics of the subject, as well as providing an overview of the options for the future.

Several things stand out for me after reading this book.   One is that doing something about climate change isn’t just a question of developing alternatives to fossil fuels.  Our appetite for energy is such that we are quite capable of developing renewables and still consuming more fossil fuels than ever.

So we don’t just need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, we need to set a limit to the total amount of fossil fuels we use.  This means leaving a lot of the world’s known reserves of coal and oil permanently in the ground.  No wonder the people that own them are unhappy!

Another thing that stood out (and this of course is linked to my previous point) is the dishonesty and virulence of the multi-million-dollar climate change denial industry.   ‘They call it pollution.  We call it life,’ said one US TV ad, as if anyone had called carbon dioxide ‘pollution’, or denied its importance to life.  Another billboard campaign by the Heartland Institute

showed mug-shots of serial killers alongside the words: ‘I still believe in global warming.  Do You?’  Heartland’s president, Joseph Bast, said on the accompanying press release, ‘The most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists.  They are Charles Manson, a mass murderer; Fidel Castro, a tyrant; and Ted Kaczynksi, the Unabomber.  Global warming alarmists include Osama bin Laden, and James L. Lee.’

The savagery and cynicism of this, not to mention its utter weirdness, is fairly scary (see also Tom Burke’s piece on this here), but perhaps there’s some hope to be found in its sheer desperation?  It suggests (doesn’t it?) that the deniers are pretty worried, don’t really believe they have a real argument, and don’t necessarily think they’re going to win.

Which of course they won’t.  Because ultimately we’ll either do something about the problem, or find out the hard way just how wrong they were.

I recommend this book.