Saturday, 12 July 2008

Six Degrees: Our future on a hotter planet – Mark Lynas ****

This is an important book. Books about the horrors of global warming are sometimes referred to as climate change pornography, because they titillate with the frisson of fear about what is going to happen to us – I don’t agree with this label, but if it existed, this would be hardcore.
Mark Lynas describes simply and graphically what would happen if the Earth went through one degree (Celsius) of warming, two degrees, three degrees and so on, through to six degrees. Basing all his predictions on different scientific studies, he explains ruthlessly what will happen to different parts of the world as ice melts, seas rise, temperatures climb and rainfall dries up in some places and becomes torrential elsewhere. This is important, because the temperature rises of themselves don’t sound particularly frightening. We are all familiar what happens when the temperature rises locally by a few degrees – it’s a nice sunny day. We have a lovely time. Yet if Lynas is right, with five degrees we will be looking at billions dying, and with six degrees we will be close to the end of humanity. This is because average temperature rise is only a limited reflection of the massive impact in different areas. Imagine, for instance, practically all of Africa being uninhabitable, with the population of the African countries all heading for a Europe already suffering badly from climate change as refugees.
I have seen it said by another writer on the topic, Fred Pearce, that unless a book tells you how to prevent climate change as well as what the impact will be, it isn’t doing its job. I think he’s wrong. There are plenty of books on making a difference – it’s essential we get more on the impact to drive it home. The only place Lynas is a little iffy is that he does stray into coping with the impact of climate change, basically saying that come 5 degrees or so, there’s no point going all survivalist, it will just get you killed. This is probably true, but overlooks the fact that we need to be able to deal with the lesser, temporary impact of existing climate change – for example, temporary flooding – which is why I think books like my own Global Warming Survival Kit are an important accompaniment to a book like this.
So if it’s so important (and even won the prestigious Royal Society prize for science writing), why only four stars? Because it isn’t the best of reads as a popular science book. Not because of the uncomfortable message, but the approach inevitably means a slightly repetitious format, and despite Lynas’ efforts to bring in some human interest by mentioning specific places he has visited, after a while, the onslaught of this drought and that flood and so on becomes a bit wearing and tempts you to skip. It’s still very important – just doesn’t quite hit the spot as a great popular science read.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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