Skip to main content

Seven Years to Save the Planet – Bill McGuire ***

There are a lot of ‘how to combat global warming’ books out there, so to be worth reading, a book needs a new twist, and it’s fair to say that Bill McGuire has achieved this. Seven Years is divided into five parts – Where are we now? What will climate change mean for my children and their children? What can I do? What should others be doing? and Is it already too late? In each section there are a series of mini-chapters, each with a question, a little commentary and the answer, from ‘Will the Arctic Ocean soon be ice free?’ to ‘What is my carbon footprint?’
Of the main sections, the first two are far and above the best. McGuire is director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, giving him ideal placement to be aware just what the threats are and their potential impact on our planet and our lives. He tells it straight, making it clear just how conservative the IPCC can be in its predictions, and how even relatively small changes can be enough to have a big impact for our children and our children’s children. This is scary stuff and deservedly so. We have a lot to do, and relatively little time to do it.
Where he is much weaker – and sadly, this is the bit we really need to hear – is on solutions. His ‘What can I do?’ section is full of the usual skim-the-surface changes we can make, adopting the standard knee-jerk solutions. About the only time he spots the dangers of over-simplification is when he mentions that Spanish tomatoes have less climate impact for UK buyers than the commercial home-grown greenhouse variety – but elsewhere his solutions are highly simplistic. On food, for instance, it’s organic, organic, organic – even though there are many circumstances where organic growing is worse for climate change (specific example, for instance, organic chickens, compared to conventional birds). Similarly, he emphasizes using the train for all long distance journeys, when coaches are greener, and a full car is also better than some diesel trains in the UK. He also pushes hybrid cars – fine for city dwellers like him, but there are much cleaner conventional small cars for country/motorway driving. Strangest of all he loves hydrogen cars, saying ‘Electric vehicles are becoming more attractive… but at the moment they are charged mainly with electricity generated by fossil fuels. Probably the best bet is renewably-generated hydrogen…’ But all hydrogen is, in effect, is an alternative to a battery. It’s used to store energy from electricity. And just like the electric cars, this electricity too would, for the moment, mainly come from fossil fuels. It doesn’t make sense.
In his urge to make us blame ourselves, he points out how we have stupidly not built lots more wind farms, the Severn barrage etc. – but nowhere does he point out that the biggest opposition to wind farms and the Severn barrage tends to come from green groups. He hasn’t bitten the bullet enough to tell people you’ve got to get over worrying about how pretty the country looks – this is about survival. He seems to think you can fix green issues but not deal with the politics. Oh, and he calls the G-Wiz cute. That’s really worrying.
All-in-all, then, half a great book, but in a book subtitled the questions… and answers, the answers don’t live up to the questions.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…