Skip to main content

SOS - Seth Wynes ***

This very compact book (it took significantly less than an hour to read) offers a beguiling reward: ‘What you can do to reduce climate change’. This promise presents a real challenge, because it’s easy to think that as individuals we can make little difference. But would I feel any different after reading it?

Seth Wynes (who, we are told, is studying for a PhD in climate change) is sure, with all the enthusiasm of youth, that we can make our actions count. He divides up the book into getting around, what we eat, collective action and everyday living (basically energy use and purchases). Most of this is, frankly, very familiar ground. So we’re told to walk and use bikes more, drive less, fly less, eat less meat, use green energy and don’t buy new stuff unless we have to. The only part I’ve not seen very (very) many times before was is the collective action section. This is based primarily on a survey of MPs and the public in Belgium, with MP comparisons with seven other EU countries, including the UK and Germany.

The recommendations range from most effective being voting, getting active in a party or organisation and writing to your MP, through to the least effective, which were internet discussions, boycotting and divesting, and illegal action. (Wynes doesn’t mention that the authors of the paper he cites point out that the population as a whole have less belief in the effectiveness of politicians than the MPs do.) This is quite interesting, but again is pretty much stating the obvious.

Overall, it’s a likeable book, in a light, fuzzy style with large print and lots of white space. I did have some issues, though. Wynes chickens out of pointing out that nuclear is an important energy source to minimise climate change. Nuclear is only mentioned in the voting section, where he points out that ‘in Europe there is the occasional vote on the use of nuclear energy.’ What he doesn’t say is that to help prevent climate change we should be voting for nuclear, contrary to the stance of many green organisations. The reader could take his ambiguous comment as meaning ‘vote against nuclear’ - absolutely the opposite of what’s required.

Wynes also makes the classic mistake of seeing the world only from his own position. So, despite a couple of longhaul flights producing the equivalent of two thirds of the entire carbon footprint of a UK citizen, he advocates ‘Take one fewer flight a year’, but ‘live car free.’ This is easy advice if you are a city-dwelling academic like Wynes - I’d suggest he should try ‘Live flight free’ and ‘half your car use’ - but academics do love to fly to conferences, and rarely seem inclined to give up this perk to save the environment.

Finally, there’s a degree of naivety in the way he only provides per capita emissions figures. They are important, but they don't give the full picture. We don't discover, for example, that the fact is the entire UK could go carbon neutral and it would only counter one year's increase in emissions from China. The only way to achieve the desired results is to get international agreement. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do our bit (so stop flying now, Seth!) - but it won’t hold back climate change unless we tackle the far more significant international issues.
Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Tim Woollings - Four Way Interview

Tim Woollings is an Associate Professor in Physical Climate Science at the University of Oxford, leading a team of researchers in the Atmospheric Dynamics group. He obtained his PhD in Meteorology in 2005 and since then has worked on a variety of topics spanning weather prediction, atmospheric dynamics and circulation, and the effects of climate change. He has studied how the jet stream varies over weeks, years, and decades, and how we can better predict these changes. He was a contributing author on three chapters of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Tim worked at the University of Reading as a postdoc, research fellow and then lecturer before moving to the University of Oxford in 2013. He is now the Oxford Joint Chair of the Met Office Academic Partnership. His new book is Jet Stream.

Why climate?

It has never been more important to learn about how our climate system works, and how we are affecting it. You certainly get a lot of satisfaction when your work touches on hugely important …

The Apollo Chronicles - Brandon Brown *****

There were two reasons I wasn't expecting much from this book. Firstly, there have been so many titles on the Apollo programme and the space race. And secondly, a book that focusses on the engineering involved would surely be far too much at the nut and bolt level (literally), missing out on the overarching drama that makes the story live. Also there were so many people involved - 400,000 is mentioned - that we couldn't have much human interest because we would be bombarded with lists of names.

Instead, I was charmed by Brandon Brown's account. His father was one of the engineers, but he isn't given undue prominence - Brown picks out a handful of characters and follows them through, bringing in others as necessary, but never overwhelming us with names. And while it's true that there is a lot of nitty gritty engineering detail, it rarely becomes dull. Somehow, Brown pulls off the feat of making the day-to-day, hectic engineering work engaging.

I think in part this …

Saturn – William Sheehan ****

This book marks something of a milestone in my reviewing career: it’s the first time I’ve seen an excerpt from one of my reviews printed on the back cover. It comes from my review of Sheehan’s previous book, on Mercury, which I said ‘easily convinced me the Solar System’s 'least interesting' planet is still a pretty fascinating place.’ That wasn’t an easy task for the author, given Mercury’s unspectacular appearance and reputation – but Saturn is a different matter. With its iconic rings, easily visible through a small telescope, it’s the favourite planet of many amateur astronomers. For space scientists, too, it’s a prime target – given that two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus, look like the kind of places we might find alien life. So Sheehan’s challenge this time wasn’t to find enough material to fill 200 pages, but to distil a potentially huge subject down to that size.

He meets this challenge just as successfully as the previous one – but not quite in the way I was expect…