Skip to main content

Hothouse Earth - Bill McGuire ****

There have been many books on global warming, but I can't think of any I've read that are so definitively clear about the impact that climate change is going to have on our lives. The only reason I've not given it five stars is because it's so relentless miserable - I absolute accept the reality of Bill McGuire's message, but you have to have a particularly perverted kind of 'I told you so' attitude to actually enjoy reading this.

McGuire lays out how climate change is likely to continue and the impacts it will have on our lives in a stark way. Unlike many environmental writers, he is honest about the uncertainty, telling us 'Despite meticulous and comprehensive modelling, we just don't know how bad things will get, nor can we know.' But any climate change deniers seeing this as an escape clause entirely miss the point. The uncertainty is over how bad things will be, but not over whether or not things will be bad. As we are told, 'tipping points and positive feedback effects are the real flies in the ointment when trying to pin down how bad things will get'.

Possibly the hardest thing to get across to people is why the 'Hothouse' of the title is real. When we're talking about warming of a couple of degrees Celsius, to many this doesn't sound much. We can but hope that the sweltering temperatures of July 2022 make it a bit clearer what an impact a small-sounding increase in average temperatures can have on the day-to-day weather.

What doesn't help is telling us things are going to be disastrous without any guidance on doing something about it - otherwise a book like this would be little more than the literary equivalent of one of those people proclaiming 'end of the world is nigh' on a street corner. McGuire does relatively briefly explore how we can stop a bad situation getting worse. He makes it clear that the efforts of activists might have raised awareness, but they do nothing to actually mitigate the impact of climate change. Accelerating the move away from fossil fuel is one big message, as is to stop destroying forests.

Sometimes McGuire's solutions seem more disputable. We are told that beef and dairy result in greenhouse gas emissions - so cut back consumption. That's fine, but there are also excellent ways to reduce the emissions from the animals without killing them all off, which surely would be better. Similarly, the response can be a little parochial. If the UK, for example, were we to go carbon neutral tomorrow, it would only make a tiny contribution to reducing the speed of advance of climate change. Yes, as McGuire says, 'we all need to do our bit' - but it is only if the really big emitters make quick changes that things will start to turn round. And like almost all academics (who fly a lot and enjoy their conferences a bit too much), he doesn't mention the huge impact of flying as a percentage of the global warming contribution of any individual who flies a lot.

McGuire ends up by pointing out to those who think he is being alarmist that in a situation like the one we are in, alarm is the only sensible response. He's right. This is a book to read and think twice about our future. Before it's too late.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg - See all of Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly digest for free here


Popular posts from this blog

David Latchman - Interview

Professor David Latchman, CBE, is a leading UK academic and author of a number of science titles, currently holding the position of Vice-Chancellor of Birkbeck, University of London.  As Vice-Chancellor, Professor Latchman is the chief academic and administrative officer, and has been responsible for the development of the university since his appointment in 2003.   Professor Latchman serves as Chairman of the trustees of the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation, an organisation dedicated the empowerment of the Jewish community through education, employment, medical advancement, and welfare. He also serves as a trustee of the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Philanthropic Foundation, as well as a number of other committees centred around education, and scientific and medical research in the UK and Israel.  This interview is for National Book Lovers' Day (August 9th). Why should books be important to us? Books have always been a big part of my life, and for many reasons. My love for them sta

Existential Physics - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

If I had six stars to give this book, I'd do it. Sabine Hossenfelder's first book for the general public, Lost in Math , showed just how much some aspects of theoretical physics were based on maths-driven speculation. That was arguably one for the science buffs only - but in Existential Physics she takes on questions that really matter to all of us. Many of these questions hover on the boundary between science and philosophy - but this is no repeat of a book like Hawking and Mlodinow's unimpressive  The Grand Design , which attempted to show that we no longer needed philosophy or religion because science can do it all. Rather, Hossenfelder manages to show where science can tell us things we didn't expect... and where it does not give any helpful contribution to answering a question. Delightfully, these answers are not at all what you might expect. For example, Hossenfelder makes it clear that the various 'how did we get from the Big Bang to here' theories, such