books climate change

Book review: Atmosphere of Hope, by Tim Flannery

With The Uninhabitable Earth on my reading list, I decided I ought to read something more optimistic afterwards. Browsing the climate change section in Blackwells in Edinburgh, this title jumped out as a likely contender – something informed and hopeful.

If you haven’t come across him before, Tim Flannery is an Australian scientist and explorer. He wrote a bestselling book on climate change, The Weather Makers, in 2005. It was a very influential book, explaining the topic in accessible terms for a non-scientific audience. A number of politicians and campaigners cite the book as the one that first put the climate on their agenda.

Ten years on, Tim Flannery looks back at the book. What did it get right? How have things changed? As you might expect, the ground has shifted substantially, and the book brings the science up to date through chapters on sea level rise, ocean acidification, and other effects. As summaries of climate science go, this is very good.

The second part of the book addresses the obstacles to a safe climate, looking in turn at coal, oil and gas, divestment, renewable energy and sustainable transport. Flannery is interested in shifts over the last decade, which include the gradual tilt towards renewable energy, but also the power politics of the energy incumbency. This is particularly pronounced in Australia. In the gap between his two books, Flannery was appointed head of the Climate Change Commission, and then fired when the Abbott government abolished it – along with the country’s carbon tax and its Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. It’s strange to remember just how recently, and how briefly, Australia was a leading light on climate action.

Recognising that easy solutions are no longer enough, the third part of the book turns to bigger scale answers. It’s now clear that we can’t get to a sustainable footing just by cutting emissions; we need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere as well. Flannery highlights what he calls ‘third way’ technologies that lie between simply adapting to a changed world on the one hand, or attempting to geo-engineer a new world on the other. Those technologies include rock weathering, CO2-based plastics, seaweed farming and several others. They’re all things that don’t really get enough attention in the climate debate, and the chapters here introduce them well.

Atmosphere of Hope is by no means comprehensive – there’s little on food and agriculture, lifestyle and consumerism, or buildings and efficiency. There’s nothing on transport beyond electric cars, and it would be easy to read the book and think that most of the solutions are technological. Perhaps the biggest problem is the speed of change itself. Much has changed since The Weather Makers, but the last three years since this book’s publication have packed a lot in too. The book was written just before the Paris Agreement, and of course before America trumped all over it. Writing now, Atmosphere of Hope might be a harder title to justify.

1 comment

  1. Climate Breakdown, the Economy and SDGs
    As many of us know our unsustainable lifestyles and commitment to perpetual economic growth has become the major driver of climate change on Earth.
    Encouragingly, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out a new roadmap for our future that in principle aligned the economy with the Earth’s life support systems.
    Steve Sterling and I have been very impressed by a recent, authoritative report published in October 2018 by the Stockholm Resilience Centre which has systematically explored the relationship between the 3 environmental goals (SDG 13, 14 and 15) and the 11 socio-economic goals (SDG1-11) and how they might interact in relation to a number of future scenarios.—how-to-achieve-the-sustainable–development-goals-within-planetary-boundaries.html
    This report clearly articulates that any successes in reaching the eleven social and economic goals, if done based on conventional growth policies, would make it virtually impossible to reduce the speed of global warming or to stop overfishing in the oceans or to stop land degradation, let alone to halt biodiversity loss.
    The report confirms that meeting the SDGs in an integrated fashion based on conventional growth policies is not possible. By accelerating growth an increasing number of the socio-economic goals may be reached but it will occur at the expense of the environmental SDGs and push planetary boundaries into high-risk zones. In other words, assuming no major changes in the way economic growth is defined and pursued, humanity would be confronted with massive trade-offs between the socio-economic and the environmental SDGs.The only way we will meet most of the goals by 2030 is one built on transformational change starting now. Such a pathway rests on at least five transformational actions with systems-wide effects of the SDGs:
    • Accelerated renewable energy growth
    • Accelerated productivity in food chains
    • New development models in the poorer countries
    • Active inequality reduction
    • Investments in education for all, gender equality and
    family planning
    Governments around the world are struggling to develop policies for an integrated approach to Agenda 2030. For that to happen conventional growth must be replaced by policies that give priority to welfare and wellbeing and puts ecological and social objectives at the forefront of policymaking. If the world’s nations simply continue with business as usual, the world will not succeed in achieving the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the 9 planetary boundaries (PBs) by 2030, nor 2050. The report states that” a key challenge lies in the psychology of worldviews. While the adoption of the SDGs is such a positive global act – a true turning point for the entire agenda on world development – we still remain in a world view where “Everybody knows, but nobody wants to understand” the magnitude of the transformation that is needed.” It echoes many of our thoughts when it stresses that” now it is time to rise together to take on the grand challenge.”

    Professors Stephen Sterling and Stephen Martin

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