books climate change

There is no planet B, by Mike Berners-Lee

Mike Berners-Lee is a climate change researcher and author of the excellent How bad are bananas?,  an attempt to quantify ‘the carbon footprint of everything’. Almost a decade on from that, There is no planet B is just as informative and entertaining, but broader in scope and more urgent in tone.

Intended as a ‘handbook for the make or break years’, as the subtitle puts it, the book is written as questions and answers. It starts with climate science and the impact of food, energy, transport and so on, with some of most concise and clear summaries of the issues you’ll find anywhere. A recurring theme is that everything is connected to everything else, and so as the book goes on it begins to dig deeper into business structures, population and work. Finally, we get to the values that we hold as individuals and societies, and even the nature of truth.

“I want to go wider to look at things other than climate change”, Berners-Lee writes, “deeper into an even bigger issue of which climate change is just a symptom and more practically to look at how humanity can find its way through some uncharted waters, and what any of us might do to help.”

There are very practical questions here, no doubt frequently asked when Berners-Lee does public events: ‘should I go vegan or veggie?’ or ‘how urgently should I ditch my diesel car?’ Others open up new perspectives, such as ‘which countries have the least sun per person?’ or ‘how expensive will carbon need to become?’ Each of these get a short answer, sometimes a paragraph, sometimes a couple of pages. There are some enormous topics to deal with so briefly, but the author has the self-awareness to recognise the limits of his expertise.

It is definitely changing, but popular understandings of climate change have tended to peg it as an environmental issue. There is no planet B sets it within the context of the anthropocene, asking bigger questions about how we understand ourselves, and the role of economics. I was pleased to see questions about growth, and as a scientist rather than an economist, Berners-Lee can be more objective. “Rather than clutching onto growth as an essential or rejecting it as the root of all trouble, we need to dissect the growth question and ask ourselves, in today’s world, what kinds of growth are desirable and which are not.”

As the format suggests, the book can be read in a variety of ways. You could consider it a reference book, read it all the way through, or pick the questions you’re interested in. Towards the back, the content is spliced up and re-presented in alphabetical order as a completely different way to read the book. There’s a summary, appendices, and lots of ‘what can I do?’ sections. The chapter on 21st century thinking skills is worth the cover price on its own. So is the 14 point summary of climate science, which “every politician needs to understand before they are fit for office.”

One comment

  1. Jeremy: I’ve just finished reading Mike Berners-Lee’s book and I thought you might find it interesting if I were to post a version of my Amazon review here.

    The book’s full of useful and interesting information. For example, I found his explanation of how it’s possible to provide adequate food for a vast and growing global population especially interesting; I hope he’s right. However, although I understand his view that climate change represents a multi-disciplinary challenge, it’s the impact of humanity’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on climate that‘s the key issue. And I believe that an assumption he makes about that is based on a misunderstanding of international political reality.

    He takes as read the view that current atmospheric temperature increases are essentially caused by human GHG emissions and that, unless they’re reduced significantly and urgently, the consequences could be extremely damaging. He assumes that, broadly speaking, that’s the position of most policymakers and that therefore the challenge is to find ways of overcoming the serious obstacles impeding the reductions widely agreed to be necessary. That probably reflects current Western scientific and political orthodoxy, although there are scientists in the West who hold other views: for example that the consequences of increased emissions have been exaggerated. However, despite Mike’s claim that ‘every significant country’ agrees with his assumption, I believe that almost certainly doesn’t reflect the position of the leaders of major non-Western countries.

    He says that a new, enforceable agreement to ‘keep it in the ground’ must be agreed. And, although he doesn’t minimise the difficulty of achieving that, he obviously sees it as doable. But is it? A problem is that developing countries – led by major emerging economies such as China, India and South Korea and big OPEC countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia – are determined, in accordance with Article 4.7 of the 1992 UN Framework Convention in Climate Change (UNFCCC), to give ‘first and overriding priority’ to economic development and poverty eradication. And they’re pursuing that by burning fossil fuels. A consequence is that they’ve adamantly rejected, for over 20 years, all efforts by EU and US climate negotiators to persuade them to accept a share of responsibility for emission reduction. That’s why the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference failed and why the 2015 Paris Agreement, by confirming and enhancing the UNFCCC Article 4.7 principle, was a dud – it did not, as Mike suggests, make progress towards an enforceable deal. Yet developing countries comprise about 82% of humanity and are the source of about 65% of increasing global emissions. Given that history, the idea that it would be possible to negotiate a universal legally-binding agreement, not just that emissions are reduced but that their use is essentially stopped altogether, seems fanciful. Is China, which for example has just started to operate a 1,837 km railway that will carry 200 million tonnes of coal annually and is in the process of building over 250 new airports by 2035, really likely to agree to abandon all that?

    It’s not widely understood that, when Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement, he proposed that it would re-enter the Agreement if it was renegotiated so that big emerging countries accepted an obligation to reduce their emissions. Yet, although that doesn’t go nearly as far as requiring them to ‘keep it in the ground’, his proposal was rejected by other Western leaders. And, even if these leaders could, after all, be persuaded to accept the idea of renegotiation, there’s no evidence that the leaders of non-Western countries are likely to reverse their position. Quite the opposite: in an August 2019 press conference, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa reaffirmed their commitment to ‘the full implementation of the Paris Agreement adopted under the principles of the UNFCCC’.

    Mike’s belief that a universally binding ‘keep it in the ground’ agreement is possible is, I suggest, wishful thinking. Does that mean we’re doomed? Not necessarily: our best hope, it seems to me, is that the widely held Western view that increased emissions would lead to catastrophe is unnecessarily alarmist. The Chinese, Indians, Russians and others who are clearly not seriously worried about increased GHG emissions are not foolish. And they don’t wish to tip humanity into disaster any more than we do.

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