books climate change lifestyle

SOS – what you can do to reduce climate change, by Seth Wynes

When I’m doing a talk somewhere and take questions at the end, one of the most common is “which actions will make the biggest difference to climate change?” I always reply with flying and eating meat as two things that we can address with relative ease. There’s usually someone who wants to talk to me afterwards who had no idea that meat was so important. For some reason, the lifestyle choices most relevant to climate change are not common knowledge.

Here’s a book that might help. It’s by Seth Wynes, a Canadian climate scientist who wrote a much cited paper in 2017 that compared lifestyle actions. SOS takes that information and repackages it into “an indispensable guide to which actions are the most important at this most important moment.”

We start with transport, and the importance of flying. Because travel is so aspirational, we flaunt our air travel on social media as a status symbol and nobody bats an eyelid. But taking one less long distance flight a year is one of most significant choices we can make. Holiday locally, the book recommends. Get by without a car if you can, and live somewhere close enough to reduce your commuting time.

Food gets the longest chapter – though that’s not saying much in this very concise book. It compares vegan, vegetarian and pescetarian diets, not shying away from the message that “it is impossible to meet our climate targets without making a shift in our diet away from meat.” How far you want to take that is a personal choice, and there are plenty of ways to start small.

Of course, personal actions only get us so far. The really big changes are more systemic, and we need business and governments to act to. It’s not an either/or, as I’ve described before. We need both, and it’s good to see a chapter on collective action. There is an attempt to rank these by effectiveness that I don’t personally find all that convincing, and it writes off non violent direct action with a throwaway line about criminality, which is disappointing. But there is good advice here too, including the pointlessness of arguing online. If we took the time we spent arguing on the internet and spent it writing to our politicians, we’d be much more effective, Wynes suggests.

SOS reminded me of Martin Dorey’s recent book No More Plastic, which takes a similarly practical and non-nonsense approach to lifestyle choices. It’s very accessible, you can read it in an evening, and you’ll be better equipped to make some good decisions about your carbon footprint. But if you’re really far too busy, then what it comes down to is this: avoid flying, drive less and eat a plant based diet.

  • SOS – What you can do to reduce climate change is published by Penguin and is available from Earthbound Books UK or US.


  1. Being a science graduate (Chemistry), I would expect to be able to understand how the Greenhouse Effect works, but have not seen a convincing explanation for how a concentration of one part in 2,500 of the gas can have such a disproportionate effect. The greenhouse effect theory has been around for over a century, when it was first noted by the Swedish chemist, Arrhenius. However, carbon dioxide absorbs infrared radiation (IR) in three narrow bands of wavelengths, which are 2.7, 4.3 and 15 micrometers (µM). This means that most – about 92% – of the heat producing radiation escapes it. About 8% of the available black body radiation is picked up by these characteristic frequencies of CO2.

    Can someone please explain how a concentration of 1 part of carbon dioxide in 2500 can cause a greenhouse effect? We really need to know because we may be barking up the wrong tree altogether.

    1. As a chemist you would know that small concentrations can and do have a disproportionate effect – arsenic is poisonous from as little as two parts per million. I’m not a scientist and the technical details of how the greenhouse effect works are not something I’m going to attempt to describe, but we certainly shouldn’t be doubting it on the basis of disproportionate effects.

  2. As usual, having less children is not mentioned. Yet that is by far the most effective action and it also really helps address ALL the other environmental problems humanity faces as well. Why, oh why, are people so afraid to discuss matters to do with human population? The solutions are largely about female empowerment, surely something everyone can support…

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