books climate change democracy

Book review: Too hot to handle? by Rebecca Willis

There are lots of books about what we should do to reverse climate change, full of policies and technologies and ideas. It’s often framed as what must be done, according to the science. Rebecca Willis writes that “I see far less attention paid to the crucial question of how, as a human society, we should debate, agree and carry out plans to tackle climate change.”

Scientific imperatives are all well and good, but without a Global Planet Authority (see the book of that title I reviewed recently) we can’t actually delegate the climate to objective decision makers. We need to find ways to make radical decisions within a context of democracy.

So far, thirty years of environmental policy hasn’t got us very far, and Willis investigates why. There are vested interests and the lock-in of fossil fuel infrastructure. There are also political reasons. It’s tricky for politicians to sell a global issue to local constituents, and “climate change wasn’t an issue that would help politicians establish their reputation as a serious player.”

The book is particularly strong on how politicians view the politics of climate change, because Willis has asked them. There is some robust social research behind the book, with anonymised interviews from a broad range of British politicians. So we hear how some of them have made their peace with being considered ‘freaks’ or ‘zealots’ for always talking about the climate. Others have tried to pursue environmental goals indirectly, by being champions of public transport or renewable energy. They choose to emphasise broader positives, and keep climate concerns in the background. “If I had mentioned carbon emissions,” says one of the interviewees, “there would have been a rolling of eyes and saying ‘oh here he goes again’”.

How do we get past this climate silence? Willis argues that the answer is more democracy, not less. Participative forums such as citizen’s assemblies open up dialogue between citizens and politicians. Leaders aren’t left second-guessing what might be politically popular, and voters learn the facts and understand why action is needed. Whether the assembly is binding or not, “politicians can explore the public mandate for action”, and can do so without the interference of vested interests.

Citizens assemblies are a hot topic at the moment, but Willis is no latecomer to the idea. With decades of experience at the EU parliament and then the UK’s Green Alliance, she knows the value of safe spaces for dialogue, and she is herself an expert lead in Britain’s own climate assembly.

Too Hot to Handle? is a relatively short book and an easy read, and it deals with a critical issue not just at the national level, but locally too. How do we get broad democratic support for real climate action? It’s a question that councils up and down the country are going to face after declaring their climate emergencies in the last 18 months. If you’re at all involved in those projects, as an activist or from the government side, you might find this book helpful.


    1. Good question. The interviews with politicians are all UK folks, but they’re interspersed with lots of more general material and they’re anonymous anyway. The central argument about using more democracy applies universally, and there’s quite a lot about partisan divisions over climate change in America, and on the Green New Deal. So I’d say yes, I think it probably would be a productive read.

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