REVIEW: Hothouse Earth - the climate action guide you've been waiting for
In his new popular science book, Prof. Bill McGuire gives us the layman's guide to climate we've been seeking, but not getting, from the media.
If there’s one criticism I have about Bill McGuire’s Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitant’s Guide, it’s that it’s kinda scary. But let’s be fair—this is not his fault, it’s just the nature of the contents. There’s really no way to be honest about the climate crisis without creating a little fear.
That said, given that the final ‘solutions’ section of the book is so powerful, I do wish he’d have got to it a little sooner rather than spending quite so long informing me of all his well-researched, authoritatively delivered, yet easy-to-understand scientific detail.
McGuire, Professor Emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London, refuses to mollycoddle us, but also to leave us without hope. Best of all, he is more than clear that hope is dependent on the majority, instead of the minority, taking their heads out of the sand and demanding change at government level.
This, I’d argue, is what makes the An Inhabitant’s Guide so powerful. It gives us an outline of ‘what to do now’, making clear that the vast majority requires system change at the very top, and demonstrates the kind of world we can expect to live (or not) in if we don’t.
He ends the book by saying:
“I am certainly raising the alarm, and I don’t apologise for this. But alarmist? No. There is no exaggeration of the dangers here, no hyperbole. All the material included and addressed in this book is rooted in hard science…
Raising the alarm, in our current circumstances, is a good thing. It fits with the precautionary principle and also with the idea that we need to really know our enemy - in this case global heating - and how well it is armed, if we want to defeat it. My view is that, currently, most members of the public, and indeed most world leaders, simply do not. The fact that the word ‘cake’ was mentioned ten times more than ‘climate change’ on UK television in 2020 says it all about how true appreciation of the nature and scale of the climate emergency has yet to break through.”
I recently wrote about climate denial in the media; from many outlets, coverage is at best infrequent, and at worst a scene from Idiocracy. When outlets such as the Guardian and the Independent do make a commitment to covering the crisis with urgency, the tone and reactive fragmentation of the coverage—which is, essentially, just the way that news works—conjures such anxiety that many are now simply avoiding it. I have argued that the current business model of news is not equipped to deliver the message needed. McGuire comes pretty damn close.
To his credit, while the book is a frightening outline of the potential scenarios for our increasingly heating planet, McGuire is honest about where the science is clear, where it is not, and what can be done to prevent the worst (more on this, below).
He is also, as he says above, not a gleeful alarmist. He called out the Guardian on Twitter this week for the headline on their coverage of the book’s release, noting that he didn’t at any point use the phrase “total climate meltdown”. They have now changed it.
As well as being a volcanologist (it’s literally this guy’s job to understand what happens when a bunch of shit is chucked into the atmosphere) McGuire is a good writer. Not in the ‘he knows lots of big words’ way; in the ‘this is a plain-English, reliable outline I can understand but doesn’t talk down to me’ way. Let’s face it - that’s what millions of us, billions of us, need right now.
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It’s not possible to create a full summary here—the book is far-reaching, examining all sorts of global causes and effects, possible and probable, in a fair amount of scientific detail.
But here’s a breakdown of key learnings I took away:
An average temperature rise of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is the “guardrail” above which climate breakdown becomes harshly experienced around the world, and tipping points/warming feedback loops begin to trigger each other, or “cascade”.
Given this is an average rise of 1.5°C, in some places (e.g. the sea) temperatures will be less; on land (i.e. where you live) they could be, say, 7°C hotter. (Your current summers are 33°C? Imagine frequent 40°C. And that’s one of the better-case scenarios.)
To keep to 1.5°C, we need to cut emissions by 45% before 2030. Currently, we are on track to increase emissions by 14% by then, which would lead to 2.7°C by 2050.
We’ve already hit 1.2°C. If all post-COP pledges are kept we might keep to 1.9°C. But these are only pledges, not legally binding. We are not currently meeting them.
Regardless of actual temperature changes in each place, weather will become more extreme generally. More floods. More heatwaves. More storms, that last longer, and cause more damage.
The science is settled. The planet is heating up, and as a result weather patterns are changing and becoming more extreme. And yet: “there are still so many unknowns associated with global heating that the [modeling] can only provide a guide to what our world will look like”.
We will have to adapt to some change, no matter what, but currently, easy adaptations are not being implemented by governments. For example, in the UK insulation is badly needed in millions of homes, not only to keep heat in during winter, but heat out during summer. “Huge numbers of modern, tiny, poorly insulated UK homes will become unliveable heat traps […] hundreds of thousands of these inappropriate homes continue to be built every year.”
Wildfires are an example of the kinds of positive feedback loops that are both a cause, and effect, of warming: firstly, “due to the destruction of huge areas of forest that would otherwise have absorbed a significant amount of carbon during its lifetime. The second because the burning of wood on such a prodigious scale releases colossal amounts of CO2”.
“For the whole of 2021, wildfires released around the same amount of CO2 as Germany emits in a year.”
“Drought may not be spectacular” but is “regarded by cultural historians as one of the most important drivers of political change in the past 5,000 years […] four-fifths of all the world’s cultivated land [is] dependent upon regular rainfall”
All of this results in a prediction that the number of global climate migrants (who, at least currently, are not protected under the legal term ‘refugee’) will go “through the roof”. Mass migration has, as we’ve seen, tended to lead to a rise of populism, fascism, and civil unrest when poorly dealt with by government.
I’ll stop now, because I’ve covered a lot (though this barely scratches the surface).
I also think it’s important to get to the ‘solutions’ bit, where McGuire really delivers. A whole section at the end of the book is dedicated to the specific actions we need to take, and McGuire does not pull punches: system change is paramount.
“Our climate is being destroyed by unadulterated, free-market capitalism […] Within a political-economic system predicated upon competition and profit rather than the greater good, it is always going to be challenging and problematical - even with the best will in the world - to bring down emissions rapidly enough to avoid the most severe impacts of global heating.”
Here are the solutions he outlines in the final section of the book:
“Fossil fuel companies, responsible for leaking around half of all methane emitted by human activities, need to be made - by law - to clean up their act immediately.”
“wellheads and coal mines shut down as soon as possible […] leave known oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground, and stop exploring”
“punitive measures, starting with the scrap of subsidies […] or better still, the subsidies should be switched to the renewables sector.”
“banks must be made, using bouquets, brickbats or both, to stop hurling money at the fossil fuel sector”
“accelerate divestment of any and all stocks and shares [in fossil fuels]”
“insurers need to play their part by backing away from providing a safety net for fossil fuel facilities”
“throw in a carbon tax”
“large-scale tree planting”
“progressive phasing out of beef and dairy farming”
“restoring peatlands and wetlands so they store more carbon”
“launching massive investment programmes in home insulation and green domestic energy in developed countries”
“the ramping up of cheap, green and efficient public transport systems”
“the incentivisation of walking and cycling”
“shovelling money in the direction of majority world countries to help them transition to greener futures with as little economic and social upheaval as possible”
“take away what seems to be a free pass to pollute from the richest 1 per cent”
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