Bringing the climate emergency to book

When this blog first when live in late November 2007, the world was a quite different place.  That year, global CO2 levels, as recorded at Mauna Loa, had reached an all-time high of 384 parts per million (ppm). Since then, they have climbed relentlessly, reaching around 418ppm this year. And Greta Thunberg was approaching her fifth birthday. Few could then have realised the butterfly effect of the shy Swedish teenager and her now-famous Skolstrejk För Klimatet (school strike for climate). I filed a review of the quite remarkable new book she has conceived and co-ordinated for the Business Post in November. It brings together a crack squad of experts from across the spectrum in a readable, indeed engrossing volume. I was so taken by it that I decided to buy 25 copies and distribute them to a number of key figures in the media, and was fortunate to recently have the opportunity to present a copy of the book to President Michael D. Higgins at an event in Áras an Uachtaráin. For the record, this is the 450th posting on ThinkOrSwim, which this week marks 15 years and somewhere in excess of half a million words attempting to track and report on the rapidly unfolding climate and biodiversity emergencies. It’s sobering to consider just how quickly things have escalated since ThinkOrSwim first came into being. Consider that nine of the 10 hottest years on the global instrumental record have all occurred since 2010. This runaway climate train is quickly gathering speed, as global heating has now reached +1.2ºC over pre-industrial, which is already playing out in a dramatic ramping up in extreme weather events, such as the devastating summer of 2022 in the northern hemisphere; this takes us dangerously close to the 1.5ºC boundary into extremely dangerous climate change. Beyond this, “there be dragons”.

GIVEN ITS enormity, complexity and gravity, only the brave or foolhardy would try to capture the totality of the global climate and biodiversity emergency in a single volume. The Climate Book, the creation of the teenage climate activist, Greta Thunberg, is as brave as it is accomplished and succeeds well beyond any reasonable expectation.

Then again, the young Swedish activist is no ordinary author. In her four short years in the public domain, Thunberg has done the near impossible in almost single-handedly reshaping the entire narrative around climate change. In 2019, aged just 16, she became Time magazine’s youngest ever Person of the Year.

While the Covid lockdown derailed the global school strike movement she inspired, three years later Thunberg’s influence is undiminished – as seen in her ability to recruit over 100 of the finest minds in climate science, activism, literature, psychology, economics, journalism and beyond to contribute to her book, which forms a comprehensive compendium of the climate emergency.

Running to almost 450 pages, including extensive illustrations and photography, it is a dense, beautifully produced volume. High-profile contributors include Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Naomi Klein and George Monbiot, but the input of dozens of senior scientists – including Michael Mann, Johan Rockström, Friederike Otto, Kate Marvel and Kevin Anderson – is what gives The Climate Book its real clout.

Interspersed between the contributors is Thunberg’s own distinctive voice, in the form of a series of essays threading the whole project together and injecting a palpable sense of urgency into a work that somehow feels more than the sum of its many elements.

“This is the biggest story in the world, and it must be spoken as far and wide as our voices can carry,” she writes. “This is why the contents of this book – science, knowledge and stories – are literally a matter of life and death.” She’s not exaggerating.

One of the mysteries of our age is how so many otherwise informed, intelligent people remain firmly in denial of the threats we face. Science historian Naomi Oreskes suggests this may be because “the climate crisis breaks the promise of progress”.

This leads even people who are not outright deniers to “refuse to acknowledge just how broken our economic systems are”. After all, Oreskes adds, “no one wants to admit to being duped by disinformation or blinded by a myth, and people in positions of privilege rarely examine that privilege”.

Former Swedish crime journalist Alexandra Urisman Otto describes her climate epiphany – one I can personally relate to. Having stumbled into it, in 2019 she “passed a tipping point and went from ignorance and unconcern – straight down into the abyss of despair”. Journalism, she says, is “decades behind on the climate story” and only a minority of journalists see the climate and ecological crisis as “their area”.

To understand what is at stake, contributor Eugene Linden explains how, if Earth warms by 3ºC over pre-industrial temperatures, “the risk is, simply, the collapse of civilisation itself, a global calamity marked by financial collapse, mass starvation, migration and the descent of many nations into civil disorder”.

Having read scores of books and papers on climate and ecological emergencies over the years, I still found this handbook enormously informative and persuasive, yet fresh. Some vignettes are especially revealing; for instance, more than three billion people have access to less energy annually than is used by an average US fridge.

What could easily have been a mere smorgasbord of random essays has been skilfully edited and feels cohesive; indeed, you can almost sense Thunberg’s hyper-vigilant presence on every page. The striking cover features the “warming stripes” image developed by scientist Ed Hawkins to visualise the rapid advance of global warming.

The Climate Book won’t be read in a single sitting; the essay format lends itself to grazing. With Christmas approaching, there are a number of people in public life who need to read this book. If you approach it with an open mind, you can expect to be shocked.

“We have the unfathomably great opportunity to be alive at the most decisive time in history,” Thunberg concludes. “Make no mistake – no one else is going to do it for us. This is up to us, here and now. You and me.”

The Climate Book by Greta Thunberg, Penguin Random House, €29.99 (hardback)

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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