The Hot Topic – how to tackle global warming and still keep the lights on

“The Hot Topic – how to tackle global warming and still keep the lights on” by Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King, 2008, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, £9.99.

The Hot Topic is one of at least a dozen books giving an introduction to the issue of global warming. Although written by two scientists, it is an easy-to-read book for people not very familiar with the topic. The 300 pages are organised into three main sections: The problem, Technological solutions and Political solutions. These are followed by an appendix called “Climate myths, half-truths and misconceptions”, which is very much a summary of what the three main sections have said. Finally, there is a glossary, useful websites and (as you would expect from scientists) detailed notes.

Of the book’s three main parts the one on The Problem is the best. Here you get an excellent description how climate change is not just a problem for our children and grandchildren but an urgent problem manifesting itself today in changing weather patterns in huge parts of the world. It is explained how this drastic change is made by humans – mainly through our use of fossil fuels and through change of land use (deforestation, etc).

Although the problems are created mainly by the developed, rich world it is the developing world (the poorest countries) that are most exposed to the drastic and chaotic weather change. Even if the whole world stopped using all fossil fuels from today and stopped all deforestation at the same time the world’s temperature (and therefore the weather patterns) will keep changing for the worst the rest of the century as it takes along time for the greenhouse gases already in the air to reduce to an acceptable level. So the sooner we act the better for the planet.

The book has a good description of the wild cards in this climate change. These are the tipping points where the rising temperatures starts dynamics which will contribute to further increases in the temperature to a point where we will no longer be able to stop this process. These processes are called positive feedbacks, not because they are good for the climate but because they reinforce an existing trend.

There are several such positive feedbacks already in operation and they are the unknown joker in the climate game because it is currently difficult to predict where each of them has their tipping points. To give just one example: snow and ice around the world reflects the sun back into space and therefore acts as a mirror that reduces the temperature rises. However, when snow and ice melts and becomes water it absorbs the sun’s heat and therefore accelerates the temperature rises. The glaciers around the world, the poles, the Greenland ice sheet all accelerate the melting process a lot faster than expected. As a result the global sea levels are likely to rise 1-2 meters this century, twice as much as predicted by scientists only a few years ago.

‘The Hot Topic’ was written in the Autumn of 2007 and science has developed in the last two years. If you want some up-to-date information about the scientific knowledge on climate change around 2,500 people, mainly researchers from nearly 80 countries, contributing more than 1400 scientific presentations met in Copenhagen in March 2009 to update their collective knowledge. A 40-page Synthesis Report has been produced along with abstracts of all the 1400 presentations and a transcript of the closing session. For more information please go to www.climatecongress.ku.dk. – Another interesting summary of the scientific knowledge in 2009 is a 60 page document you can find on www.copenhagendiagnosis.com, which includes the results of the above March 2009 Climate Congress.

Can technologies fix the problem?

“The Hot Topic” book in its part II runs through the various technologies that can help the world dealing with climate change. Quite rightly it starts off with an analysis of “What should we aim for?” in terms of an acceptable rise of the global average temperature and perhaps not surprisingly it comes to the conclusion that a max 2 degree C increase above pre-industrial levels is acceptable – the level set by most international bodies, including the UN. The book does mention that some developing countries are asking for a max 1.5C increase as the costs of a 2C increase are just too high.

You can understand why some want a max of 1.5C when you read some of the vulnerabilities at warming of up to 2C: 10-30 million more people at risk of hunger, increase in floods, droughts and infectious diseases, 0.4-1.7 billion people suffering increased water scarcity, etc, etc. If the global temperatures increased by 2-3 degrees C you will have all the above plus: up to 3 million more people at risk of flooding, up to a further 10 million at risk of hunger, 20-30 per cent of all species on Earth at increasingly high risk of extinction, etc, etc. The book also describes the consequences of increases between 3 and 5 degrees C, which are of course even more frightening.

Having set the aim of a max 2 degree C increase the authors then ask how much greenhouse gases we should allow in the atmosphere. The answer they give is 450 ppm CO2eq as “the lowest we can possibly hope for”, which is only slightly more than what it is today (430 ppm CO2eq). However, the authors also say that a 450 ppm CO2eq is probably going to give a temperature rise “between 2 and 3.5 degree C with a likeliest value around 2.5 degree C”! If the authors had said that 450 ppm is the peak that has to be reduced to 350 ppm within 15-20 years I could have understood their reasoning. However, they talk about a stabilisation at 450 ppm. This is a high risk to take for the billions of people in the developing world.

The authors then run through all the various technologies that can reduce the use of fossil fuels. The list is comprehensive and well explained. The list includes nuclear energy (both fission and the still rather unknown possibility of fusion). The authors are obviously pro-nuclear and do not give the doubters a fair hearing. They write on page 140: “All detailed studies agree, however, that nuclear power is a very low-carbon energy source and hence a good candidate for the new energy mix”. This is the case if you only look at the energy production side. If you include the mining of uranium and particularly the decommission of nuclear power plants you will find that some studies show that nuclear has a higher CO2 emission from cradle-to-grave than a natural gas fired power plant. Then there is the unsolved problem of what to do with the nuclear waste, which the authors do not pay much attention to.

The authors also have a rather optimistic view of carbon capture and storage (CCS): “This could be the most important bridging technology between fossil fuels and new, low-carbon alternatives.” CCS is still being tested in small pilot projects and has not yet been proven at a large commercial scale. It is not only very expensive; it also uses a lot of energy and might just prolong our use of fossil fuels rather than using the money to invest in renewable technologies.

Part III of the ‘The Hot Topic’ is on the political solutions. One of the authors used to be the UK government’s chief scientific advisor under Blair and Brown. This allow them to give some inside information on the working of the government but it also give the book a rather positive spin on what the UK government has done. Their claim that climate change was one of Tony Blair’s highest priorities is debatable when you look at how much was actually done while Blair was premier minister.

The book is also affected by the fact that it was written before the global financial crises changed a lot of people’s view on globalisation, their expectation of constant economic growth and capitalism’s ability to meet people’s needs. The authors give the impression that we can solve climate change challenge – although they admit that it will not be easy – while economic growth can continue. Whether you can do both is not even being asked in the book. You wonder how much the book would have changed if it had been written just a year later.

To give an example: when it comes to a discussion on how to pay for a global transition toward a low-carbon economy the authors favour trading in emission permits over a tax on fossil fuel, despite being very critical on how emission trading have worked so far. “For encouragements, emissions trading is the best game in town. The more emissions you save, the more money you can earn by selling your excess. Pricing commodities is a formula that markets, and governments, understand very well…” (page193). After the global financial crisis caused by traders who would want to have the same traders in charge of billions of pounds in emission permits? And what happens if the global price emission permits fall too low to have an effect?

Chapter 14 of the book is what you as individual can do to fight climate change. It lists many of the right things, like buy locally produced food (but does not advice to eat less meat and to eat organic which both are ways to reduce greenhouse gases). It correctly advice us t switch off electrical devices when we have finished using them but to label this the “most effective thing you can do to combat climate change” is debatable. More effective than buying all your electricity from 100% renewables? More effective than becoming vegetarian or vegan and buy organic? No way.

Personally, I would have liked chapter 14 to advocate change through community action (like Ashton Hayes and the transition town movement) rather then focussing solely on individual action. You are more likely to get reduction in CO2 emissions if you involve the community, partly because you can afford bigger projects (like a community wind turbine), partly because you are more likely to get grants and sponsors if you act as a community and you are more likely to convince sceptical individuals if they see their neighbours are involved.

Despite these weaknesses in the book it is still a good introduction to climate change for the non-expert, with a wealth of useful facts.

Finn Jensen