Can climate change be easily explained?

When it comes to galvanizing public support, climate change remains an elusive issue. While public polling will show that most people are concerned and agree action should be taken, there are only modest signs of the groundswell of support needed to drive policy makers to take the necessary steps, such as implementing a meaningful carbon price across a broad swathe of the economy. Part of the problem may be a basic understanding of the issues involved and the ramifications of doing nothing.

Many attempts have been made to confront the communications challenge of climate change and doubtless there will be many more, but today we have a new book from HRH The Prince of Wales, climate activist Tony Juniper and scientist Emily Shuckburgh. The explanation they seek to offer has been simplified and shortened such that it matches the requirement of a Ladybird Expert Book. For those who didn’t grow up on English books (rather than books in English), Ladybird is famous for its decades old series of standard sized hardback children’s books, with titles such as Marco Polo and The Story of Music. More recently, the format has been revived to publish a series of both humorous and expert books for adults.

ladybird-book-cover

The Climate Change book launches, with little up-front explanation, into ten pages of concern and warnings related to the impacts of warming. These include short discussions on sea level rise, disappearing wildlife, human health, extreme weather events and reduced sea ice cover. While the impacts are undoubtedly important, it’s not until page 20 that the real issue starts to unfold; why all this is happening and therefore what can be done about it. The book ends with the familiar call for two technology solution areas, renewable energy and energy efficiency, although like many recent publications it has mentioned a third, electric vehicles. Realistically, the solution set will be much more complex.

What is new in this publication is that some space is devoted to a number of supporting pieces, such as how carbon dioxide is measured in ice cores, the benefits of a circular economy, farming solutions that can raise the carbon content of soil and the impact of ocean acidification. Even carbon pricing and carbon capture and storage get a fleeting mention.

This is all good stuff and the three authors should be commended for the effort, but I wonder if this will truly inform the reader who is looking to understand a difficult issue. The opening feels like a well-worn path that has not had great success; the call that calamity awaits, akin to the very old children’s fable that starts with the cry of “The sky is falling“. The reaction to this in the world today has arguably been the opposite of that desired; instead of true global collaboration it may have created a sense of passivity which blocks the audience from actions. While the Paris Agreement is a collaboration milestone, we are collectively still far from a desired outcome in terms of emissions and with no guarantee of a pathway forward; instead we have a loose framework within which that pathway might be shaped.

There is a strong case to try a new approach; perhaps to let the audience better understand the science and come to one simple conclusion, i.e., given what we know about its role, we can’t keep adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and expect nothing to change. That conclusion opens up the opportunity to talk about impacts and solutions in a more dispassionate way, rather than appealing for action on the basis of calamity. This is the opportunity that such a book could have grasped.

Finally, there is some discussion on the energy transition that is needed. While the climate science side of the book is backed up by a distinguished list of academics who are leaders in their respective fields of earth science, there is no such support acknowledged with regards energy system transition. This feels like a rushed conclusion, although to be fair to the authors this isn’t the subject they are focussing on. Clearly a second Ladybird book is required!