It's getting hot in here

<strong>The Hot Topic: How to Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights On</strong>


There have now been many books written about global warming. For anyone untutored on the subject, The Hot Topic by Sir David King and Gabrielle Walker will provide an excellent starting point - it is clear, concise and comprehensive. This strength is also its main drawback, however. What it gains in comprehensiveness, it loses in novelty. By mostly restating what a plethora of climate books have already said, King (formerly the government's chief scientist) and Walker lose the opportunity to move the debate forward in any significant way.

The first five chapters deal with the basic science. King is a first-class scientist, and Walker (who also writes for the science journal Nature) is a first-class writer, so their treatment of the issues - from basic greenhouse physics to wild cards in the climate system - is both readable and authoritative. But I couldn't help thinking: do we really have to wade through 80 pages of this stuff in every book about global warming? Yes, we know that rising levels of greenhouse gases trap solar radiation, causing the earth's temperature to rise. Yes, we know the sceptics are wrong and silly in pointing to natural causes. We know also that the ice caps are melting, and that heatwaves are on the increase. We know about sea levels and extreme weather. How about telling us something we didn't know? The book even has a picture of bloody polar bears on the cover, for goodness' sake. Can a treatment of this actually rather exciting issue get any more staid?

I read the book keenly, but with a growing sense of disappointment. David King took pains to support causes he believed in even when he was the government's chief scientist. He wanted to cull badgers in huge numbers to stop bovine tuberculosis - a hugely controversial stance. He strongly supported genetically modified crops. He lost no opportunity to sing the praises of nuclear power, particularly in the context of climate change. I was hoping for a book that challenged my preconceptions, particularly now that King is released from the government's employ and therefore able, presumably, to state his opinions more freely.

He could, for example, have told us more about why he thinks GM crops are essential to feed the world in an era of rapidly rising temperatures. That sounds like technocratic twaddle to me - but then I'm prejudiced. I hate GM crops per se. Yet even I would be prepared to reconsider if someone of King's stature made a rational and convincing case for their use in a world beset by climate change. The issue, however, is not even raised. I looked under G in the index just to make sure. It isn't there.

Even the section on nuclear power seems to shy away from controversy. I was looking forward to reading King having a good bash at environmentalists, whose foaming-at-the-mouth loathing of nuclear fission is surely ripe for a few lofty scientific put-downs. Instead, we get three and a half pages of rather uncontroversial discussion which could have come straight from Jonathon Porritt's Sustainable Development Commission, so measured does it sound. He is still pro-nuclear, of course, but he appears almost timid. "If your gut instinct is to react against nuclear power, do consider the arguments here very carefully," he pleads. "Though [nuclear] is not necessarily an ideal way to make energy, the dangers of climate change are certainly far worse." I agree, but where's the fun in that?

King has written in the popular press that environmentalists' treatment of aviation is dangerously overhyped. Time for something a bit juicier? Unfortunately not - "it's definitely a good idea to try to fly less" is the upshot. Yawn. By this time I was wondering if the real David King had been kidnapped and replaced with some remote-controlled droid from Friends of the Earth.

The policy discussion on the Kyoto Protocol, the Climate Change Bill and suchlike, is - well, as I said before, clear, concise and comprehensive. Things get slightly more exciting when King examines what long-term target world policymakers should set. While serving as the government's chief scientist, he was on record as suggesting that a 550ppm CO2 target was sufficient to avert dangerous climate change. Now he says that we need to stay below a global temperature increase of 2°, and therefore only a 400ppm target - 450ppm CO2 equivalent, as stated in the book - will do. (If you don't know what all this means, it's time you did. And this book is definitely for you.) Quite so, but as this is a complete U-turn, it would have been nice to have had an apology, or, at the very least, an honest acknowledgement that his previous position has turned out to be overly complacent. None is forthcoming.

By the time I got to the final chapter, entitled "How You Can Change the World", I was ready to call the police. I now know beyond doubt that the real David King has indeed been imprisoned in Friends of the Earth's basement and replaced with a cunningly disguised eco-robot. We have to turn appliances off at the wall, say Walker and King, because leaving them on standby uses unnecessary electricity. We must insulate our lofts. We must recycle. One section is even headed "Change your light bulbs". I'm not disagreeing with any of this; I just don't want to read any more books about it. So, what can I say? The Hot Topic is clear, concise and comprehensive. But it isn't terribly interesting. A bit like a geography textbook, really. Yes, that's it, let's end on a positive note: I highly recommend this book to geography teachers. And can someone from Friends of the Earth release the real David King, please? He's much more interesting than this.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?