The Hot Topic

  • Gabrielle Walker &
  • David King
Bloomsbury: 2008. 309 pp. £9.99 9780156033183 Harvest Books: 2008. 288 pp. $14.00 | ISBN: 978-0-1560-3318-3

Two years ago, I wrote in these pages about the need for a book on climate change that could engage millions, equivalent to the forcefulness and accessibility of Rachel Carson's classic Silent Spring. Since that time, the Stern Review, the Fourth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth have joined the groaning shelves of works about global warming. Public awareness of climate change is soaring, and political parties increasingly vie for the greenest ground. So do we really need yet another mass-market climate-change book? When it is this good, unequivocally yes.

Misinformation and unsupported statements abound on both sides of the debate. Myriad shades of green advice on planet-friendly living compete for our attention with end-is-nigh hyperbole and diatribes from climate sceptics. The Hot Topic has an authoritative clarity that scythes through the junk science and brushes aside the brigades of doom-mongers and overly earnest environmentalists.

Its authors — geophysics writer and broadcaster Gabrielle Walker and ex-UK-government science adviser David King — have chosen a simple format. They guide the reader systematically through the history of climate science, the projections and uncertainties, the solutions and politics. After an engaging discussion of the greenhouse effect and its discovery, taking in key players such as Joseph Fourier and John Tyndall, they examine the palaeological record and the evidence for human-induced changes in climate.

So far, so unremarkable. These topics are the bread-and-butter of books on climate change and many readers will be familiar with the content. Similarly, the brief chapter on climate-change effects is covered in much more depth in Mark Lynas's recent book Six Degrees. It is when Walker and King get into the solutions and politics of climate change that their book really begins to show its pedigree.

First the authors ask: can we actually avoid a 2 °C rise in average global temperature — in other words, dangerous climate change? They think it unlikely, but stress that this Figure isn't an all-or-nothing doomsday trigger, and that it is still possible to stabilize greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that should avoid the most catastrophic impacts. On how to achieve this, their message is loud and clear: only a concerted global effort that makes use of new and established tools will do.

Walker and King give short thrift to geoengineering proposals, such as injecting clouds of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, labelling them dangerous tinkerings that trade one kind of pollution for another. Instead, they draw together an impressive and upbeat portfolio of possible efficiency boosters, renewable energy sources and emerging technologies, such as carbon capture and storage.

They advocate feeding more nuclear power into this mix, urging the reader to consider the arguments carefully. They contend that a new generation of more efficient nuclear power plants would create much less waste, adding just 10% to existing UK levels. But for a country that is already home to 100,000 tonnes of radioactive waste, this additional material would prompt a hefty rise in the cost of long-term storage. Their positive view of the nuclear option also fails to square with their justified scepticism over the pollution-swapping risks of geoengineering.

On climate economics and policy, Walker's writing skills and King's first-hand knowledge make for an informative and accessible package. Their empowering approach leaves no room for despair or inaction. A section on personal solutions necessarily goes over ground that will be familiar to most readers, but adds to the inspirational tone. In truth, I have never enjoyed reading a book on climate change more. The balance of accessible writing and peer-reviewed science — including a myth-busting appendix — should put a skip in the step of even the most jaded climatologist. The search for a climate-change equivalent of Silent Spring is over.