You’ve started with Why We Disagree About Climate Change by Mike Hulme, a leading climate scientist.
Hulme takes a very interesting position. He makes clear that he believes there is a man-made impact on the climate, but he is very opposed to people who assume the science is settled. He takes a view which I think is very healthy, that ‘science needs the oxygen of scepticism’. So Hulme is someone who conceivably straddles the divide that has opened up between those who passionately believe that we have to stop emitting greenhouse gases to prevent dangerous climate change and those who think it isn’t really a problem at all. And I think that’s very important, because there aren’t enough people doing that. The fact he does so from his great position of credibility and strength is a really valuable contribution.
The book is not an easy read – at least sections of it aren’t. But it is remarkably clear about what science can do, and what it can’t. So a great phrase of his, which I like, is ‘Science always speaks with a conditional voice.’ There are always uncertainties about science. If you ask a serious climate scientist, ‘What is going to happen?’ their answer will be hedged around with uncertainties. Hulme’s point is that, all too often, the nuances and the uncertainties of science and what’s being said about climate change are lost and all people hear is, ‘We’re going to die tomorrow!’ or that Greenland is going to melt and drown London or New York.
And that alarmism alienates people.
Yes, because people either hear that we’re going to die tomorrow and just don’t believe it, or they hear it and then it doesn’t happen. It’s probably one thing that has contributed to the hostility, the acrimony, about this debate – that people seem to have exaggerated.
Your next book is Coral by Steve Jones, subtitled A Pessimist in Paradise.
This is a wonderful book. Steve Jones obviously had great fun writing it. It’s full of a great mass of not always relevant, but always fascinating, elements, an incredibly eclectic collection of things to do with coral and man’s relation with coral. It’s just an amazing sweep: he takes you from Darwin and Captain Cook through to the nuclear blast in Bikini Atoll, through to global warming, and what that means. He shows how the coral, over the eons, has served an amazing service to the planet, and indirectly to us, by absorbing vast amounts of carbon. But, as we burn off the carbon, it warms the oceans, and that threatens the coral. He has a wonderful line about how coral reefs tell the tale of how life began, and also record many of its catastrophes. Like ice cores, there’s a lot of climate history to be learned from the coral.
Coral is an incredibly precious resource, and when it’s allowed to thrive it’s amazingly life-affirming. For example, it’ll form around a wreck – you think of a wreck as a terrible loss but, actually, for the marine wildlife, it’s a fantastic asset, and the coral thrives on it – as well as in all sorts of other places, like the legs of oil platforms. The book combines some fantastic imagery, very very clear science, an incredible range of different stories, and this warmth: it’s a wonderfully personal narrative. For a science book – for any book – it’s a fantastic read.
Your next choice is The End of the Line by Charles Clover, arguing that soon we won’t have any fish left?
I know Charles and he is a very sober, solid journalist – you’d never accuse him of sensationalism. He has researched this issue for years, and the book is a journey of his around all manner of places: the Tokyo fish market, the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, English fishing ports… And there’s a simmering, developing anger. it’s different from the anger of an environmental campaigner, demanding action on something. It’s this sense of building outrage, never losing the plot, never going over the top, but always very well-founded on fact and his own research. It’s a slow build, as he travels around and sees the staggering rape of the oceans. He’s got a description of some of the largest fishing nets – which are big enough to catch half a dozen Boeing 747s if they were flying formation. Images like that are incredibly powerful and in terms of awareness-raising, it’s absolutely staggering.
It’s hard to eat fish having read this book. It’s been turned into a documentary that was released as a movie. I haven’t seen it, but I can see why they did it.
You mean the visuals, actually seeing a net that big?
It’s also such a hot topic. There’s this constant battle between the political imperative of helping fishing communities and meeting market demand, and what the science is saying about what’s happening to the oceans. It’s a very passionate but I think level-headed book. He describes fishing with modern techniques – with radar, and these huge nets – as the most destructive activity on earth. He says that over-fishing is changing the world. We don’t see it, because it’s underwater, but if the same went on, on land – imagine if you had miles of net dragged over the plains of Africa, catching everything – it just wouldn’t be tolerated. But that’s what’s going on underwater.
Let’s go on to Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler.
I’ve had one real serious visit to Antarctica and on a second occasion I flew over it. It is the most staggering landscape and it’s actually emotional seeing the scale of the icebergs, the depth of the ice-sheet, the incredible weather. There are lots of books about Antarctica, but Sara Wheeler has pulled it all together more effectively than many others, and I think if you read just one book about this extraordinary continent it should be this one.
She spends a lot of time with scientists (it’s mainly scientists who hang out down there) but she manages to keep just the right amount of distance from the people she’s staying with – to be amused by them, to be occasionally appalled by them, to be impressed by their diligence and endeavours. And she very gently gets into the issue of what they’re actually doing – and, of course, one of the biggest themes of what they’re doing is change. How is the ice changing? How is the Antarctic wildlife changing?
She quotes one of the scientists, who is very diligently and carefully gathering little bits of data, and describes these little bits of data as clues to the bigger puzzle. I think that’s a great way to sum up how a lot of science works: it’s all incremental, it’s people methodically and carefully trying to find out whatever they can, and putting it together. We sort of assume, if we listen to environmental campaigners, that the whole thing is settled, the questions are all answered, that we know what is going on. And, actually, it’s far more complicated, it’s far more nuanced than that. It’s also very hazardous, finding out this kind of stuff. The impression I always got from my polar trips is how dangerous a lot of this research is. And therefore how impressive it is, to gather these clues to help form that bigger puzzle, which helps us all understand what is going on.
So what view would you walk away with, from the book, in terms of understanding climate change?
I don’t think it creates a view about climate change – what the books does is it reinforces something very valuable, about the diligence of science. Climate science has got a very bad name at the moment, with all of the scandals – and there have been some terrible mistakes. But I’ve always been biased in favour of science carried out in the field, where people are actually gathering their own hard-won information. And if there’s one impression that I come away with from this book, it’s that dedication to getting at the truth. It’s not a major theme of the book, but if you read it, I think you might come away with more respect for science at a time when it’s never faced such a trial.
She covers all the explorers as well? Scott, Amundsen, Mawson, Shackleton?
You get all the best stories, that’s what so wonderful about it. She loves all the best anecdotes – the greatest heroism. There’s a lot on Shackleton, and she was obviously very impressed by him, because, although the mission he’s most famous for was a complete failure, the heroism with which he led his men to safety is extraordinary. She’s a huge admirer of Cherry-Garrard, and Mawson – how these men coped with minimal equipment, absolutely the skimpiest or non-existent maps, and clothing that we would regard as totally inadequate. I’d always enjoyed the heroism of polar travel, but what she conveys fantastically is the combination of that with the modern heroism of science. They’re obviously better equipped, they’re insulated sometimes from the cold – I certainly was – and differently motivated. But people are still going through the unbelievable danger of this place. There’s not much chance of rescue if things go wrong, and the weather is unbelievable. And she brings all of that out – the heroism, both ancient and modern.
And do you get a sense of the weird life on these polar stations?
She’s very good at conveying how it’s almost like being on another planet: these isolated communities, how life works, what the internal politics are, how people get on or don’t get on. She shows the extraordinary chauvinism of the British base – which thankfully now is a thing of the past. But when she visited, she was not made very welcome as the only woman, or one of the very few women. She brings out how the Italians live and love food and are much jollier…you’ve got some wonderful examples of how the different nations operate. But the uniting theme is that they’re all engaged in diligently trying to understand the place and how it’s changing.
And what is changing?
The main thing that people are watching for is what happens to the ice. No one is suggesting that the ice is all going to go in a matter of days. But what really matters is understanding the mechanisms by which it might change. There’s a big focus, in particular, on one part of Antarctica: the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If that were to melt entirely, that would raise the global sea level by five to six metres. No one is saying that is going to happen, even over the next decade. But even if a bit of it melted, and you got a half-metre rise in the coming century, on top of sea-level rises from other factors, that would spell the end of a number of island nations, and be very threatening to a lot of coastal cities. So there’s this critical importance to understanding what is going on in the margins of Antarctica.
So, in practice, what are these scientists doing?
A combination of drilling: absolutely heroic operations to drill through the ice cores, which give you a record from the bubbles of past climate and show how this current climate might change. They’re going out on snowmobiles, they’re trekking, they’re using light aircraft, helicopters. And even if they’ve got satellites up, they’re also out on the ground, to try to calibrate the satellites. There’s nothing like on-the-ground measurement to tell you what’s happening. And all of this over huge areas – this is a continent twice the size of Australia. To get around requires incredible planning.
Lastly, you’ve chosen a spy thriller, Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights.
I absolutely love this. It’s a very, very skilful thriller, and very innovative. Lionel Davidson came up with this extremely unusual hero, a Canadian Indian from one of the tribes in British Columbia. The character is given great linguistic abilities and the looks that are typical of the Arctic peoples. And the whole plot revolves around getting him into this incredibly secret base in a very, very closed and remote part of Siberia, to discover a great secret. As it happens, it’s a place I’ve been to, not the base, which is fictional, but the town and region of Cherskii. What I love about this thriller is that the author is just wonderfully sympathetic to the Arctic peoples, who get a slightly rough press sometimes. There is the assumption among many that you’ve got the eskimos living in igloos up in the Arctic, and that’s about it. What this book does is delve into the richness of the different cultures, into the diversity of the different peoples there, their rivalries, and where they feel united. It’s all in the context of the racism of the Russians, who never liked or seem to have respected the people of the Arctic, or even the Arctic itself, except as something to exploit. And it’s a theme that rings very true. Particularly under the Soviet Union, the different peoples of the Arctic were collectivised and there was industrialisation of the crudest kind, exploitation of minerals, and ghastly tales of the gulags. This is all up in this region that’s now going through extraordinary change with the melt opening up great competition for resources, for new shipping routes and for control. The Russians planting a Russian flag on the sea bed at the North Pole was really a signal of intent, that they see the Arctic as their backyard. The book was written long before that event happened, which was only three years ago. But it’s all part of the context there. And I just think it’s a cracking story. I’ve reread it a number of times.
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So the hero is a kind of Arctic James Bond?
Yes, he is this great, counter-intuitive character. He’s absolutely anti-establishment and loathes the CIA, but he’s quite intrigued by this mission that’s come up and he realises he’s the only person who can do it. And it’s such a clever way to get into the Arctic peoples, to have someone who is not only incredibly sympathetic to them, but looks like them. Everyone I know who’s read it just loves the guy. He’s difficult and unusual and lovable.
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