Saturday, 23 August 2008

Seven Years to Save the Planet – Bill McGuire ***

There are a lot of ‘how to combat global warming’ books out there, so to be worth reading, a book needs a new twist, and it’s fair to say that Bill McGuire has achieved this. Seven Years is divided into five parts – Where are we now? What will climate change mean for my children and their children? What can I do? What should others be doing? and Is it already too late? In each section there are a series of mini-chapters, each with a question, a little commentary and the answer, from ‘Will the Arctic Ocean soon be ice free?’ to ‘What is my carbon footprint?’
Of the main sections, the first two are far and above the best. McGuire is director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, giving him ideal placement to be aware just what the threats are and their potential impact on our planet and our lives. He tells it straight, making it clear just how conservative the IPCC can be in its predictions, and how even relatively small changes can be enough to have a big impact for our children and our children’s children. This is scary stuff and deservedly so. We have a lot to do, and relatively little time to do it.
Where he is much weaker – and sadly, this is the bit we really need to hear – is on solutions. His ‘What can I do?’ section is full of the usual skim-the-surface changes we can make, adopting the standard knee-jerk solutions. About the only time he spots the dangers of over-simplification is when he mentions that Spanish tomatoes have less climate impact for UK buyers than the commercial home-grown greenhouse variety – but elsewhere his solutions are highly simplistic. On food, for instance, it’s organic, organic, organic – even though there are many circumstances where organic growing is worse for climate change (specific example, for instance, organic chickens, compared to conventional birds). Similarly, he emphasizes using the train for all long distance journeys, when coaches are greener, and a full car is also better than some diesel trains in the UK. He also pushes hybrid cars – fine for city dwellers like him, but there are much cleaner conventional small cars for country/motorway driving. Strangest of all he loves hydrogen cars, saying ‘Electric vehicles are becoming more attractive… but at the moment they are charged mainly with electricity generated by fossil fuels. Probably the best bet is renewably-generated hydrogen…’ But all hydrogen is, in effect, is an alternative to a battery. It’s used to store energy from electricity. And just like the electric cars, this electricity too would, for the moment, mainly come from fossil fuels. It doesn’t make sense.
In his urge to make us blame ourselves, he points out how we have stupidly not built lots more wind farms, the Severn barrage etc. – but nowhere does he point out that the biggest opposition to wind farms and the Severn barrage tends to come from green groups. He hasn’t bitten the bullet enough to tell people you’ve got to get over worrying about how pretty the country looks – this is about survival. He seems to think you can fix green issues but not deal with the politics. Oh, and he calls the G-Wiz cute. That’s really worrying.
All-in-all, then, half a great book, but in a book subtitled the questions… and answers, the answers don’t live up to the questions.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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