Skip to main content

The Planet Remade - Oliver Morton ****

We've had plenty of books on climate change - its impact, what we can do about it and so forth. But one of the aspects that tends to be treated very narrowly is that 'what we can do about it.' Specifically, solutions tend to be about reducing production of greenhouse gasses. But all the evidence is that this will not be enough, and that there will be a requirement for geoengineering - taking on active changes to reduce warming or to get carbon out of the atmosphere or both.

Many green organisations don't like geoengineering, because they see it as more of the same - humans interfering with the environment which they should leave alone - but if you take a logical, rather than emotional approach, then some form of geoengineering will almost certainly be necessary.

Oliver Morton makes a persuasive case for this in an odd book, which meanders between the factual and unnecessarily poetic in a way that readers will either love or hate. Considering the content, the book is far too long - padded out with an awful lot of prose that doesn't do much, often making tangential references to some kind of geoengineering activity. So, for instance, on the last page we get this paragraph:
Up above and far away, too far for any eye but the mind's, a future lifted on long, strong wings starts a graceful, cautious turn. It seems almost beyond the bonds of Earth, but it does not fly in freedom; there are things it cannot do and must not do - many ways for it to slip and fall. The future is hemmed in on one hand by its design, on the other by the unforgiving laws of nature. But its heading and height can, with skill, be changed.
What? Really? Haven't a clue, and that's 30 seconds of my life I won't get back. There is far too much of this meandering waffle, and were it not for the power of the argument when he does stay on topic, I would only give this book three stars. But, the fact is that when Morton does focus we get lots of great material on geoengineering. He spends a lot of time on modifying what he calls the 'earthsystem' by 'veilmaking' (as you may gather, he likes making up words, or using these neologisms if someone else dreamed them up) i.e. spraying material up in the stratosphere which will reduce incoming energy from the Sun and hence reduce warming.

There is also a fair amount - probably the most interesting part of the book - on cloud science and manipulation of clouds and their impact on warming or cooling. By comparison, most of the methods of taking carbon out of the atmosphere get short shrift. Carbon capture and storage is, probably correctly, dismissed as simply not doing enough, and most of the mechanisms for taking carbon from the air at large are simply too expensive in money and/or land usage to be meaningfully deployed.

I came out of the other end of the experience of reading this book convinced we ought to be doing more on geoengineering, but without a clear picture of the way forward, in part because of the obscurity of the writing. I think this book will delight someone who wants to get all touchy feely about the concept, but it left me wanting more. Even so, it is doing something that no one else has, and so is worth a try.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …