Green shoots — words of hope on the climate crisis
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Non-Fiction news every morning.
The human is a perplexing creature. It is clever enough to have worked out in the 1800s that the more carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere, the more the Earth’s temperature will rise. It knew more than 30 years ago that global warming had begun and there would be striking changes in the climate unless it burned less carbon-releasing fossil fuels.
Yet its use of coal, oil and gas continued to boom, despite ever more alarming evidence of flooding, sweltering heat and other extreme weather events that it knew this was likely to accelerate.
Increasing numbers of writers have charted this bleak failure in recent years. On the non-fiction shelves, 2019 brought David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth and Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth, while Sweden’s Andreas Malm captured the rising fury of climate activists with How to Blow Up a Pipeline at the start of this year. The theme continued in novels, notably John Lanchester’s 2019 fable, The Wall, and last year’s The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Perhaps it was inevitable that a new crop of books would emerge now to make the case for something else again: hope. Pleas for optimism are not new in the climate debate. The temptation to fall into a spiral of defeatism is clearly pointless. Yet at a time when the fight to bring down carbon emissions is entering a more fraught and angry phase, these books provoke difficult questions about the political possibility of keeping hope, as it were, alive.
By far the best-known writer in the group is Jane Goodall, the chimpanzee researcher who redefined the way we understand our fellow primates. Goodall, who turned 87 this year, has produced The Book of Hope in collaboration with Douglas Abrams, co-author of 2016’s The Book of Joy with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.
The new book is in effect an extended interview conducted by Abrams, a US writer and literary agent, with a woman he introduces as “a global hero who has travelled the world for decades as a messenger of hope”. This reverential tone infuses a book that is often less can-do than woo-woo.
It is not long before we meet Goodall’s Native American “spirit brother”, Chitcus, who prays for her each day at dawn, and “Beech”, a tree in the garden of the English home where she grew up that she says was one of her “closest childhood friends”.
Thankfully, Abrams also spends a lot of time asking Goodall to explain why we should think of hope as anything more than a panacea amid today’s political turmoil and remorseless environmental destruction.
What does she have to say to climate activist Greta Thunberg, who bluntly told the 2019 World Economic Forum: “I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic” and then act as if “our house is on fire, because it is”? Goodall agrees fear and anger are appropriate responses, “but if we don’t have hope that we can put the fire out, we will give up”.
Having grown up during the second world war, lived through the cold war arms race and witnessed 9/11 while in New York, Goodall offers four reasons to believe all is not lost, starting with human intellect. It has brought bloodshed and misery but also the capacity to understand how global problems can be solved.
Goodall’s conservation work with young people underpins another belief, that “this generation is different” and is poised to address environmental disaster and injustice in a way their parents have not.
For those who remain unpersuaded, she has a third reason: “the indomitable human spirit”, embodied by a string of individuals she has come across. The Chinese men, one blind and one armless, for example, who planted thousands of trees around their polluted village.
Finally, she makes the case for the resilience of nature, reminding us that the natural world can bounce back powerfully — if humans allow it. There is the tree that survived the 1945 Nagasaki atomic bomb. The wolves wiped out in Yellowstone National Park that, once reintroduced in the 1990s, restored the balance of the ecosystem enough to drive the recovery of birds, beavers and bears.
Some stories stretch credulity. One suggests Ben van Beurden, chief executive of the Royal Dutch Shell oil group, decided to support the 2015 Paris climate agreement because his 10-year-old daughter asked if it was true his company was destroying the planet. It is hard to imagine this was the sole reason. Yet Goodall’s tales are undeniably uplifting, as is her life story.
So too is much of Earthshot: How to Save Our Planet, one of several new books that bring stories from around the world of technologies and schemes to tackle environmental crises. The book coincides with the announcement this month of the inaugural winners of the Earthshot Prizes: five £1m awards due to be made annually for the next 10 years to help solve intractable environmental problems.
The first winners include a coral-growing project in the Bahamas and the country of Costa Rica, an eminent rainforest restorer. The Earthshot book showcases many more successes, including the Yellowstone wolf project that Goodall highlights. A chapter titled “Reasons for hope” records that within a month of the Hiroshima bomb, grass across the ravaged city started to grow again.
In a foreword, Prince William, who launched the Earthshot Prize, echoes Goodall by declaring his faith in a new generation of young people who “no longer believe that change is too difficult”. We must hope both are right, but it is impossible to ignore the political headwinds against them.
At the time of writing, US President Joe Biden is struggling to stop coal industry supporters in Congress torpedoing central elements of his climate agenda. China’s president Xi Jinping is expected to shun the COP26 summit, raising fears that the world’s biggest emitter may not announce keenly awaited new climate goals at the conference. COP26 itself has highlighted countless political leaders failing to make the systemic changes needed to curb emissions.
Against this background, Professor Katharine Hayhoe makes a welcome effort to address the politicisation of climate change head-on in Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.
Hayhoe is an appealing messenger: a Canadian-born atmospheric scientist, she is also a churchgoing Christian based in Lubbock, Texas, a city once ranked the second most conservative in the US. Her book grew out of a much-watched TED Talk from 2018 in which she argued that the most important thing anyone can do to fight climate change is talk about it.
The activists gluing themselves to British motorways this month might disagree with this claim. So too might investors shunning coal and others taking more direct climate action. Still, the intense political polarisation Hayhoe writes of is undeniably far-reaching and she knows about it better than most. Furious objections to her work fill her inbox almost daily, she writes, from “You lie!!!” to “Get aborted you human-hating c***”.
Her US foes back Donald Trump. Her British ones like Brexit. The Australians generally back coal-supporting prime minister Scott Morrison and the Canadians love Alberta’s oil and gas industry but not their centre-left prime minister Justin Trudeau.
Yet even in the US, climate change was what Hayhoe calls “a respectably bipartisan issue well within most of our lifetimes”. As recently as 2008, former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich filmed an advert on the need for climate action with current Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Hayhoe argues today’s polarisation is driven by a fear of change in a period of sweeping societal shifts. This leads to people rejecting climate science for reasons that have nothing to do with the science itself and it is pointless to think they will ever be persuaded by facts.
This underpins a central and cheering insight in Hayhoe’s book. In the US at least, only 7 per cent of people are what she calls a “dismissive”: someone obsessed with the need to ridicule climate science, or attack climate scientists, or generally discount anything that shows human-caused climate change is serious and swift action is needed.
Her uncle is one, she says, and she advises anyone with an equally obstinate relative or acquaintance against thinking such “seven percenters” will ever be convinced. Far better to concentrate on the 93 per cent she says are receptive to having constructive conversations about the impacts of climate change and what can be done to address them.
How? Focus on things that are shared, from a home town to Rotary Club faith in goodwill. Also, talk about ways in which climate change affects things people like to do: the warmer temperatures that affect wine grapes or ski slopes.
This is not a flawless book. Though Hayhoe makes a valiant effort to argue for the contagious benefits of talking about a climate problem, it is hard to imagine conversation can significantly shift the dial. It’s even harder to imagine her message resonating with the millions who live under autocratic rule. Still, as people around the world grow more concerned about the climate, and their leaders’ failure to address it, these three books offer a helpful way of thinking about the future.
“It’s the hope that kills you,” English football fans like to say ruefully about the pain of being crushed by failed dreams. In the case of climate change though, hope may end up being among the least worst options to fight one of the greatest problems the human has ever known.
The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for an Endangered Planet by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams, Viking £16.99/Celadon Books $28, 272 pages
Earthshot: How to Save Our Planet by Colin Butfield and Jonnie Hughes, John Murray £20/$28 352 pages
Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World by Katharine Hayhoe, Atria/One Signal £20/$27 320 pages
Pilita Clark is an FT business columnist
More on climate change . . .
FT BOOKS Essay: How to heal our planet
Four books on climate change offer answers to one of the 21st century’s most pressing dilemmas
Kim Stanley Robinson: a climate plan for a world in flames
Humanity stands on the brink of disaster. But with creative thinking and collective will, we may still have time to avert catastrophe
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café