When I was around six years old I borrowed a book from the local library called Global Warming. It was one of those educational kids’ books. Big words, lots of pictures. But this wasn’t your average Dr. Seuss title. It was a kids’ book about an intensely serious issue that hasn’t gone away yet, and doesn’t look like it will go away for many decades to come. Even though we now call it climate change, Global Warming was my first experience of the problem that will likely define my life.
In the book was a spread titled ‘The Greenhouse Effect’. It was an elegant explanation of a fundamental principle of climate science: greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. I was familiar with greenhouses. They were brilliantly warm, sunny places that smelled like tomatoes and earthworms. Greenhouses made life possible where it otherwise shouldn’t be. They were like a blanket, keeping you warm on cold winter nights.
But now people were adding too many layers, and the blanket was becoming smothering. Since at least the Industrial Revolution people had been adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by burning coal, oil, and gas. This thickening blanket of greenhouse gases trapped more heat in the atmosphere, and temperatures began to climb.
There was a picture in Global Warming. It was a man in what looked like a desert. There were no plants, only red dust. The man was sweating. He was sweating because he was in some kind of spacesuit, covered head to toe in foil that was no doubt designed to keep him cool. But even with his protective shield it was still uncomfortably warm in the blazing sun. He looked like an explorer on Mars, or perhaps Venus would be more accurate. But no, this was some version of Earth gone horribly wrong.
Fortunately I’ve since discovered such a future is unlikely, although I still wonder about the towns of outback Australia which already push the boundaries of what is tolerable, or even physically possible. It’s going to get hotter, but it could also get drier, wetter, or a mixture of all three. Whatever climate change is, it is going to be unpredictable. And it’s going to get that way during my lifetime.
When I talk about climate change to people of my generation, the reaction is invariably “that won’t affect me”. Unfortunately there are now journal papers stacked in piles to suggest otherwise. We’re almost certainly seeing some of the effects already. It now appears that whatever we do to stem the flow of greenhouse gases, we’ve locked in the changes for the next couple of decades. While I’m likely to see some dramatic changes, it’s the kids being born now that will really feel it. What sort of world will a six year old today grow up in? One radically different to the one I’ve known.
Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a survival guide for planetary destruction, carries the timeless mantra: Don’t Panic. We could say the same for climate change, with a caveat: Don’t panic, but get prepared. If we’re going to see some dramatic changes over our lifetimes, it would pay to have a think about what those changes might be, and how we’re going to deal with them. That’s the thinking behind this book.
This isn't about the apocalypse; that was so 2012. Climate change is a serious challenge for us to face as individuals and society. There's going to be blood, sweat, and tears, but I take solace in the fact that it's going to be unpredictable. It could be bad, it could be worse, but it could also be much better than we expect. So don't panic, get prepared.