Reasons to be cheerful about climate change


Not the End of the World

by Hannah Ritchie (Chatto £18.99, 352pp)

Do we despair too readily of the state of our planet? Plenty of young people certainly do. In a recent worldwide survey of 16 to 25-year-olds, more than half said that ‘humanity was doomed’. Hannah Ritchie would once have agreed with them.

As she confesses, ‘I believed I was living through humanity’s most tragic period’. Then she began to examine the facts more closely. Now the lead researcher at the online publication Our World In Data, attempting to make information about the world’s problems accessible to the public, she is much more optimistic.

Hannah Ritchie reveals why she is more optimistic about the state of the planet in Not The End Of The World (file image)

Hannah Ritchie reveals why she is more optimistic about the state of the planet in Not The End Of The World (file image)

She is not one to deny or minimise these problems. Climate change is real. Air pollution is killing millions. Our actions threaten a mass extinction of species with whom we share the planet. However, perpetual doom and gloom are counter-productive. Overwrought, apocalyptic predictions of catastrophe play into the hands of deniers.

As Ritchie puts it: ‘Every doomsday activist that makes a big, bold claim invariably turns out to be wrong. Every time this happens, it chisels another bit of public trust away from scientists.’

And if we believe that planetary disaster is unavoidable, the temptation is to throw up our hands in despair and do nothing. Only if we believe that we can tackle the world’s environmental problems will we have any success in doing so. Ritchie is no foolish Pollyanna, but she is prepared to make such statements as, ‘There has never been a better time to be alive’.

And she has facts at her fingertips to back them up. She is not claiming things are fine as they are (who would?) but, in all kinds of ways, they are improving.

Some problems that may seem peculiar to today have, in reality, been around for a long time. Evidence of air pollution has been found in ancient Egyptian mummies. London was once more polluted than any contemporary city. The Great Smog that enveloped the capital for four days in December 1952 is estimated to have killed nearly 10,000 inhabitants.

The levels of pollution in modern cities such as Delhi and Beijing may seem unprecedented, but they are not. And given funding and government commitment, it is possible to clean them up.

How can we, as individuals, lessen our damaging effect on the environment? Rather disappointingly, Ritchie points out that many of the things we imagine to be green really aren’t. ‘Eating locally produced food doesn’t make a big difference,’ she writes. ‘Nor does eating organic food.’

And when people are asked what they think are the most useful ways they can show they are environmentally friendly, they often plump for things that don’t have a huge impact.

Surprisingly, recycling is one of them. Popping your waste into the appropriate bins is worthwhile, but switching to an electric car or taking one flight fewer in a year will have a bigger impact. The best thing we can do is eat less meat, especially beef.

Surprisingly, recycling is one of the things that is mentioned a lot, but doesn't have a huge impact (file image)

Surprisingly, recycling is one of the things that is mentioned a lot, but doesn’t have a huge impact (file image)

Major changes for the worse we have inflicted on the planet are felt by other species. Deforestation has destroyed habitats and extinction threatens many animals. Some scientists argue that we are on the brink of a mass extinction event. There have been five in the past. In the worst of them, the end-Permian event 250 million years ago, as many as 96 per cent of species may have been lost. However, any impending sixth event is different.

As Ritchie puts it, ‘This mass extinction event is unlike any of the others, because there is a handbrake. We are the handbrake.’

If we are the cause, then we also have the means to turn things around. And there have been plenty of conservation success stories to highlight. The white rhino was close to extinction in 1900. There were thought to be only 20 left. Thanks to protection measures, there are now a thousand times as many white rhinos as there were over a century ago.

That all is not lost and that there is hope is the main message to take away from this well-argued, well-evidenced book.

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