In 1978, James F Black, one of Exxon’s senior scientists, told a group of company executives that by doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we would increase average global temperatures by two to three degrees Celsius. He had already informed the same executives of the world’s largest oil company that there is a ‘general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.’
That secret internal briefing was circulated to the highest levels of the company more than ten years before the issues of climate change were widely understood. One of the first to alert the general public was Bill McKibben in his ground breaking book The End Of Nature, which became a global best-seller and clearly stated what the oil companies had already known for a long time – that fossil fuel extraction and use posed an existential threat to human life on this planet. Thirty years and dozens of books and decades of campaigning later, McKibben’s latest broadside is set to resonate equally powerfully.
Again, McKibben seems to have written the right book for the time. The End of Nature became a clarion call for a generation of environmental campaigners. It was stark in its appraisal of the problems we faced but optimistic that we had the time and possibly the wit and wisdom to resolve them. In an interview with the LA Times, he confessed that at the time he and many others thought we had maybe a hundred years to set things right.
On a recent trip to Greenland, McKibben realised as he watched vast chunks of ice plunge into the sea, that the planet is now unravelling in front of us. He said: ‘Most people are more or less aware that something bad is happening. I don’t think everyone is aware how quickly it’s happening.’
It is that sense of urgency which imbues Falter with a timely energy. He spends the first half of the book setting out the problem in a fresh and, at times, deeply alarming manner. He starts with a warning that the prognosis is bleak, that despite being fully aware of the extent of the problems we have squandered opportunities, delayed and procrastinated and undoubtedly made things far, far worse.
He lambasts the Trump administration for pulling out of the Paris climate accords noting that the country which produces more carbon dioxide than any other it now not willing to make even a modest commitment to solving the problem. It is his straightforward exposition of the challenges we face and our failures in the past decades to confront the glaringly obvious and physically immutable results of pumping more and more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, that sees the book at its best.
He spends some time in the middle of the book trying to establish how we got to our perilous position and lays some of the blame on oil company bosses for ignoring the crisis their scientists had warned them was coming, because of their misplaced faith in extreme neoliberal economic theories citing their obsession with the political ramblings of controversial author Ayn Rand (incidentally, Sajid Javid’s favourite writer). But the root causes and complex economic and political forces which have got us to this point would benefit from a more detailed and nuanced analysis than he manages here.
There are also unexpected side steps into the threats posed by artificial intelligence and genetic engineering which deserve whole books to themselves. However, McKibben gets back on track when he gets onto solutions and he lays out his hopes for the arresting alliance of solar panels and non-violent political action. How these two very different human achievements can work together to bring sustainable change provides a glimmer of hope.
It’s Falter’s urgent anger and shocking revelations that make it such a key read for today. One fact I’m still reeling with is what the Exxon oil executives did with their knowledge about the threats posed by the changes to our climate caused by burning oil. They decided to raise the height of the lowest platforms of their offshore oil rigs to avoid them being swamped by rising sea levels!
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