Bill McKibben (ed), The Global Warming Reader; Haydn Washington and John Cook, Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand

IssueOctober 2011
Review by Ian Sinclair

Despite UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s 2007 warning that climate change “is the defining challenge of our age”, since the Copenhagen summit global warming has fallen off the political agenda. No better time then to read these two essential and accessible books to enlighten and inspire action.

Divided into three sections – Science, Politics and Meaning – The Global Warming Reader is an edited collection of 36 seminal scientific papers, newspaper articles and book chapters. Famous environmentalists such as Al Gore and NASA scientist James Hansen are present, but so too are those like the novelist Michael Crichton who see climate change as an elaborate hoax to raise taxes. American author Bill McKibben, the founder of the climate change campaign, is a brilliant editor and guide, providing knowledgeable and passionate introductions to each contribution. With our political masters unable or unwilling to act, “the time has come to get mad, and then to get busy”, says McKibben.

The problem is “as the climate science becomes more certain, paradoxically public doubt about climate change is increasing”, explain Haydn Washington and John Cook in Climate Change Denial. The blame, they believe, largely rests with corporate-financed denial campaigns – a far-reaching network composed of industry, conservative political groups, politicians and sympathetic scientists. So influential has this movement been, George Monbiot believes, it has “delayed effective global action on climate change by several years.”

With the authors both Australian scientists, there is a focus on the debate down under. For example, they spend several pages dismantling the arguments of Ian Plimer, the country’s best-known denier. However, with its calm analysis and meticulous footnoting – something replicated on Cook’s popular website – the book deserves to find a global audience.Two key arguments of interest to activists repeatedly appear in both books. Firstly, the climate change problem is the direct product of the specific kind of society we have created – “industrial civilisation” for Hansen, and the “dominant consumer culture” for Washington and Cook. Secondly, climate change will only be effectively addressed by a society-wide mobilisation like the national effort undertaken by the allies in the Second World War. To achieve this McKibben insists we need “the one thing we haven’t had” – a movement. And because we will never have the financial clout of anti-green corporations like Exxon he argues “we better work in currencies we can muster: bodies, spirit and passion”.