A former government science adviser challenges his readers to face up to realities

The hot topic. How to tackle global warming and still keep the lights on 

Gabrielle Walker and David King 

London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing 2008 | 309pp | ?9.99 (SB) ISBN 9780747593959 

Reviewed by Michael Ball

Sir David King, fresh from seven years as the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, and science journalist Gabrielle Walker emphasise in this popular book that global warming is ’probably the most serious [problem] that the human race has, collectively, ever faced’. They want their readers to acknowledge that there is a crisis, and a serious one at that, but they also want to keep it within the realms of the imaginable, so that people are not seized up in a paralysis of despair.  

After revisiting the basics (why and how warming is happening, why we need carbon reduction targets, what faces us if we fail to meet them), The hot topic  locates the political impasse and delineates the issues that have to be resolved between the developed countries and the developing ones. Should the heaviest polluters with the most luxurious lifestyles gradually cut their emissions, and the lightest polluters with the most deprived lifestyles be allowed to increase theirs until they meet at some mutually agreeable point in the middle? How should emission targets be calculated? 

King and Walker seek to knock down every argument of global-warming denialists and sceptics. It’s not caused by increased solar activity, lulls in volcanic eruptions, or a wobble in the Earth’s orbit. It is the result of increased carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, which means that humans are responsible. But at the same time the authors refuse to take the position of green extremists. They want us to accept that we are part of the problem, but they encourage us to be part of the solution.  

The authors examine technological and political ways to slow down and stop the rise in emissions. Global warming can be tackled, as long as we, and our governments, take it seriously. We mustn’t be nimbyish about wind-farms; must be open-minded about nuclear power; and must measure and reduce our carbon footprints.  

The hot topic  contains advice on how we can do our bit: change our light-bulbs, drive less, recycle, insulate our homes, switch appliances off at the socket, and so on. Above all, readers are encouraged to be positive and not pessimistic, but not to annoy people by being smugly ’greener than thou’.  

This book should be read by all those who deny the reality of climate change, or who think human activity is not contributing to it, but it will probably end up preaching to the converted. Many will feel the authors do not go far enough and will not share their optimism that technological solutions will enable us to ’keep the lights on’.