Mark Maslin

Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction

A rather self-explanatory title, this book explores the facets of climate change as we know it in the current era. It gives a really good overview of the history, debates, evidence, impacts, politics and solutions associated with climate change. It also ends with Maslin envisioning the future for its potential within all different realms from socially, environmentally, economically and politically.

Maslin starts out by explaining the fundamentals of climate change from the Greenhouse effect to past climate. He talks about some interesting theories like the Bill Ruddiman theory which suggested that early agriculturalists caused a reversal in natural declines of carbon dioxide and methane. Therefore, essentially saying that early human interactions with our environment increased atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHGs) just enough, that prior to the industrial revolution there was enough influence to delay the onset of the next ice age. This is obviously subject to controversy, however there is clear evidence that levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have been rising since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

The second part of this chapter focuses on who produces pollution, from the major sources such as burning fossil fuels, which contributes to four-fifths of global carbon dioxide emissions, to land-use changes which accounts for the other fifth. Land-use changes refers to agriculture, urbanisation and roads in which South America, Asia and Africa are responsible for over 90% of these emissions. However, 90% of the global industrial carbon dioxide is produced by North America, Europe and Asia.

Maslin introduces the main professional bodies associated with climate change such as the IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). This book focuses on the fifth IPCC assessment report in order to give present-day context, which was published in 2014. However, they’ve recently published the sixth report in August 2021 which I’d recommend having a look at if climate change is a topic of interest for you.

The purpose of the IPCC is to have a continued assessment of the state of knowledge on various aspects of climate change, and brings together all key research published in the world, producing a consensus as a result.

Maslin follows on from this by introducing probably the most controversial aspect of climate change which is the debate surrounding it. This entails the history of how climate change began to become recognised as a serious issue.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century there was increasing evidence which led to the recognition and acceptance that climate change is occurring and that it is anthropogenic. The science of climate change carried out in the 1960s was significant and our increased knowledge of how past climate has reacted to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide added to this. The advent of computers has also greatly increased our ability to model future changes in climate as well as identify patterns from past climate.

In the 1980s and 1990s the media played a key role in propelling the issue into the public eye, as there was intense media interest during this time. Maslin does a discourse analysis between The Times and The Guardian in order to understand the difference in perspectives.

The Times cast doubt on the claims of climate change with a recurrent attempt to promote mistrust in science using strategies of generalisation, disagreement with the scientific community and discrediting scientists and scientific institutions. This was a similar viewpoint held by the majority of American media.

The Guardian on the other hand gave space to the technical side of the debate. It advanced a strategy of building confidence in science, with an emphasis on consensus as a means of enhancing the reliability of knowledge.

The media as a whole however were significant in legitimising the debate for the public by not making it an overnight story. However, a lot of issues surrounding the debate do stem from the media. For instance, the BBC pitting scientists against political commentators as Maslin argues that non-science journalists appear to have no concept of the weight of evidence.

The central part of the book focuses on the evidence for climate change and modelling future climate. Maslin does a good job of explaining the evidence without getting too dense and focuses on six main areas of evidence to be considered. These include tracking the rise of GHGs in the atmosphere, tracking changes in global temperature and sea levels, natural changes in climate including sun spots and volcanic eruptions and continually tracking global weather. He also has a short section addressing sceptics' claims towards the evidence.

In regards to modelling climate change there are a lot of difficulties because the central issue associated with prediction models is the complexity of predicting the future. The biggest unknown factor is the estimation of future global GHG emissions over the next 90 years. There are so many different variables at play which are almost impossible to predict accurately. This includes changes in the global economy, population growth, the development of technology, energy use, political agreements and personal lifestyles.

Therefore, you could produce the most complete model in the world, taking the next two years to simulate the next hundred years, but you would only have one model of the future, based on only one estimate of future emissions - which might be completely wrong. Out of all systems we are trying to model in the future, humanity is by far the most complicated and unpredictable.

The second half of the book then focuses on the impacts and surprises of climate change. Some of the main ones are storms and floods, heatwaves and droughts, human health, effects on biodiversity, agriculture and ocean acidification.

In terms of agriculture it will be the poorest countries in the Tropics that will suffer the most as this prediction assumes that farmers will not adapt to changing climate.

Also, agricultural production in the world has very little to do with feeding the world's population and much more to do with trade and economics. This is why the EU has stockpiles of food, while many underdeveloped countries export cash crops but cannot adequately feed their own populations.

The final chapters of the book cover the politics and solutions of climate change. The UNFCCC (The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) was created in 1992 to negotiate a worldwide agreement for reducing GHGs and limiting the impact of climate change.

Carbon trading schemes have been implemented, however they are proving to be somewhat ineffective. It can be argued that these schemes act as a form of colonialism where rich countries could maintain their levels of consumption while getting credit for carbon savings in inefficient industrial projects in poorer countries.

In addition to this, companies in China and India have already been found to be ‘playing the system’ by increasing their GHG emissions to gain carbon credits. Other criticisms surround the fact that it creates new uncertainties and risks which can be commodified by means of derivatives, thereby creating a new speculative market which as we have seen have caused huge problems with food prices.

Maslin argues that climate change can only be solved through binding, international agreements to cut GHGs. However, he also talks about alternative energy sources, disruptive technologies and geoengineering which could transform the way we live our lives. New technologies that we may not yet have even thought of that could change the way we use or produce energy. For example, most of us cannot think of life without a mobile phone or computer, but this technology has only been around for a few decades. We can quickly become accustomed to change.

Throughout the final pages Maslin offers his solutions for climate change. He talks about an international political solution to protect the rapid development of developing countries, and policies implemented at a regional and national level. The second solution he proposes is to greatly increase funding for developing cheap and clean energy sources. All economic development is based on increasing energy usage and he states that fossil fuel subsidies should be made illegal. He also comments on the possibility of unlimited clean energy from something like cold fusion as no guarantee that it will solve things. Professor Paul Ehrlich from Stanford stated that it would be ‘like giving a machine gun to an idiot child’.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed the book although it felt quite similar to reading an extended version of a well-written Wikipedia page. Maslin was able to cover so much that was explained incredibly well and taught me a lot more about climate change. It’s obviously going to be a central issue throughout our whole lives so it’s interesting to explore the different facets of it. It will be interesting to see in the next century how it develops and whether some proposed solutions are implemented and are effective. Given that it’s such a global issue it becomes very complex to coordinate solutions and for governments to unite in order to build a better world. There would be so many benefits from implementing many of the solutions proposed in the book, however from the August 2021 IPCC report action doesn’t seem to have changed that much since 2014.

I’d definitely recommend you have a read, the severity of climate change isn’t disappearing anytime soon so it’s always interesting to learn more about it. Maslin does a really good job of articulating the complexity of the issue in a thoughtful and interesting way, and despite it being less than 200 pages it feels lengthy given how much material it covers. A great little read.