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The IPCC’s third assessment in 2001 predicted a temperature rise of between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees worldwide by the end of this century depending upon how the world responds to the threat of climate change over the coming years (1).

Mark Lynas decided to try and understand what this would actually mean. What would a temperature change of six degrees change around the world? How serious would the consequences be? Over a period of two years he did his best to find out, by reading hundreds of peer-reviewed science papers and collating them, degree by degree, into chapters for his book ‘Six Degrees’ (2).

The information in his book can largely be grouped into two types. It is either formed through computer modelling to make predictions of future conditions and knock-on effects of warming, or through examinations of what life was like on the earth previously when global temperatures were different than they are today.

The findings are, understandably, very alarming. Instead of listing some of them here, I will direct you instead to Lynas’ website (click here), where there are short videos of the findings, degree by degree, detailing the increased natural disasters, rising sea levels and increased desertification, amongst other things. These videos are taken from an adaptation of the book’s findings, made by National Geographic and broadcast in the U.S. recently (3).

Realclimate.org, the climate change site run by a collection of climate scientists, gave the book a good review (4), as did many other people, including the journalist Johann Hari (5).

Unlike other books that have been written about climate change recently, such as ‘Heat’ (George Monbiot) or ‘The Hot Topic’ (Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King), Six Degrees does not examine how we can combat the problem, but instead lays it out in front of us to explain the severity of the problem.

This is a crucially important aspect of the book, because the more that the general public hears about global warming, the more they will wonder what all the fuss is about if the potential consequences are not explained to them beyond polar bears and hosepipe bans.

In ‘Heat’ George Monbiot packs in a huge amount of science, as well as practical observations on what can be done to combat the problem and also, importantly, what shouldn’t be done (6). However, ‘The Hot Topic’ will benefit from having Sir David King (ex-chief scientific advisor to the UK Government) as an author (7), as he may be viewed by some people as more of a ‘qualified’ writer on the topic than either Monbiot or Lynas. Unfortunately, what King’s book has in ‘qualification’ it lacks in urgency, which both ‘Heat’ and ‘Six Degrees’ have in spades.

At a talk by Sir David King this week, I asked him what the Government is planning to do to educate the ‘general public’ on climate change. He responded by saying that that was exactly why he had written his book, and alas they had not allowed him to write it while he was in Government. I was going to ask if therefore he was planning on giving a copy to every man, woman and child in the country, but I didn’t get a chance. I suspect he isn’t going to.

He also said that not only do we have to educate the ‘general public’, but also the academics and “you and me” – which led me to wonder why academics and I were no longer members of the general public ourselves. People such as Sir David King should be combining their privileged position and knowledge of the science, with the urgency that they know the issue requires, in order to educate and include the ‘general public’ (and everyone else!) in the solution to the problem. Presently, the issue is being tackled most seriously by journalists and activists such as Monbiot and Lynas, but in order to reach more people we need those in positions of authority to be making the same kind of noise about the problem we face.

In writing this book Mark Lynas has done us a great service. He has written a review of the scientific literature, but unlike the majority of scientific reviews he has focused on how this science will help the general public. The result is a book that effortlessly informs the reader of the present scientific understanding, with an emphasis on the consequences of the findings, and not on the science itself. In doing so, Lynas has bridged the gap between scientific research and ‘everyday life’, which means that his book stands up to scientific interrogation, whilst still providing an easy to understand warning to the reader of the likely consequences if we do not tackle climate change as best we can.

It is this kind of interface between science and the general public that will be of increasing importance over the coming years. The global nature of the problem means that everyone will become a climate change expert in their own eyes, but only a small number will remain experts in the science of climate change, and it is these people to whom we have to listen.

References

1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group 1, Third Assessment Report, Figure 5(d). This can be found here.

2. ‘Six Degrees – Our Future on a Hotter Planet’ – Mark Lynas, Fourth Estate, 2007.

3. http://www.marklynas.org, ‘Six Degrees’ section.

4. Realclimate.org, November 2007. Review can be found here.

5. ‘It’s Getting Hot in Here’ – Johann Hari, New Statesman, 2nd April 2007.

6.’Heat – How to stop the planet burning’ – George Monbiot, Allen Lane, 2006.

7.’The Hot Topic – How to tackle global warming and still keep the lights on’ – Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King, Bloomsbury, 2008.

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