16 April 2021

Complete idiot’s (politician’s) guide to climate change

Climate Change Comment TheHill

The little green book on climate change, How We Can Get to Carbon Zero written for Wired by our very own COVID blogger Bianca Nogrady, takes only an hour to read.

But anyone who does, politicians even, could not help but quickly understand the fundamentals of where we are today and what needs doing.

We’re such a fan, we’re giving a free copy to the first 50 readers to ask for one, and sending another 50 to Canberra – more on that below.

Of all the professions, doctors, anecdotally at least, seem to be most engaged in debate on climate change. It’s not hard to see why. Outside of our immediate issue with COVID-19, the greatest factor influencing the health of patients into the future, and shaping the relationship between a doctor and their patient, is climate change.

How could it not be? Air quality, fire, flood, rising sea levels, rapidly changing localised microclimates: within our kids’ lifetimes, climate change will have the greatest impact on public health infrastructure of any single issue.

Fun fact:

The first global estimate of health care sector emissions, completed August 2019, calculated that the healthcare sector produced 2 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2014, or 4.4% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. – CODA, 2021

In other words, if healthcare were a country, it would be ranked the fourth-worst emitter.

Which sort of underlines how complex the issue is, not just for politicians who have to juggle a lot of competing interests and usually have short-term agendas, but also for doctors themselves.

We are on track in a matter of decades to break a 65-million-year record for naturally occurring global temperature change.

Well done, us (not).

Why then do we continue to kick the climate change can up the road and do things such as fight a current NSW lower house byelection by appointing the two most high-profile candidates based on their pro-coal mining CVs? Go coal mining, yeah!

Not saying coal mining should die a death tomorrow and we shouldn’t be very careful with a big industry full of real and engaged people who are going to be affected by winding their industry down over time, but really, do we have to end up with violent political partisanship on something so obviously stupid to our future?

How do our leaders make up their minds to change their minds on this mindless behaviour?

My favourite book on running a business is called Rework. It takes just under an hour to read in full and covers everything I have ever learnt in 40 years in business (which might say how little I’ve learnt, of course). This includes attending two business live-ins at Harvard and Oxford business schools, about 15 bosses, endless business strategy conferences, and reading about 40 business best-sellers (mostly I just read the dustcovers), such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (I have only two of them, apparently) and Good To Great (don’t bother reading this one, as it turns out to be mostly based on a company that did OK for a bit and they went bad ).

If anyone I know is starting a business or has started one and is struggling, I send them this book. I’ve never had anyone send it back. Everyone has loved it because it sort of summarises everything that is relevant to think about in running a small business (and big too, I guess) in a fun, easily digestible format. You can flip it on the way home on the bus and change your whole business for the better the next day (or worse depending on how you interpret things in the book).

Rework is the collected ideas of a person – Jason Fried – who started a business almost the same as Atlassian (cloud software to organise businesses and projects) many years before Atlassian even started, described in one-page anecdotes, of which you can take or leave any, but all of which relate in some way to all the major issues you’ll face in business.

Some of my favourite pages include Why grow?, Ignore the real world, Your estimates suck, Welcome obscurity, Meetings are toxic, Go to sleep, and Pick a fight. The chapter on Why grow leads the author to stay small … because he didn’t want to be big, with all that it brought. That might be how Atlassian came to pass, for all we know.

Anyway, this past week, one of our favourite contributors, Bianca Nogrady (who writes our COVID blog), sent us her latest book. She’s sort of a big deal in the science writing world, often writing for big overseas journals such as Nature or Science, and also popping out a book every now and then. Her previous book was called The End and is described on Amazon as “A fascinating exploration of the universal human experience of death”.

Ironic, possibly, that she’s moved on to climate change, as it is shaping up to be the universal cause of most human death.

Notwithstanding that, Bianca’s book might be “just what the doctor ordered” for today’s insanely overloaded and dysfunctional information age. It’s Rework but for anyone in the business of policy and planning, where they need to know the most important and relevant facts in climate change, particularly as they pertain to carbon, and as they stand right now.

It’s a book that feels like it could tip the odd politician, or even climate change sceptic, into rethinking their thinking.

It’s a total idiot’s fun facts guide to everything important you need to know in climate change, as of today, in one hour or less of reading on the bus home.

A year ago, I was chatting to Bianca about the book, which she had recently been commissioned to do. She had already had written thousands of words for the first few chapters.

Her minders had sent her first few thousand words back with the instructions:

“This is some of best copy we’ve ever seen on the topic to date Bee, but you’ll need to cut it in half and reword what’s left so a three-year-old will understand it…”

They were going for Oliver Wendell Holmes:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Which made the book a lot less in word count and a million times harder to write. Publishers are like that.

I understand whole chapters had to come out in order to get to the nub of things, for everyone that needs to understand the key issues properly and fast. The focus is on carbon reduction, to get to the point.

Chapter topics include: technology of energy and carbon capture, energy use, transport, food, waste, markets, and … the future?

Bianca and her masters at Wired may have come up with one of those books that goes a bit viral and ends up making a jot of difference.

Does anyone remember Future Shock by Alvin Toffler? It made a difference. It scared me off thinking about the future. Right message, badly timed.

The timing of this little green book is right.

If politicians had to do CPD to stay employed (hmm, there’s an idea) then it should be required reading immediately and tested within the next few weeks.

Sidenote: the more informed of our readers might wonder why I’m not reviewing a book by the same publisher that is being released at the same time called The Future of Medicine: how will we enjoy longer and healthier lives.

For one thing, I haven’t been sent a copy to review.

More practically, though, clearly a prerequisite to living longer and healthier lives is a climate conducive to being able to live in, so this book would probably still get priority.

The following are some excerpts and fun facts from the book, to give you a taste.

On coronavirus vs climate change:

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how quickly humans can make drastic changes to their lives, societies, economies and industries when the survival of their friends, families and communities is at stake. [Climate change] is a challenge that is orders of magnitude greater in impact and complexity.

On energy technology

For more than two-thirds of the global population, solar and/or wind are now the cheapest forms of new electricity available. And renewables are at the start of their technological trajectory.

Since [Denmark] installed its first offshore wind farm in 1991, it has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 38% and is on track to achieve a 46% reduction by 2030. At the same time, its economy has grown 55%.

On energy storage

The market for electric vehicle batteries is already 10 times greater than for grid-scale electricity storage, and electric vehicles can double as stationary electricity storage when not in use.

On energy use

In aluminium smelting, where electricity use is responsible for around half the emissions [of high temperature industrial processes] because of the high temperatures needed, hydro power already generates the electricity needed for one quarter of aluminium globally … China recently opened an aluminium smelter powered entirely by hydropower.

Green buildings command higher occupancies and premium on rents; so much so that in some areas, building that don’t meet green standards are experiencing a ‘brown discount’, with lower rental and lease rates.

On transport

In 2019, 2.1 million electric cars were purchased, a 40% increase on the previous year.

If aviation continues on [its] trajectory, by 2050 carbon dioxide emissions from flying will account for around one-quarter of humanity’s total carbon budget.

[But sustainable aviation fuels] can have at least 80% lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than traditional jet fuel.

On food

Just over one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are generated by food production and by 2050 there will be about 2 billion more mouths to feed.

Humanity’s relationship with food is in need of an intervention…

If we were to shift to a diet that excluded all animal products, and instead derived the proteins and calories they supply from plant-based sources, it could reduce land use by 76% and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 49%.

On beer (if you can change beer drinking, you’re halfway there I guess)

Hopworks Urban Brewery [has created] a beer using a grain called Kernza. It’s a relative of wheat, but its long and complex root systems sequester a lot more carbon in the soil.

On waste

In 2016, around one in 10 people were chronically under nourished … Yet around one-third of all food produced is wasted somewhere between the field and the table.

Today, we are consuming five times more clothing than we were two decades ago.

By 2040 the global ICT sector could account for as much as 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

On carbon capture

Half of the excess carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere by human activity is drawn down again by natural processes: half by land-based processes – mainly plants – and half by the oceans.

The fact remains: trees are carbon guzzlers.

Blue carbon [coastal plant ecosystems generated] is one of the most intense carbon sinks on the planet: around half of all the carbon sequestered in ocean sediments despite covering less than 2% of the ocean area … the problem is coastal ecosystems are being decimated.

On carbon markets

Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen.

If credit ratings take in that full transparency of fossil fuels, and that’s fully priced in, then investors start to see that … and those oil companies start to crumble in their credit rating.

On hope

Can humanity make the necessary changes to avoid more than 1.5 degrees C of global heating?


But will we?

We have bought 100 copies of Bianca’s book, of which we will be handing out 50 to our readers for free – first in, first served.

The other 50? Couriered to every federal minister and all our shadow cabinet ministers, with a nice note pointing out, to the Libs in particular, that technology indeed is a part of the equation. For free, on us. Also, one copy to each of Craig Kelly, Pauline Hanson and Bob Katter. Would love to be a fly on the wall of those three (with a hidden microphone) if the package happens to make it through their (mindless) minders.

From little things…

Please click the link below to request your free copy of Climate Change (WIRED Guides) How we can get to carbon zero by TMR’s COVID blogger Bianca Nogrady.

The first 50 readers to submit their details will receive a copy