The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: Futures from the Frontiers of Climate Science (eBook)


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The environmental emergency is the greatest threat we face. Preventing it will require an unprecedented political and social response. And yet, there is still hope.

Academic, physicist, environmental expert and award-winning science communicator Paul Behrens presents a radical analysis of a civilisation on the brink of catastrophe. Setting out the pressing existential threats we face, he writes, in alternating chapters, of what the future could look like at its most pessimistic and hopeful.

In lucid prose, Behrens argues that structural problems need structural solutions, and examines critical areas in which political will is required, including women’s education, food and energy security, biodiversity and economics.

‘This is an incredibly important book and I want the whole world to read it.’ Dean Bakopoulos, author of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon and Summerlong

‘Essential reading for all.’ Jan Carson, author of The Fire Starters

‘A powerful, up-to-date, and sometimes terrifying primer on the stupendous global problems we face today.’ David Christian, Professor of Russian and European History at Macquarie University and author of Origin Story: A Big History of Everything

‘Behrens provides a wealth of critically important facts, accessibly and insightfully related by presentations alternately slanted to pessimistic and optimistic attitudes.’ Herman Daly, Emeritus Professor at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland and author of Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development

‘An extraordinary distillation of science, policy, and common sense without being tedious or dismal.’ David Orr, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College Emeritus and author of Dangerous Years: Climate Change, the Long Emergency, and the Way Forward

‘Paul’s book is truly amazing and I think everyone should read it. You’ll learn so much, I promise. It’s like a though manual for the future. It’s just plain great.’ Julia Steinberger, Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Leeds

‘Scientists have warned that tipping points could drive the Earth System past a fork in the road to two different futures. This book – beautifully written with a powerful format – vividly describes what these futures might look like, and how we might steer society towards a liveable future.’ Will Steffen, Emeritus Professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

In the past, when I was asked what my profession was, I’d say: physicist. This might have prompted a host of fun questions: Does a person running in the rain get equally wet as someone walking in the rain? Do sinks really drain anticlockwise in the southern hemisphere? If I mentioned that my master’s degree was in astronomy, aliens would likely enter the conversation, or I might be asked why the solar system is flat, or if Libras are compatible with Capricorns. Communicating science has been a true joy: making complex concepts accessible to people (since the laws of physics aren’t exclusive – everyone obeys them!), exploring the implications for science and society, hopefully fostering and sharing some awe for the world we live in. Now that my work is focused on environmental science, however, I tend to be asked a far more daunting question: ‘Do you think we’re going to be okay?’

It’s a good question. But words always fail me. Should I assume the question relates to climate change, when they might mean another crisis, like species loss or microplastics? There is no straightforward answer to any of these problems. I could reframe the initial question: ‘How long have we got?’ I find the question so troubling that when others are arguing about it at the bar or over dinner, I sometimes try not to get involved. I overhear the all-too-familiar existential monsters: insect disappearances, plastic soups, massive wildfires, catastrophic floods, disappearing glaciers, tarmac-melting temperatures, antibiotic resistance. As we live with intensifying environmental crises, these issues are inching towards the front of the newspapers. They are starting to become standard fare around the dinner table and in the media. Perhaps not every dinner table or inside every newspaper, but give it time . . . We gloss over how unique this is. At what other point in human history would two strangers on a blind date, within five minutes of first meeting, seriously be discussing how humanity is walking, eyes wide open, into global civilizational collapse?

At the dinner table, this First World conversation plays out quite predictably, advancing to the what-can-be-done phase, unconsciously imitating the structure and flow of reports from various international institutions like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Solutions are contested: we all have to learn to consume less; corporations need to be regulated, as they don’t have the next generation’s interests at heart; we need to stop having babies; nuclear war could render this whole discussion moot. The conversation spirals, becoming either melancholic or histrionic until someone suggests that we’re living in the best time in human history: that the average global life expectancy is now seventy; that child mortality rates are at an all-time low; that food, energy and commodities are more plentiful than ever. Perhaps, a little relieved, people concede that things are changing – that, yes, it will be a difficult few decades – but we’ll figure it out. Look how far we’ve come in only a few hundred years. Solutions will be discovered. We are a resourceful species. The conversation lurches back and forth from pessimism to hope, winner to loser.

When people look to me for information, I’m painfully aware that giving misleading assurances is dangerous – and potentially catastrophic. So too is sending people to their cars and bikes in a state of despair. I face two big challenges in delivering this information. The first is that the problems humanity faces are systems problems: complex, vast and distributed (rather than the complicated but more linear problem-solving of, say, going to the moon). This means that conversations that start with environmental issues quickly veer off into tangents on economics, politics and society. The second challenge is that the reality of the situation can be overwhelming. It’s hard to grasp and communicate the speed and scale of the changes humanity needs to make. The same is true for the speed and scale of the destruction and suffering if action is delayed. Although T.S. Eliot said, ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality,’ it’s important we do face up to this reality.

BBC News, 11 January 2022: Plant Based Diets

ClimateGenn, 13 November 2021: Near term threats & societal risk as the Earth changes state

Paul Behrens for Politico, 11 November 2021: The Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for the World as COP26 Ends

The New York Times Climate Hub at COP26, 9 November 2021: The New York Times Debate: On a Hotter Planet, the Onus of Transforming Food Systems Is on the Rich World


Cheddar News, 4 May 2021: ‘Cheddar Climate: Global Warming Claims, Making Space for Renewables, and Sustainable Sparkles’

United Ireland Podcast, 12 August 2021: ‘Episode 108: Climate Revolution NOW’

Ros Taylor for LSE Review of Books, 17 December 2020: ‘8 of the best books of 2020 recommended by LSE blog editors’

Thin Lei Win for Thomson Reuters Foundation, 16 November 2020: ‘Climate primer: How to debunk myths about climate change’

Kelly McCaughrain for An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, 10 November 2020: ‘The Best of Times, The Worst of Times’

Tom Bromley for The Salisbury Journal, 17 September 2020: ‘OPINION: ‘The best of Times, The Worst of Times”

Accidental Gods Podcast, 9 December 2020: ‘The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Responding to Climate Change with Dr Paul Behrens’

The Bunker Podcast, 24 November 2020: ‘Will we be OK? Facing the Climate Emergency’

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