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


Paul Behrens
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A unique, highly readable approach to the environmental crisis, with alternating chapters outlining the effects on society if left unchecked, and the radical actions we can take to prevent it.

New edition includes updated sections on Covid-19 and COP26.

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 and clear-sighted 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.


‘If you are looking for a book that guides you through climate change, I found Paul Behrens’ The Best of Times, The Worst of Times really readable and passionate yet also nuanced.’
—Henry Mance, Chief Features W
riter, Financial Times

‘Paul Behrens’ nod to Charles Dickens in his title is a fitting one, for Behrens writes with the verve of a novelist, and the story he tells—how our environmental future is entangled in issues of equality, employment, housing, food, energy, and much else—is a page-turner.’
‘An elegant, powerful and thought-provoking book.’
—James Shapiro, author of Shakespeare in a Divided America

‘The Best of Times, The Worst of Times is written in a style that brings all the data but is clear, concise, and at times poetic. Buy this book for your friends. Make them read it. It will change the way you think about the future and live your life in the present.’
—Stuart Vyse

‘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

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

‘Behrens is the friend that gives it to you straight: unflinching on the bad stuff, but he won’t crush you with despair. This book is an excellent assessment of where we are and how we might proceed, as we navigate the uncharted terrain of the Anthropocene. Rich in complexity, deeply researched and, importantly, seeded with hope.’
—Gaia Vince, author of Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made

‘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

‘An incredibly helpful book full of clear, well-researched analysis and information which many readers won’t be aware off. As someone with relatively little understanding of climate science I found it infinitely readable and underlined huge chunks for further consideration. The tone is urgent but measured and always undercut with the sort of hope which left me inclined towards action rather than despair. An absolutely essential read.’
—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

Dimensions: Demy paperback with flaps
Length: 352 pages
New edition published: 15 September 2022
First published: 17 September 2020 
ISBN: 9781911648093
Cover design: © House of Thought
Foreign rights: The Marsh Agency

About the author

Paul Behrens is Associate Professor of Environmental Change at Leiden University. His research and writing on food, energy and climate change has appeared in leading scientific journals, the New York Times, Politico, and the BBC.

Paul’s work focuses on the impact of human consumption and the changes societies must make to live within environmental constraints. In 2023 he was awarded a Frontiers Planet Prize for his research into plant-based diets in high-income countries.

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’

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

Climate Conversations Podcast. Jun 2021: The roadmap to recovery with Dr. Paul Berhens

ClimateGenn hosted by Nick Breeze Podcast, November 2021: Dr Paul Behrens New Book: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times | Choosing The Future We [don’t] want

ami1649 Podcast, December 2021: Author Interview 6 – The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Futures from the Frontiers of Climate Science by Dr. Paul Berhens

ClimateGenn hosted by Nick Breeze Podcast, February 2022: Population, Consumption & Climate Change | Dr Paul Behrens

ClimateGenn hosted by Nick Breeze Podcast, April 2022: Dr Paul Behrens – Food Security In A Vulnerable World

Decide for Impact Podcast, December 2022: A punch in the gut and a hopeful vision for the future – Paul Behrens

Decide for Impact Podcast, December 2022: The best of times the worst of times – Paul Behrens | De Ondernemers Boekencast afl 67

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

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.

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