Aug 21 2023

Solving Climate Change

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What can governments, companies, individual consumers and investors do now to reduce emissions rapidly and how can we organize this collective action based on informed consent (and commitment) across different jurisdictional and geographic contexts?

Solving Climate Change

Solving Climate Change: A Guide for Learners and Leaders, by Jonathan Koomey and Ian Monroe, Iop Publishing Ltd, 2023, 350 pp.

As the title of the volume suggests, Solving Climate Change: A Guide for Learners and Leaders by Jonathan Koomey and Ian Monroe provides a comprehensive yet concise overview of what we know and what needs to be done now to stop climate change. Although the authors indicate that the book is primarily designed for an academic audience (including advanced students), in my view, it is equally suitable for anyone who wants to learn and begin to think about specific actionable items.

What I find most helpful as a reader is chapter 3 that introduces some of the tools that are most widely practiced in planning strategies based on future forecasts, which rely on existing inventories. Readers who want to take a deeper dive at a particular tool can look them up online or read other materials. This chapter in particular could serve as a guidebook for those who aren’t familiar with the palette of tools not unique to a specific area of expertise or discipline.

The book is conveniently organized by the so-called eight pillars of climate action: (1) electrify almost everything, (2) decarbonize the grid, (3) reduce non-fossil GHGs, (4) be efficient, (5) get rid of carbon, (6) align incentives, (7) move money from climate-negative activities to climate-positive ones and (8) fight misinformation. The authors do an excellent job of pulling together all of these critical strategies in an easily digestible manner. In closing, they point out what each of the key constituents (governments, companies, individual consumers and investors) will have to do now to reduce emissions rapidly. The under-explored question in my view is how. Governments can incentivize climate-positive behaviour but that won’t be enough to trigger a transformative change. Unfortunately, perhaps the world needs another crisis resulting in millions in casualties. Miserable events that are so catastrophic at scale that might awaken everyone.

Koomey and Monroe in many ways reassure us that we have what it takes to stop emissions. The problem is we cannot achieve this with only a subset of us taking action. How to get the majority to uniformly take action across different interest groups seems to be a policy and planning question that requires careful process design – how to get all stakeholders to take concerted action that is jointly motivated and agreed upon. How to organize this collective action based on informed consent (and commitment) across different jurisdictional and geographic contexts seems to be the next topic area that deserves unprecedented attention before it’s too late.

Aug 21 2023

How Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Mind over matter that seriously mattersHow Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis

Minding the Climate: How Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis, by Ann-Christine Duhaime, M.D., Harvard University Press, 2022, 336 pp.

To achieve climate change goals, a neuro-scientist urges the world to work on the mind.

The greatest paradox of our time is that while climate change has widely been recognized as an urgent problem, it does not press the emergency button for individual and collective action to counter it. Knowing well the root cause and the possible solutions to the problem, why does it gets pushed on to others to fix it? Why are we hardwired not to change our behaviour and consumer tendencies? Simply put, it is the neuroscience of decision making that works to prioritize short-term survival over long-term consequences. No wonder, the risk of anticipated 2°C rise in temperature before the close of the century remains disconcerting.

In Minding the Climate, Ann-Christine Duhaime, a professor of neurosurgery at the Harvard Medical School, explores why changing behaviour in response to the climate crises remains challenging. Having lived life for eons on resource scarcity, human mind responds to better rewards for changing the old behaviour. If a behaviour isn’t perceived as immediately rewarding, we probably won’t change it – never mind that we know we should. In a market economy, just giving people information without incentives and rewards doesn’t work to change consumptive behaviour. Writing lullabies won’t cure opioid addiction by itself.

Environmental issues have been known to present challenges for behaviour change, in part because the phenomenon and the fix are many steps removed from our immediate sensory perception. While the perception may have started changing due to increasing frequency of climatic events in recent times, we are physiologically not equipped with carbon dioxide sensors to reflect strong personal threatening experience to affect behavioural change. Add to this the fact that behaviour change research has focused on choices that individuals make in their domestic lives, rather than on a more collective and political sphere. Furthermore, the invisibility of greenhouses gases adds to the visible challenge.

Duhaime presents a systematic study of the human brain – from understanding its evolutionary origin to strategies for its pro-environmental shift. Taking a deep dive into the human decision-making apparatus, she found that the brain is heavily influenced by its evolutionary design but is also exquisitely flexible. The brain design both constrains and frees us. By linking neuroscience with evolutionary biology, consumer psychology and environmental science, the author reflects hope that humans do in fact have the capacity to change. Minding the Climate is a groundbreaking work on how we might leverage our brains to fight climate change.

It is a thinking person’s guide to encourage our neurological circuits to embrace new rewards. To demonstrate how indeed this could be possible, the Green Children’s Hospital has been initiated by the author and her colleagues as a prototype that makes connection between the environment and health. No reward is good enough for people to see their loved children have a good life. It works both ways as it not only helps cut down emissions from the sector that contributes 8 percent to the atmospheric carbon load but also reminds people that hospital patients looking at trees recover faster than those who look at the brick wall. Such small, incremental steps that individuals take are necessary to look at rewards differently.

Duhaime is not suggesting a quick fix though. The task is to understand how our ingrained tendencies could be overridden by our brain’s capacity to adapt. Minding the Climate is a pioneering work on a subject that has so far not been considered in the global discourse on climate change. It is a work in progress and will only be considered complete when people in the 20-tons-of-carbon-emissions-a-year consider themselves a burden on the society. Our brain has got us to this point, it alone will take us into the future of possibilities.

First published in The Hindu on July 2, 2023.

Apr 9 2023

Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, London

How has the recent Russia-Ukraine war impacted the implications of climate change on the Russian economy, and how does this impact Gustafson’s conclusions?


Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change, by Thane Gustafson, Harvard University Press, 2021, 336 pp

The harmful consequences of climate change are occurring and its impacts on temperatures and weather patterns are already visible. Georgetown political scientist Thane Gustafson’s engaging book, Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change, describes sector-by-sector impacts of climate change on Russia’s economy and what its diversification policy options could be to manage these unfolding changes. The book stands out in its sophisticated research methodology and insights on how the economy will react to the changing environment and declining global demand of fossil fuels caused by the global transition toward renewable energy. The chapter on the Arctic especially stands out how Gustafson rightly mentions the way the Arctic defines Russia (p. 184) both as a challenge and an opportunity. The Arctic is a challenge as its northern areas are warming faster than the rest of Russia and an opportunity as decreasing ice covering would open up the Northern Sea route for faster navigation between Europe and Asia, which might herald in an era of economic prosperity. What especially makes sense is Gustafson’s discussions on Russia’s unpreparedness and inertia of its state institutions captured by elites to invest in post-carbon alternatives effectively as the world starts relying more on renewables.

While a majority of the discussion points are important, recent geopolitical developments in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war have radically impacted the implications of climate change on the Russian economy both qualitatively and quantitatively. The book broadly concludes that the positive impacts on the economy might well be overshadowed by the negative impacts due to climate change. In the wake of the war while the reverberations of Russian actions are being felt by all economies, its local impacts might be more catastrophic than what Gustafson suggests. Since the book was written before the war, its findings should be viewed through the lenses of war.

Apr 9 2023

Dangerous Earth: What We Wish We Knew About Volcanoes, Hurricanes, Climate Change, Earthquakes and More

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Dangerous Earth: What We Wish We Knew About Volcanoes, Hurricanes, Climate Change, Earthquakes and More

Dangerous Earth: What We Wish We Knew About Volcanoes, Hurricanes, Climate Change, Earthquakes and More by Ellen Prager, 2022, Harper Collins, New Delhi, 272 pp.

What are the challenges in predicting natural disasters and how can we best prepare for them?

The history of human existence has been fraught with such exigent calamities that led societies from pre-historic times to offers prayers for “peace to be in the universe.” Explained through religion or myth, such prayers have been a way of dealing with the dangers of living on earth. While the earth remains a wondrous planet, its frustratingly complex existence had a violent past to which it seems to be returning. Marine biologist Ellen Prager examines the awesome forces of creation which are equally devastating and remain perplexing. Through an illuminating look at the range of natural events, from earthquakes to volcanoes and from tsunamis to hurricanes, Prager lists the wish-we-knew about the dynamic phenomena that continue to remain unknown while frustrating and fascinating the scientific community.

The book seeks to respond to the most compelling question: Why can’t we better predict the natural disasters? Part of the answer to this question is that the Earth’s processes are dynamic, ephemeral and their origin are hidden from view. Furthermore, our historical record of events is a blip in the planet’s billions of years of existence. Does that reflect upon human inability to predict the future? By studying some of the devastating events in recent times, Prager concludes that preparation and not prediction holds the key to prepare for what lies ahead. This could be disturbing news but she has valid reasons to extend her argument.

Take the case of Miami where since 2006 the average rate of sea-level rise is three times the global average of about 3 millimeters rise per year. The sunny days flooding in Miami has forced the local government to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure without being aware about how long the situation will continue to worsen. Given that there are more than seven hundred million people living in low-lying coastal areas across the world, the science of sea-level rise has yet to deliver credible forecast about the impending threat. Consequently, how far and how fast will the sea rise remains open to speculation.

Prager writes with all the imaginative sympathy of a storyteller, with an overarching concern on the gaps in research to understand the nature of change better. Picking detailed stories of some of the game changing major events—Mount Pinatubo volcano of Philippines, Indian Ocean Tsunami of Sumatra, Hurricane Harvey in Texas—the author highlights what remains unknown about these dynamic phenomena. In addition to giving insights on each of the events, one gets to know recent attempts at advancing scientific quest toward understanding earth’s warning signals. Dangerous Earth makes absorbing reading on the unexpected and acts as an alert on knowing how to protect lives, property and economic stability.

Much has been written in recent times on climatic events, but it is the well-reasoned and engaging explanation offered by Prager that makes it a riveting read. Given the recent spurt in extreme weather events, scientists now consider this a whole new field of science which may be with or without the influence of climate change. The list of climatic unknowns is only beginning to expand, throwing new challenges to understand dangers and the risks involved. No wonder, the recent thundery development that caused widespread damage in some parts of Delhi during May this year had caught the India Meteorological Department (IMD) off guard. Prediction is indeed crucial, but preparedness is no less important.

While highlighting the need for focused research on climatic events and capturing the new areas of scientific enquiry, Prager points out toward the inevitability of dramatic change that is upon us—turning the beautiful planet against its own inhabitants. There can be no denying that there have been similar periods of warming in Earth’s past, it is not the actual temperature that is the issue but the rapid pace at which the global thermometer is rising that is unusual and problematic. It is the comprehensive undertaking on the extreme events that will open new avenues of research in reducing the impacts of extreme events. Loaded with in-depth narratives on recent catastrophic events, Dangerous Earth is an eye opener and a call to devise and develop ways and means of reducing the impacts of a violent planet on its inhabitants and infrastructure.

Jul 5 2022

Climate Chaos and Its Origins in Slavery and Capitalism

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What is the effect of modern capitalist institutions and their effects in colonial history and human misery on our present climate crisis, and how can we redeem our relationship with nature?

Climate Chaos and Its Origins in Slavery and Capitalism

Climate Chaos and Its Origins in Slavery and Capitalism, by Reva Blau and Judith Blau, Anthem Press, 2020, 114 pp.

Human activities are unequivocally leading to the warming of the atmosphere, and causing widespread changes in our climate system. The scale of these changes, and the adverse effects on our current climate, in many ways have remained unparalleled over the past several thousand years. Reva Blau, middle-school ELL teacher and Judith Blau, Professor emerita of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, considerably argue using examples such as: The 1619 Project and The Industrial Revolution to advance our understanding of, the deep-rootedness of modern capitalist institutions, their foundations in racism, slavery, violence, injustice, and the effects of colonial history and human misery in general on our present climate crisis.

So, what is the way forward? Are we doomed? The authors are surprisingly optimistic about the ability of the current generation of social entrepreneurs to reject capitalism, create a circular economy built on promising technologies such as the blockchain, and thus reverse climate change disaster. They cite the success of recent climatic movements led by young social activists such as: Ayakha Melithafa, Carlos Manuel, Greta Thunberg, Raslen Jbeli, and others to redeem our relationship with nature.

Throughout the book, one point that left me unconvinced was their outright rejection of new technologies (such as geoengineering) without presenting any scientific evidence in favor or against them. The book appeals to the emotions of local social activists without presenting a thorough critical evaluation of the existing institutions—which they argue, are destructive of our ecosystem. Despite these shortcomings, the broad claims of the book are well-argued in other social science literature.