Book Reviews

When a Billion Chinese Jump

Voices from the frontline of climate change

When a Billion Chinese Jump is a stunning and eye-opening travelogue that takes the reader from the Tibetan Plateau to Inner Mongolia via tiger farms, melting glaciers, cancer villages, science parks, coal mines , eco-cities and a Barbie Emporium. Watts’ superb journalistic style allows the reader to  witness the climax of two hundred years of industrialisation and urbanisation close up and in glorious technicolour,  playing at fast-forward on a continent-wide screen.

When a Billion Chinese JumpDivided into sixteen compelling chapters each based on a different region of China and each dealing with another aspect of the complex environmental and social issues facing her people , each section balances hard, often jaw-dropping, facts and figures with interesting, often amusing and compassionate, accounts of individual lives and interviews.  The result is a persuasive, highly educational book which uses human interest stories from the grass roots to bring the issues to life.

China has been performing massive experiments on its environment for many decades. Its river systems are the most highly regulated, dammed and engineered in the world. Its industrial pollution, smog and creeping desertification are quite literally eye-watering. The meteoric rise in living standards for hundreds of billions of people is breathtaking.   A choking dependence on  coal sits side by side with world-leading green technologies. 

Watts puts this all in its historical context,  from the peasant culture of rural China to Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ and on to the complex present day mix of state communism and rampant free enterprise, sensitively teasing out the cultural strands  that bind and shape  China’s actions.  He  sees Cthe country’s  role as utterly crucial to the future of the planet.

“The planet’s problems were not made in China,” Watts writes, “but they are sliding past the point of no return here.”

China has now overtaken the US as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon, although its per-capita emissions are still far lower.  Large swathes of her landscape  are utterly destroyed by out of control industrialisation in pursuit of growth,  but at the same time  China boasts  more installed wind and solar capacity than any other country,  has the biggest high speed rail network,   and is pioneering green technologies from carbon capture and storage to electric vehicles.

‘When a Billion Chinese Jump’ is a compelling, immensely readable and well-researched journey  that carries the reader to the heart of the Chinese dilemma.  The  world’s biggest country is at the pivot point of  rapid climate change, caught between playing catch-up with the West or re-interpreting the future and leading humanity out of the smog –  and apparently determined to do both.


The Hockey Stick Illusion

A review by Alastair McIntosh

originally published in the Scottish Review of Books, 14 August 2010

 The “hockey stick” is a graph showing the Earth’s temperature relatively constant for the past thousand years but then, like a hockey stick’s blade, rising sharply from about 1900 when human-induced greenhouse gas emissions seriously kicked in.

The Hockey Stick Illusion But according to A.W. Montford’s “definitive exposé”, it’s just not true.

 The captain of Montford’s “Hockey Team” is the renowned American climatologist, Michael Mann, and at least forty-two named co-conspirators from amongst acclaimed scientists.

 Their motivation? To keep the hockey-stick’s handle long and flat. Why? Because “the flatter the representation [before the upward swing] … the scarier were the conclusions” (p. 27).

 To generate the scare, and with it, win grant-grubbing political prestige, required massaging out the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) – an epoch that lasted 300 years until 1250, when Vikings swashbuckled Greenland and wine from home-grown grapes swilled the manor halls of England. Had the MWP been left in, claims Montford, the temperature curve for the past millennium would look more U-shaped. This would have diminished the case for human-induced global warming, obviating the urgency to discomfort ourselves by cutting CO2 emissions.

 Montford claims that the MWP was airbrushed out by cherry-picking and statistically steamrollering tree-ring data – one of the proxies used to reconstruct past planetary temperatures. Leaked East Anglia emails clinch the case. Bottom line: the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate has “proven itself to be corrupt, biased and beset by conflicts of interest…. There is no conceivable way that
politicians can justify this failing to their electorates. They have no choice but to start again” (pp. 390-1).

 But who is Montford, and what his sources? Andrew Montford, a chartered accountant with a BSc in chemistry from St Andrews University, is better known as the pseudonymous blogger, Bishop Hill – self-described as “the dissentient afflicted with the malady of thought.”

 His book’s opening paragraph tells how he learned the intricacies of climate science by reading Climate Audit – the blog of Canadian mining consultant, Steve McIntyre. He relates: “While some of the statistics was (sic) over my head … I wondered if my newly-found understanding of the debate would enable me to take on … a public duty to make the story more widely known” (p. 13).

 After posting a summary to Bishop Hill “my sleepy and relatively obscure website [turned] into a hive of activity, with thirty thousand hits being received over the following three days … saying nice things about what I had written [and] even an attempt to use my article as a source document for Wikipedia” (pp. 13-14).

 But McIntyre’s attack on Mann is strongly contested. A study from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution concluded that McIntyre had overplayed his hand. A German appraisal picked up “a
glitch” but “found this glitch to be of very minor significance.” An investigation by the US National Academy of Sciences, according to a report in Nature, “essentially upholds Mann’s findings.” And a review this year by Mann’s own university exonerated him, not necessarily of all error (which is inevitable in fast-evolving scientific fields), but of “any wrongdoing”.

 Even if Mann were guilty as charged by the climate change contrarians the hockey stick has been replicated by at least a dozen other studies. Above all, the MWP is probably a red herring. Its warming effect was probably more regional than global. A parallel would be our past winter which was exceptionally cold regionally in Europe, but globally the hottest that NASA has ever recorded.

 Montford’s analysis might cut the mustard with tabloid intellectuals but not with most scientists. Credibility counts. Mann has published over a hundred relevant contributions to scholarly journals compared, seemingly, with McIntyre, three, and Montford, nil. Meanwhile, Mann and his colleagues get on with refining their methods and datasets, publishing in such world-renowned journals such as Nature and Science.

 The Hockey Stick Illusion might serve a psychological need in those who can’t face their own complicity in climate change, but at the end of the day it’s exactly what it says on the box: a write-up of somebody else’s blog.

 At best it will help to keep already-overstretched scientists “on their toes”. At worst, it’s a yapping terrier worrying the bull; a spinning ball that cripples action, potentially costing lives and livelihoods.


Alastair McIntosh of the Centre for Human Ecology is a visiting professor at Strathclyde University and author of Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition.



‘Mean-spirited scepticism’ – Richard Joyner


‘The Montford Delusion’ – Detailed analysis of Montford’s ‘arguments’ on the Real Climate website


Solar by Ian McEwan

Well written black comedy mirrors our reaction to climate change

Solar by Ian McEwanMichael Beard is  a physicist whose best work is all behind him. He is coasting after peaking early with his Nobel Prize for the Beard-Einstein Conflation. Jumping on the global warming bandwagon, he is working on a doomed rooftop wind turbine while his weight balloons and his wife plays the beast with two backs with their builder. A true Tom Sharpe moment allows Beard to steal the technology for a form of artificial photosynthesis and brazenly present it as his own. He sets off in search of fame and fulfillment once more but the forces of chaos inexorably close in on him, and in the end in spite of the laugh out loud slapstick moments and the clever plotlines this turns out to be a very moral tale.

This is a very clever black comedy that on one level can be read as an extended metaphor for the world’s reaction to and treatment of global warming. Beard’s insatiable appetite, his inability to stop consuming even when he knows it is bad for him, his wilful refusal to do the right thing in his private life all parallel our treatment of the planet.

Beard’s refusal to do anything about his burgeoning weight or the developing melanoma on his hand culminates in the realisation that ” He did not have it in him to eat and drink less . . . . He could not command his body to do it, he had no will for it. He would rather die than take up jogging or prance to funky music in a church hall with other tracksuited deadbeats.”

Brilliantly written, this is a wonderful read for all McEwan fans or newcomers to his work. The climate change issues are not intrusive but form a useful skeleton to hang the all-too-corpulent flesh of the frequently hilarious plot on.

Click the picture to go to the relevant page on Amazon UK


The God Species – Review

Review: The God Species by Mark Lynas

The God Species by Mark LynasThe Mark Lynas who wrote this book has travelled a long way from the environmental activist who once threw a custard pie in the face of a climate denialist who annoyed him. The dramatic appeal of his second book, ‘Six Degrees’ – presented as a series of increasingly alarming horror movies – thrust him into the environmental limelight.  Now this book – his third – sees him staking his claim as a deep thinker and solver of problems rather than just another climate alarmist.

‘The God Species’ is a tale of the Anthopocene age – the age of man, where humanity is the primary force shaping the future environment. Its subtitle – ‘How the planet can survive the age of humans’ – is an early indication that this may be a more optimistic Lynas than the author of Six Degrees.  The book travels far beyond the basic climatic remit of his previous works, examining nine ‘planetary boundaries’ we need to consciously manage in order to keep the Earth a comfortable place to live.

Climate change is one obvious boundary. Another well know and widely discussed boundary is biodiversity loss –  avoiding the ‘sixth extinction’ that many believe we are heading for. The other limitations –  in no particular order –  are water use, reactive nitrogen in the biosphere, land use, aerosols, toxins, ocean acidification and the ozone layer. Many of these are shown to be intertwined. Ocean acidification, for example, is a product of increased atmospheric CO2, and thus inextricably linked to climate change. Some of these boundaries have been allocated well-defined values while others – such as aerosols – are much harder to arrive at a value for. (Aerosols in particular play both a black hat and a white hat role in global temperature regulation).

The science and arithmetic behind these boundaries is delivered in a straightforward and entertaining way. The book is extremely easy to read in spite of the huge sweep of scientific ground it covers. Sprinkled throughout are the ‘magic bullets’ that the author is currently promoting as key tools in our planetary management armoury. These include lots of nuclear power, genetically modified crops, the privatisation of water management and the continuing movement of population from the country to the city. ‘Conventional’  environmental groups such as Greenpeace come in for some pretty harsh criticism for their opposition to some of these remedies, and are presented almost as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

We have already crossed three of the planetary boundaries, but overall the tone is upbeat and optimistic. Retaking the ozone boundary was our first dramatic success, and can be seen as a good omen.  Lynas belives we can now claw our way back below the 350ppm CO2 boundary – and that we can do it without cutting consumption or radically changing our habits. Nuclear-charged electric cars, biofuelled jets and continuing economic growth mean it will be business as usual in the low carbon future he envisages. The optimism is  counterpointed somewhat by the author’s  brief review of the international process so far at Kyoto, Copenhagen and Cancun – the despair of the final sterile hours of Copenhagen comes across particularly well – but overall this is an upbeat book.

Where the author’s tone  grates a little is in his apparent determination at times to be controversial for its own sake, to rub low-carbon nuclear power in the faces of ‘traditional’ environmentalists and to ostentatiously court the right wing with his rosy promises of continued growth in a zero carbon free market. I am not saying that there is no merit in his ideas –  there is, in most of them – and I am sure that many of a ‘dark green’ persuasion will lighten up a little after reading this book. The worry is that perhaps he has the scent of personal success in his nostrils and could be tempted  to say anything controversial for column inches or media time. A recent personal blog entry criticising the IPCC had climate deniers welcoming him to the dark side, but I think (and hope) that they will be disappointed.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Mark Lynas has come a long way from the green (in every sense) environmentalist of ten years ago. I look forward to seeing where his journey takes him next. This book is thought provoking, challenging to both camps in the climate war and well worth its purchase price – get the Kindle version for the best environmental bang for your buck.


‘The God Species’ by Mark Lynas was published by Fourth Estate on July 7th and is available  from Amazon UK.