ON THE EDGE
A book to be read in every home, every school
and by everyone
who has power over our destiny
With comparisons being made to Jeanne d'Arc, another teenage heroine, Greta Thunberg is destined to become a historic figure. At seventeen Jeanne led the French army into a series of victories against the English, during the Hundred Years War that spanned the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. For this, she would, one day, be declared patron saint of France. At seventeen Greta was the most celebrated leader of a global campaign to defeat the ignorance and
short-sightedness of world leaders in their half-hearted battle against the climate catastrophe, and the consequent collapse of countless living systems. At sixteen, Greta's eloquence and commitment had defied her youth and diminutive stature to gain a standing ovation at the United Nations General Assembly.
At nineteen, Jeanne d'Arc was burnt at the stake, by the English. At nineteen, Greta has produced a book. This is no ordinary book. It is a magnificent book. A gathering together of the wisdom of more than a hundred specialists, from all over the world - most of them talented and wise enough to write with clarity, authority and the capacity to quietly persuade rather than noisily terrify. The Climate Book is generating the enthusiasm it deserves:
"With The Climate Book, a stunning and essential new work, Greta Thunberg takes her mission to the next level ... [It is] an incredible and moving resource. There are chapters on almost everything you might need to know about climate change and its effects ... The book is a curated, portable library of knowledge, full of classics ... It is an extraordinary body of work and I can't recommend it highly enough. You feel the passion as well as the intellectual heft of the authors, and that is what is so moving about it. It is time for all of us to rise up."
Rowan Hooper, New Scientist
"I would hope it is the kind of book everyone feels they should buy, read and act on: if you've tried to recycle a coffee pod, bought an electric car or started using a reusable water bottle, this book knows the combination of fear, hope and duty that made you do it and has a million more suggestions. It should be a bookcase staple, like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time or Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens."
Caitlin Moran, The Times
"Spectacular ... The scope of this work is planetary in scale. It is a massive undertaking in which Greta Thunberg calls on the best people possible to help her make sense of the rapid trashing of the natural world and the ecosystems life depends on ... Ultimately, this is an unexpectedly uplifting volume, fizzing with the world's best science and analysis, and what we can now do with it."
Harry Cockburn, Independent
I am not promoting The Climate Book for financial gain but because I believe it is an important document, sorely needed in these precipitous times. Nor am I promoting anything else on this website to make money, apart from my work as a visual artist. To make connections and build conversations is reward enough. on the edge is designed to inform, enthuse and communicate with ideas and imaginings that I consider to be of intrinsic value. I am certainly inspired by the marvellous achievements of a Swedish teenager, hobbled by autism but supported by so many outstanding people, with huge hearts and great minds.
The following extracts are a sliver from a 448 page masterpiece. I am delighted and encouraged by the coincidence that the soft launch of on the edge coincides with such a significant and consequential publication. GD
To solve this problem we need to understand it
By Greta Thunberg
The climate and ecological crisis is the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced. It will no doubt be the issue that will define and shape our future everyday life like no other. This is painfully clear. In the last few years,
the way we see and talk about the crisis has started to shift. But since we have wasted so many decades ignoring
and downplaying this escalating emergency, our societies are still in a state of denial. This is, after all, the age of communication, where what you say can easily outweigh what you do. That is how we have ended up with
such a great number of major fossil-fuel-producing – and high-emitting – nations calling themselves climate leaders, despite not having any credible climate mitigation policies in place. This is the age of the great greenwashing machine.
There are no black-and-white issues in life. No categorical answers. Everything is a subject for endless debate and compromise. This is one of the core principles of our current society. A society which, when it comes to sustainability, has a lot to answer for. Because that core principle is wrong. There are some issues that are black and white. There are indeed planetary and societal boundaries that must not be crossed. For instance, we think our societies can be a little bit more or a little bit less sustainable. But in the long run you cannot be a little bit sustainable – either you are sustainable or you are unsustainable. It is like walking on thin ice – either it carries your weight, or it does not. Either you make it to the shore, or you fall into the deep, dark, cold waters. And if that should happen to us, there will not be any nearby planet coming to our rescue. We are completely on our own.
It is my genuine belief that the only way we will be able to avoid the worst consequences of this emerging existential crisis is if we create a critical mass of people who demand the changes required. For that to happen, we need to rapidly spread awareness, because the general public still lacks much of the basic knowledge that is necessary to understand the dire situation we are in. My wish is to be part of the effort to change that. I have decided to use my platform to create a book based on the current best available science – a book that covers the climate, ecological and sustainability crisis holistically. Because the climate crisis is, of course, only a symptom of a much larger sustainability crisis. My hope is that this book might be some kind of go-to source for understanding these different, closely interconnected crises.
In 2021, I invited a great number of leading scientists and experts, and activists, authors and storytellers to contribute with their individual expertise. This book is the result of their work: a comprehensive collection of facts, stories, graphs and photographs showing some of the different faces of the sustainability crisis with a clear focus on climate and ecology.
It covers everything from melting ice shelves to economics, from fast fashion to the loss of species, from pandemics to vanishing islands, from deforestation to the loss of fertile soils, from water shortages to Indigenous sovereignty, from future food production to carbon budgets – and it lays bare the actions of those responsible and the failures of those who should have already shared this information with the citizens of the world.
There is still time for us to avoid the worst outcomes. There is still hope, but not if we continue as we are today. To solve this problem, we first need to understand it – and to understand the fact that the problem itself is by definition a series of interconnected problems. We need to lay out the facts and tell it like it is. Science is a tool, and we all need to learn how to use it.
We also need to answer some fundamental questions. Like, what is it, exactly, we want to solve in the first place? What is our goal? Is it to lower emissions, or to be able to go on living as we are today? Is our goal to safeguard present and future living conditions, or is it to maintain a high-consumption way of life? Is there such a thing as green growth? And can we have eternal economic growth on a finite planet?
Right now, many of us are in need of hope. But what is hope? And hope for whom? Hope for those of us who have created the problem, or for those who are already suffering its consequences? And can our desire to deliver this hope get in the way of taking action and therefore risk doing more harm than good?
The richest 1 per cent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the people who make up the poorest half of humanity. Perhaps, if you are one of the 19 million US citizens or the 4 million citizens of China who belong to that top 1 per cent – along with everyone else who has a net worth of $1,055,337 or more – then hope is perhaps not what you need the most. At least not from an objective perspective.
Of course, we hear, some progress is being made. Some nations and regions report quite astonishing reductions in CO2 emissions – or at least in the years since the world first started negotiating the frameworks for how we manage our statistics. But how do all those reductions hold up once we include our total emissions, rather than carefully managed territorial statistics? In other words, all those emissions that we so successfully negotiated out of these figures. For instance, outsourcing factories to distant parts of the world and negotiating emissions from international aviation and shipping out of our statistics – which means that we not only manufacture our products by using cheap labour and exploiting people, we also erase the associated emissions – emissions that have, in reality, increased. Is that progress?
To stay in line with our international climate targets we need to get our individual per capita emissions down to somewhere around 1 tonne of carbon dioxide a year. In Sweden, that figure currently stands at around 9 tonnes, once you include consumption of imported goods. In the US that figure is 17.1 tonnes, in Canada 15.4 tonnes, in Australia 14.9 tonnes and in China 6.6 tonnes. When you add biogenic emissions – such as emissions from the burning of wood and vegetation – those figures will in many cases be even higher. And in forestry nations such as Sweden and Canada, significantly higher.
Keeping emissions below 1 tonne per person a year will not be a problem for the majority of the world’s population, since they will only need to make modest reductions – if any – in order to live inside the planetary boundaries. In many cases, they would even be able to increase their emissions quite substantially.
But the idea that countries such as Germany, Italy, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway, and so on will be able to achieve such enormous reductions within a couple of decades without major systemic transformations is naive. And still this is what the leaders of the so-called Global North are suggesting will happen. In Part Four of this book we will be looking at how that progress is coming along.
Some people believe that if they were to join the climate movement now, they would be among the last. But that is very far from true. In fact, if you do decide to take action now, you would still be a pioneer. The final part of this book focuses on solutions and things we can actually do to make a real difference, from small, individual actions to a planetary system change.
This book is intended to be democratic, because democracy is our best tool to solve this crisis. There may be subtle disagreements between the people writing from the front lines. Each person in this book is speaking from their own point of view and may arrive at different conclusions. However, we need all of their collective wisdom if we are to create the enormous public pressure required to make change. And rather than having one or two ‘communication experts’ or individual scientists drawing all the conclusions for you as a reader, the idea behind this book is that, taken together, their knowledge in their respective areas of expertise will lead you to a point where you can start to connect the dots yourself. At least, this is my hope. Because I believe the most important conclusions are yet to be drawn – and hopefully they will be drawn by you.
The deep history of carbon dioxide
by Peter Brennan
Science journalist, contributing writer to The Atlantic
and author of The Ends of the World
All life is conjured from CO2. This is the original magic trick, from which everything else in the living world follows. At Earth’s surface, with mere sunlight and water, it is transformed into living matter through photosynthesis, leaving oxygen in its wake. This plant carbon then flows through animal bodies and ecosystems and back out into the oceans and air as CO2 once again. But some of this carbon slips the churn of the surface world altogether and passes into the Earth – as limestone, or as carbon-rich sludge, slumbering deep in the planet’s crust for hundreds of millions of years. If it isn’t buried, this plant stuff is quickly burned on Earth’s surface in the fires of metabolism, by animals, fungi, bacteria. In this way, life uses up 99.99 per cent of the oxygen produced by photosynthesis – and would use it all, if it weren’t for that infinitesimal leak of plant matter into the rocks. But it is from this leak into the rocks that the planet has been gifted its strange surplus of oxygen. In other words, the Earth’s breathable atmosphere is the legacy not of forests and swirls of plankton alive today but of the CO2 captured by life over all of our planet’s history and commended to Earth’s crust as fossil fuels.
If this was the end of the story, and CO2 was merely the fundamental substrate of all living things on Earth and the indirect source of its life-sustaining oxygen, that would be interesting enough. But it just so happens that this same unassuming molecule also critically modulates the temperature of the entire planet and the chemistry of the entire ocean. When this carbon chemistry goes awry, the living world is warped, the thermostat breaks, the oceans acidify and things die. This astounding significance of carbon dioxide to every component of the Earth system is why it’s not just another noisome industrial pollutant to regulate, like chlorofluorocarbons or lead. It is rather, as the oceanographer Roger Revelle wrote in 1985, ‘the most important substance in the biosphere’.
The most important substance in the biosphere is not one to be treated cavalierly. The movement of CO2 – as it billows from volcanoes, stirs into the air and oceans, swirls through eddies of life and soaks back into the rocks again – is what makes the Earth the Earth. This is called the carbon cycle, and life on Earth crucially depends on this global cycle maintaining a kind of delicate, if dynamic, balance. While CO2 perennially issues from volcanoes (at a hundredth the rate of human emissions) and living organisms exchange it in a ceaseless frenzy at the Earth’s surface, the planet is meanwhile constantly scrubbing it from the system at the same time, preventing climate catastrophe.
Feedbacks that draw down CO2 – from the erosion of whole mountain chains to the sinking of blizzards of carbon-rich plankton to the bottom of the sea – serve to maintain a kind of planetary equilibrium. Most of the time. This is an unlikely, miraculous world we live on, and one that we recklessly take for granted.
Sometimes in the geologic record, though, the planet has been pushed beyond a threshold. The Earth system can bend, but it can also break. And sometimes – in exceedingly rare, exceedingly catastrophic episodes buried deep in Earth history – the carbon cycle has been completely overwhelmed, undone, spun out of control. And the reliable consequence has been mass extinction.
What would happen if, say, continent-scale volcanoes, burning through kingdoms of carbon-rich limestone and igniting massive coal and natural gas deposits underground, injected thousands of gigatonnes of CO2 into the air – from exploding calderas and from steaming, incandescent expanses of basalt lava? This was the predicament for the hapless creatures alive 251.9 million years ago, in the moments before the greatest mass extinction in the history of life on Earth. At the end of the Permian period, 90 per cent of this life would learn the fatal cost of a carbon cycle completely deranged by too much carbon dioxide.
In the End-Permian mass extinction, carbon dioxide blasted out of Siberian volcanoes for thousands of years and nearly ended the project of complex life. All the normal guardrails in the carbon cycle buckled and failed in this, the single worst moment in the entire geologic record. The temperature soared by 10°C, the planet convulsed with lethally hot, acidifying oceans which pulsed with lurid blooms of algal slime that robbed their ancient waters of oxygen. This anoxic ocean instead filled with poisonous hydrogen sulphide as hurricanes roared overhead, taking on an unearthly intensity. In the aftermath, when the fever finally broke, one could travel the world without seeing a tree, the world’s coral reefs had been replaced by bacterial slime, the fossil record went silent and the planet took nearly 10 million years to pull itself back from oblivion. Thanks, in large part, to burning fossil fuels.
Every single mass extinction in Earth history is similarly marked by massive disruptions of the global carbon cycle, the signals of which have been teased out of the rocks by geochemists. Given the central importance of CO2 to the biosphere, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find that pushing this system so far from equilibrium can so reliably result in planetary devastation. Now, what if one lineage of the primate Homo tried to do the exact same thing as those ancient volcanoes hundreds of millions of years ago? What if they immolated those same massive reservoirs of underground carbon – buried by photosynthetic life over all of Earth history – not by mindlessly exploding it all through the crust like a supervolcano but in a rather more mannered fashion, retrieving it from the deep and burning it all at the surface in a more diffuse eruption, in the pistons and forges of modernity … and at a rate ten times that of the ancient mass extinctions? That is the absurd question we now demand the planet answer for us.
The climate is not responsive to political sloganeering; it is not accountable to economic models. It is accountable only to physics. It doesn’t know, or care, whether the excess CO2 in the atmosphere comes from a once-in-a-100-million-year volcanic event or from a once-in-the-history-of-life industrial civilization. It will react the same way. And we have in the rocks an unmistakable warning – a fossil record littered with the tombstones of ancient apocalypses. The good news is that we’re still a long way from matching the gruesome crescendos of those cataclysms past. And it could even be the case that the planet is more resilient to carbon cycle shocks today than in those very bad old days. There is no reason we need to etch our names on this ignominious roster of the worst events ever in Earth history. But if the rocks tell us anything, it is that we are pulling the most powerful levers of the Earth system. And we pull them at our peril.
John Martin (1789 - 1854)
Our evolutionary impact
by Beth Shapiro
Staff writer The New Yorker and author of
Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
The earliest evidence of humans as an evolutionary force comes from the fossil remains recovered at the earliest sites of human occupation on the planet’s continents and islands. As people dispersed out of Africa more than 50,000 years ago and spread around the globe, the communities they joined began to change. Animal species, and particularly megafauna, including giant wombats, woolly rhinoceroses and giant sloths, started to go extinct. Our ancestors were efficient predators armed with uniquely human technologies – tools that improved the chance of a successful hunt and an ability to communicate and quickly refine these tools. The coincidence in timing of the megafaunal extinctions and the first appearance of people is recorded in the fossil records of every continent other than Africa. But coincidence does not necessarily prove causality. In Europe, Asia and the Americas, human arrival and the extinctions of local megafauna occurred during periods of climatic upheaval, leading to decades of debate about the relative culpability of these two forces in causing the megafaunal extinctions. Proof of our culpability comes, however, from Australia, where the earliest extinctions tied to humans are recorded, and from islands, where some of the most recent human-caused extinctions – the moa of Aotearoa (New Zealand) and the Mauritian dodo both became extinct within the last several hundred years – have taken place. The Australian and more recent island extinctions did not occur during periods of major climate change, and neither are extinctions recorded during more ancient climate events. Instead, these extinctions, like those on other continents, are the consequence of changes to the local habitat brought about by the appearance of people. In our earliest phase of interacting with wildlife, we had already begun to determine other species’ evolutionary fate.
By 15,000 years ago, humans had entered a new phase of interactions with other species. Grey wolves that had been attracted to human settlements as sources of food had transformed into domestic dogs, and both dogs and humans were benefitting from their increasingly close relationship. The last ice age ended and the climate improved, and expanding human settlements demanded reliable sources of food, clothing and shelter. Around 10,000 years ago,
sustained prey populations rather than driving them towards extinction. Some hunters took only males or non-reproductive females, and later started to corral prey species and keep them close to their settlements. Soon, people began to choose which animals would be the parents to the next generation, and those animals that could not be tamed were taken for food. Their experiments were not limited to animals. They also planted seeds, choosing to propagate those that produced more food per plant or were ripe for harvest at the same time as others. They created irrigation networks and trained animals to clear land for farms. As our ancestors transitioned from hunters to herders and from gatherers to farmers, they transformed the land on which they lived and the species on which they increasingly relied.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the successes of our ancestors as herders and farmers were threatening the stability of the societies that they created. Wildlands had been replaced by farmland or rangeland and degraded by continuous use. Air and water quality had begun to decline. Extinction rates were again on the rise. This time, however, the devastation was more obvious, people were wealthier and technology was more advanced. As once-widespread species became scarce, an appetite emerged to protect what wild species and spaces remained. Our
ancestors once again entered a new phase of interactions with other species: they became protectors, guarding endangered species and habitats from the dangers of the natural and increasingly human world. With this transition, humans became the evolutionary force that would decide the fate of every species, as well as the habitats in which these species live.
"We are on the highway to climate hell,
with our foot still on the accelerator"