TOO HOT TO HANDLE: THE DEMOCRATIC CHALLENGE OF CLIMATE CHANGE by Rebecca Willis
This is an occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing. I’ve recently started a PhD project at Queen’s University Belfast with the catchy title “Navigating the Mystery of Future Geographies in Climate Change Fiction.”
The Hive has kindly given me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience.
My reading (and there is a lot of reading involved in a PhD – woo hoo!) has included a lot of climate fiction, literary criticism about climate fiction, mystery fiction and non-fiction accounts of anthropogenic climate change and humanity’s response to it. This week it’s the non-fiction angle as I look at Rebecca Willis’s Too Hot to Handle: The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change.
Willis draws on her extensive experience of environmental activism at local and national level, and also her experiences talking to serving members of the UK parliament about the climate crisis. The result is a very focussed book examining not just why we are in a mess over climate change but also looking at ways we can get out of it. My last post looked at Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway’s pair of works (the non-fiction Merchants of Doubt and fictionalised history The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A View from the Future). Merchants of Doubt, in particular, made me angry – with its exposure of cynical and cyclical misinformation campaigns that have hampered reasonable scientific based response to climate change and other crises. Willis, in Too Hot to Handle: The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change made me more hopeful – which after all was Willis’ stated purpose in writing it.
“I finish on an unashamedly optimistic note. I don’t see what alternative there is.”
It is important to leaven fictional cli-fi with the lessons of non-fictional accounts of climate change and our best response to it, so as to balance the need to raise the alarm with the risks of being so alarmist that reader reactions polarise into ridicule or despair. Even where a fiction author’s intent avoids being crushed by these Symplegades, readers may still not unpack the message exactly as the author wrote it. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson’s studies of response to specific pieces of Cli-Fi have shown people drawing some unhelpful conclusions. For example images of dystopian futures and collapsing social norms in the Paolo Bacigalupi ‘s The Water Knife taught some readers that “they needed to be prepared” and “They couldn’t trust people.” Cli-Fi serves little purpose if it drives readers off to fashion themselves fortresses in the American Redoubt! So there is a need to balance the imaginative projections of fiction, with the plain spoken facts of non-fiction.
Mike Berners-Lee in There is no planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years, makes many suggestions so sensible they feel like the bleeding obvious, and yet are also earth changing. For example at its simplest – the fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. There is no safe level of burning oil/coal/gas – we need to stop digging it up because if we dig it up then we burn it. (Link to my Goodreads review here )
Willis draws on Berners-Lee’s suggestions and assuages some of my anger at the corrosive and pervasive misinformation that bedevils contemporary society on every issue. She analyses the political and democratic problems we face in addressing climate change and identifying individual and collective ways forward. Importantly – this is about being political aware, literate and active, not simply about how we as individuals reduce our personal climate change impact. Worthy as such environmentally conscious behaviour is, it is too easy an excuse for politicians and corporations to evade their own actions and responsibilities, to blame the people for not doing enough. (Incidentally, we see this same evasion in UK Covid responses where the successes are down to the “excellence” of our government and the failures are due to the “irresponsible behaviour” of the people. It’s a blame trap and we shouldn’t fall for it.)
Willis – as her title emphasises – puts democracy under the spotlight and interrogates its fitness to address the problems of climate change. Drawing on extensive experience and she notes that
“While generalised concern about climate change is high, its perceived relevance to people’s lives remains low.”
An observation which is surely a mandate for cli-fi authors to ensure the write widely, ensuring the issue permeates every genre. However, as Willis also notes
“…if you are concerned enough about climate change to read books about it, you will find it hard to imagine that others don’t think like you.”
Climate change is one issue among many (Brexit absurdities, political dishonesty, social media disruption of democracy to mention but a few) where for those who look at it, all the facts are both obvious and appalling, while to others it is just an irrelevance.
Willis discusses MP’s perceptions of a particular cohort of engaged “Guardian reading intelligentsia” from whose emails they deduce “climate change is one of the issues of concern” and notes that those actively engaged in the issue
“…need to be careful not to forget that we are the exception not the rule.”
However, Willis also rejects the proposal – seen in some climate change novels – that we need a suspension of democratic political processes and a spaceship earth model led by a global scientific committee who make decisions based on best science rather than the need to woo a fickle electorate (or satisfy the interests of party donor). Willis passionately argues for
“better democracy, not less democracy.”
Part of that has to be a better informed public. The Greek philosopher. Socrates in the birthplace of democracy recognised that democracy without a fully informed electorate is a flawed system vulnerable to demagogues (more on Socrates here). As Willis points out effective action on climate change has been limited by a “feelgood fallacy.” This is the focus on finding new innovative solutions rather than avoiding the perpetuation of damage. Advances in technology have been awe-inspiring, even science fiction defying. However, I have heard politicians for years blithely assuring that post Brexit technology would resolve the Irish border issue by providing the almost mythical “alternative arrangements.” It is one other example of technology being used as a convenient touchstone by people without a plan. Technology becomes a way for politicians to kick an issue into the future hoping that science will find a way to save them, while ignoring the warning that science is screaming at them now.
It reminds me of the joke about the man trapped on the roof of his house in a flood, who refuses the rescue offers of a canoe, a motorboat and a helicopter because “I believe in God and he will save me.” Overwhelmed and drowned by the rising waters he arrives in heaven somewhat annoyed and berates God, “I believe in you, why did you do nothing to save me?” And God says – “I sent you a canoe, a motorboat and a helicopter.” Rather than hoping science will save us in the future, we would do better to listen to what science is telling us now.
Writing about the Bush era and the appalling walk away from the overwhelming scientific evidence, Willis pithily notes that
“These years were a brutal reminder that strong scientific evidence does not, in and of itself, provide the grounds for action, whatever people might say about planetary stewardship and spaceship Earth.”
My kindle file of this book is full of highlights picking out Willis’s well expressed observations. For example this one setting out the crisis in contemporary democracy.
“A defining characteristic of recent politics has been the rejection of established expertise, and a demotion of the role of evidence.”
However, at a time of crisis with powerful corporations pushing the agenda of getting their fossil fuel reserves out of the ground (and burnt) sadly too few seem to be aware of the scale of the problem.
“The most common response to climate change is neither denial nor activism, but … ‘climate apathy’”
Climate change dire as it is, does not impose itself on people’s daily lives enough to make it an issue of political importance. People are too ready to be reassured by political platitudes and corporate “green-washing”* to make this an issue sufficiently talked about on doorsteps at elections. However, in looking at the citizens assembly in Ireland, Willis identifies one way in which democracy can adapt to have an informed public directing political priorities. Something much more meaningful than a transient ”focus group” road testing reaction to the latest asinine three word slogan. It is one of many suggestions Willis makes to engage a bottom up, rather than top down approach to tackling climate change – for example with sustainable local targets for action and carbon reduction. Willis highlights the need for distributed accountability and responsibility for effecting carbon reduction rather than overarching national targets that lack a clear ground level roadmap to being achieved.
Willis also highlights the elephant in the room of energy consumption. Western society is addicted to the extensive use of convenient energy in manufacturing, in business, in transport, at home. It is salutary to realise that Bitcoin is a staggering contributor to climate change simply because of the total energy consumption of the processors mining these virtual bits of wealth. In order to make sure the fossil fuels stay in the ground, Western society needs to reassess its use of energy. Ironically the sugar addiction that is fuelling an obesity epidemic which threatens the health of the population is paralleled by an energy addiction that is fuelling the climate change crisis that threatens the health of the planet.
However, I find myself not so much reviewing Willis’s book as echoing the themes and suggestions it so excellently sets out. I found it a resonant and thought provoking read about the key problem facing the world but also with suggestions about how we can act to help address it. One way is to talk more and talk loudly about climate change, the science behind it and the need for action, to challenge apathy, misinformation and denial over climate change (as over many other things). You can start by reading this book and then talking about it – or maybe post a review or a blog post about it!
*Green-washing is the corporate practice of making some small positive investment in climate-friendly measures, which is actually utterly insignificant compared to the harm being done, but the green-washing activity is promoted so heavily it creates a public illusion that the fossil fuel companies are en-route to a solution that mean we won’t have to change our way of life. for example as set out in this article about Shell