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Climate change: between hope and pessimism

In The Best of Times, The Worst of Times, environmental scientist Paul Behrens describes both hopeful and pessimistic scenarios for our future and that of our planet. With the book soon to be published, Behrens talks about its content and the writing process itself.

When did you decide to write the book?

‘A few years ago, I was reading a lot of popular science books, as I was interested in the narratives the public was being confronted with about the environment and our future. I began to notice that the books tended to have either an optimism or pessimism bias, and sometimes even gave a sudden counterargument. I wondered what people were supposed to think. If they hear that the world is better on average than it has ever been, after just hearing about the numerous existential, unprecedented crises that we are facing, what can they come away with but confusion, apathy or dread? That was when I had the idea for the book. I decided to commit to both pessimism and hope, and to talk about what these actually mean and what these scenarios look like. I also decided to consider what needs to happen from a biological and physical perspective, and what needs to happen if we are to survive in the long term.’ 

So the idea of alternating chapters was there from the beginning?

‘Yes, that was the basic idea for the book. In the back of my mind, I had always thought about writing a popular science book, and one day I realised it would be really useful for people to see the two future trajectories clearly laid out, without one diluting the other. I thought it would be fascinating to write.’

Now the book is finished, did you enjoy writing it?

‘It was the worst and hardest thing I’ve ever done, but at the same time, the best thing I’ve ever done, for several reasons. One huge challenge was the deadlines, and the pressure that comes with that—particularly as a scientist bent on accuracy. It was very difficult to combine with a full-time academic job. Another reason that this was so difficult was because it involved staring down the barrel of a lot of these problems. When you’re not immersed in these issues, you can be concerned but get to work on other things too, whereas if you’re writing about it you think about it day in day out. So for those two reasons I took a real hit. It was really hard work, and the only thing that kept me going – besides a supportive partner and employer – was the thought that people might read it and understand what needs to happen for us to have hope. It’s not just optimistically saying: “Everything is getting better…” No, hoping is acting, hoping is changing and hoping is working together.’

‘With hope, you have to sketch out what needs to happen, which is much more exciting than pessimism.’

So was the hopeful future most fun to write?

‘I think people still struggle to paint a picture of a hopeful future. But with hope, you have to sketch out what needs to happen, which is much more exciting than pessimism. If we do what we need to do, we humans will be healthier, both psychologically and physically. We will have stronger communities, cleaner air and cleaner water. A lot of the chapters is just pointing out how much better that world would be.’

Which future do you think we will see?

‘All I can say is that it’s a race against time, between natural and social tipping points. It’s a battle between the rate of change in nature and the rate of change in society. In a way, we have already lost, and millions of people are already suffering. But we can still stop that from becoming billions and can improve the lives of billions more. It’s a tricky balance between accepting what we’ve lost and trying to move towards hope that we will do better in the future. If sea ice and permafrost melting is the tipping point, we can still try to slow that down. And maybe even become a better species in the process. There is a lot of uncertainty still, but one thing I can say is that there is no better time to start improving than today.’

What kind of information did you use to write this book?

‘I used information from two areas: academic literature and popular science books. I am an industrial ecologist, and I study how industrial and human systems interact with nature. My background is in atmospheric physics, so I already had some understanding of climate issues. But I had to do a lot of reading in the social sciences and humanities. I think in the end it was about 50% papers and 50% books.’

So this broadness sets this book apart from other books.

‘I hope that is one of its biggest strengths. You have to engage with all these different issues and it’s kind of overwhelming – environmental issues are everything issues and bound up with poverty and inequality. But what I tried to do is take the core findings and approaches from lots of different natural and social sciences, and to some extent from the humanities, to talk about what it takes for change to happen.’

Climate change is not a new subject. How will you get people to read your book?

‘Climate change doesn’t allow people to become tired of it. It’s just going to get harder and harder and harder. So, I don’t think there will be any danger of people getting bored with climate change. I would love for different types of people to read the book because I don’t want to only reach people in environmental movements.’

Text: Ramón van Doorn

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