The Climate Book
Penguin Press, 2023
Reviewed by John(y) Van Aerde, MD, PhD
Greta Thunberg’s The Climate Book co-written by more than 100 scientists, economists, mathematicians, historians, philosophers, indigenous leaders, journalists, and social activists — is one of the most comprehensive books on the enormity of the planetary and social crisis. Although I started to read this book to better understand the impact of climate change on health and how the health care system itself contributes to the climate crisis, the book offered a much wider view. In the language of complex adaptive systems, the book explains how very close we are to or have already reached irreversible tipping points in all aspects of our biosphere. The clear language and simple graphical representation of numerous data make this an easy, but also a painful read.
Five sections, connected by wise reflections from Greta Thunberg, take us through the causes, integrated consequences, and possible solutions to the impending disaster. In “How climate works,” the basic historical, evolutionary, and systemic facts are explained. The section, “How our planet is changing” is filled with an enormous amount of scientific data on weather, oceans and water, icesheets and permafrost, soil and forests, and related environmental issues. In “How it affects us,” we learn how all the changes are affecting water shortages, health and disease, environmental oppression and injustice, climate refugees, and geopolitical conflicts.
The fourth section, “What we have done about it,” is eye-opening. It not only reveals that we haven’t even scratched the surface of what should be done, but it also shows that much of the data provided by governments and past agreements have been manipulated to their advantage, obscuring what they are really doing. Whether you are politically oriented right or left, after reading this section you must admit that we continue to live in a world of environmental colonialism and oppression. The Northern Hemisphere produces the most pollution, extracts non-renewable resources from the South, which, in turn, is also the greatest victim of those actions.
The final section explains “What we must do now”: first educate ourselves as world citizens and societies, and then take very difficult but not impossible action based on honesty, solidarity, integrity, and climate justice. To do this, the Northern Hemisphere as an entity must accept that globalization in the sense of economic growth has become a malignancy. As individual world citizens of the Northern Hemisphere, it means that we must wean ourselves off addictive consumerism.
As individuals, for example, we can eat meatless twice a week and buy less “stuff.” That makes a difference, but only when we all do these things at the same time. Reducing the use of fossil fuels and managing water consumption responsibly cannot be handled alone, but require collaboration of all societies, national and international.
Nationalism, military power, and geopolitical disparities are fundamental to the dynamics that repeatedly have stymied and continue to frustrate efforts to reach a global agreement on rapid decarbonization. Conflict and national rivalries are fundamental drivers of climate change and environmental degeneration. Attention is deflected from those real issues toward technocratic and economistic “solutions,” many of which are driven by our addiction to consuming and wasting.
Naomi Klein summarizes this well in her chapter, “The bottomless quest for profits that forces so many to work upward of 50 hours a week with no security, fuelling an epidemic of isolation and despair, is the same quest for bottomless profits that has pushed our planet to peril.” Cultural and structural systemic changes require fundamental paradigm shifts in our assumptions, beliefs, values, and expectations. To accomplish those changes and their related actions, real distributed leadership will be needed.
Addendum: On May 27, after CCPL2023 in Vancouver, a summit, Thriving People and Flourishing Planet — Leadership in Action, was attended by over 50 leaders from various organizations, most of them related to health. After an inspiring opening speech by Dr. Melissa Lem, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), participants identified eight items to explore deeply in a setup that allowed cross-pollinated conversations. Those conversations led to actionable initiatives that each attendee will implement in their own environment, with planned follow-up. The event was sponsored by LEADS Global, the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders, CAPE, Sanokondu, and Eq HS (Equity in Health Systems lab). More news will follow in future CJPL issues.
Johny Van Aerde, MD, PhD, FRCPC, is former executive medical director of the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders and founding editor of the Canadian Journal of Physician Leadership.
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