At the end of every Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, exhausted negotiators invariably face criticism that their efforts have been insufficient to address the existential challenge that the world faces. Any victories that they have wrestled from the jaws of failure are frequently deemed by a sceptical press to be too late and inadequate. Things, it is felt, are bad and going to get worse. Hannah Ritchie’s book Not the End of the World could be a helpful antidote to post-COP angst.
Ritchie is a senior researcher in the Programme for Global Development at Oxford University and the deputy editor of the online publication Our World in Data. She has written the book that she wishes she’d had to hand as a student of environmental geoscience ten years ago to give her hope in the face of apparently overwhelming bad news about climate change and the environment. She also wants ammunition with which to argue against the doomsters prophesying that the end of the world is nigh. Doomsday messages, for Ritchie, ‘do more harm than good’, primarily by leaving us feeling paralysed. For the conflagration that doomsayers were expecting has not transpired. In some areas, things are even getting better. She has, as she tells us, crunched the data and her attitude is, if not Panglossian, a long way from Ozymandian.
Full of data, easily accessible and thoughtful, Not the End of the World focuses on seven issues: air pollution, climate change, deforestation, food production, biodiversity loss, ocean plastics and overfishing. Ritchie has no sympathy with the somewhat Malthusian solutions to these problems that have been proposed – economic degrowth or a massive reduction in the global population – and instead concentrates on the practical steps that will ensure both human wellbeing and environmental protection. She thinks that with determination and leadership we will contain climate change to not much more than a 2°C increase in average temperatures in relation to pre-industrial levels; that reducing the quantity of meat in our diet by even modest amounts can make an impact on deforestation rates, carbon emissions and biodiversity loss; and that technological innovation can reduce the cost of renewable energy so dramatically that current, polluting energy systems will become uneconomical. She shows that while some of the numbers are still awful, there are some positive overall trends. For instance, the number of people in developing countries without enough calories to eat declined from 35 per cent in the 1970s to 13 per cent in 2015; and global death rates from natural disasters, contrary to popular belief, have fallen tenfold since the early 20th century.
Perhaps the most powerful part of the book is the section on food. ‘We are at a unique position in human history,’ writes Ritchie, as we are easily capable of feeding everyone in the world. Hunger and famine are ‘solvable’. Without doubt, however, our current eating habits, cropping choices, agricultural