Hot Air and the Arvon Foundation

On 7th September 2022, I was the guest reader for a course run by the Arvon Foundation on popular science writing. As a result, my name is now included in the remarkable roll-call of writers who have tutored on Arvon courses. It felt very special to be added to that list. In September 2016, I had been a tutee on the charity’s previous course on popular science, held at their house in Shropshire, The Hurst. It was there that I started working on my book, Hot Air: The Inside Story of the Battle Against Climate Change Denial. Six years later, I read extracts from the now published work to participants of this new course as well others who had signed up specially for the session. I also answered questions about the why and how of I came to write Hot Air. I enjoyed the experience immensely. Not only had I graduated to the list of Arvon tutors, the session was a great opportunity to reflect on my writing journey.

I decided to write Hot Air because I felt that the perspective of climate scientists had not been properly heard. By the late 2010s there was a growing plethora of books on different aspects of the climate crisis. Despite this, the testimony of climate researchers was not readily available, even though we were the ones who had told humanity about the catastrophic effects of emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We scientists were the messengers. And like messengers throughout history who bring bad news and a warning that the old ways of doing things have to change, we were not universally welcomed. We were vilified, ignored and attacked, often by agents of the fossil fuel lobby who did not want our message to be taken heed of. 

It was those most affected by climate change, the terrible fires, destructive floods and devastating droughts that were happening more and more frequently, who grasped most readily what we scientists were saying. They understood that the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions were vastly outweighed by the benefits of doing so. The prize, a more habitable and more sustaining environment, they thought was one well worth striving for. Now, despite the determined efforts of climate deniers over more than a quarter of a century, that realisation is gaining ground worldwide. 

The crucial realisation I had as regards my book came at that course at The Hurst in September 2016. It was there that I realised that I could provide a valuable perspective from the point of view of us climate messengers. I had been present at some remarkable moments in the history of climate change research and of climate change denial. For years I had kept a detailed account of an extraordinary visit I made to Moscow in 2004 thinking that one day I would find a way to tell this untold story. Of how a long arranged meeting of British and Russian scientists had been hijacked by Putin’s right hand man and turned into a show trial of climate research featuring many of the world’s most well-known climate deniers. Of how climate scientists were accused of fraud and likened to researchers who supported the use of eugenics in Nazi Germany to terrible ends. Of how the Kyoto protocol, the first global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, almost fell. At The Hurst in 2016 I began to understand how to tell that story.

The key, I learned from our wonderful tutors Aarathi Prasad and Michael Brooks, was to concentrate on the narrative and the characters involved. The scientific explanations could appear when the story demanded it, when the reader, realising the personal jeopardy and high stakes involved, was keen to hear about the scientific reasons underlying the quandary in play. A good popular science book, I learned, is led by story rather than science, even in a book containing a good amount of scientific detail. The story element was what attracted me to read books about other areas of science and that is what I would attempt to do in  writing my own book. 

Armed with this knowledge, I began to see how that remarkable incident in Moscow fitted into a wider picture, not just of other extraordinary encounters I had been involved in, but of the wider sweep of the global battle against climate change denial. Back home from the course, I started to lay out those stories in chapter structure, working from 6 to 8 each morning. I made slow progress. But the morning sessions became a habit and eventually, after many months of writing and re-writing, I had completed a prologue and four chapters, the fourth of which was an account of that unforgettable trip to Moscow in 2004. By  Spring 2018, I was ready to send out my proposal for a non-fiction book on climate change to literary agents.

It took me another eighteen months to find an agent. I had many rejections, some providing positive feedback about my writing, but nobody convinced enough about the saleability of my project to take me on. One day in November 2019, and by now having written the whole book, I decided to try approaching Andrew Gordon at David Higham Associates. His agency unlike most still requested proposals on paper and before that I had been concentrating on other agencies who welcomed email submissions. But one Thursday lunchtime I cycled to the local Post Office and posted my 48-page proposal in an A4 envelope along with a covering letter pitching my idea. The following Monday morning I received an email from Andrew asking to read more. Two weeks later and I was in his office in London discussing the serious possibility of becoming a published author.

There was still much more work to be done before Atlantic Books published Hot Air in October 2021. Looking back over the five years from conception to realisation, I can see how crucial it was to have readers and editors to realise my vision. Pierrette, my wife and co-creator of the Climate Stories project, was my first reader, encouraging me to bring more of my emotions into the narrative. Michael Brooks pointed out when I was straying into irrelevance, marking up the offending passages with the words ‘nobody cares’. James Pulford, my editor at Atlantic, showed me where I had provided memorable sentences with the commentary, ‘nice moment’. All three helped my writing take wing by pointing out what did and didn’t work in catching the reader’s interest and what I needed to do more of to keep the reader hooked through the twists and turns of a twenty-five year account.

Thanks to publication by a mainstream publisher, my story has reached a much wider readership than I could have hoped for through writing for technical journals. And I have been able to take that story to new audiences at literary festivals around the country. In Autumn 2021 I was at the Durham Book Festival, the Harrogate Book Festival and the Cambridge Literary Festival and in Spring 2022 I talked about Hot Air at the Farnham Literary Festival, the Oxford Literary Festival and the Glasgow Aye Write Festival. In May 2022, I was thrilled to be part of the biggest book festival of them all, the Hay Festival, alongside Alice Bell, whose history of climate change, Our Biggest Experiment, has also widened understanding of this crucial issue.

I am glad to have played a part in increasing awareness of the climate crisis. Thanks to this growth in awareness, there is now a glimmer of hope that catastrophic climate change can be averted before it is too late. The curve of greenhouse gas emissions has started to bend away from the worst-case scenarios laid out by climate modelers due, in part at least, to a rapid reduction in the cost of renewable energy generation. But while global temperatures may rise less this century than once feared, the latest science shows that a temperature rise of a given amount poses greater risks than previously thought. The alarming severity of recent heatwaves, floods and droughts shows how calamitous would be even a modest-sounding degree of further global warming. 

Every bit of warming matters. And every bit of action matters too. Whether it be reducing our own emissions by changing our home heating, our means of transport or our diet, or by lobbying politicians to make better climate-friendly decisions, every small step takes us further away from the cliff edge of climatic collapse and towards a more life-sustaining planet. Engagement like this is the opposite of climate change denial. It is the antidote to climate change despair. It is not an immediate panacea, but it is, it seems to me, a way to feel better about the future and the only way forward.

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