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.

Talking about Hot Air

I have a calendar of meetings to talk about my book Hot Air: The Inside Story of the Battle Against Climate Change Denial which I’m very much looking forward to. I’ve already recorded an interview with Prof Julie Sanders for the Durham Book Festival which is available online until 31 October. On Saturday 16 October I will be at the Sidmouth Science Festival alongside Alice Bell, author of Our Biggest Experiment: A History of the Climate Crisis. On Saturday 23 October I’ll be at the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival at a panel event called Climate Change: Code Red for Humanity. On Thursday 28 October I’ll be in Crediton talking about Hot Air at an event organised by Sustainable Crediton. On Sunday 31 October I travel by train to Glasgow for the Climate Negotiations at COP26. And on Thursday 18 November, after the crucial negotiations are over I’ll be reflecting on their progress and talking about my book at the Cambridge Literary Festival.

The reviews are starting to come in

With Hot Air: The Inside Story of the Battle Against Climate Change Denial due to be published on 7th October ( the proofs have started going out and some early reviews are coming in. I have had some wonderful comments from people who really know their stuff about climate science, climate politics and popular science writing which is amazing and for which I’m very grateful. I’ve appended below the comments we have had so far.

“The fight against climate change has not just been the struggle to persuade governments to change their energy systems – it has also been a vicious personal clash between climate scientists, and the climate deniers funded by the fossil fuel industries whose very existence is threatened by our attempts to slow down global warming. It has been a battle between truth and lies, a saga with heroes and villains and dramatic confrontations, and Peter Stott has been at the heart of it for a quarter of a century. In Hot Air he has written a riveting despatch from the frontline of this historic fight which makes essential reading for anyone interested in the greatest threat human society has ever faced.”

—Michael McCarthy, former Environment Editor, The Independent, and author of The Moth Snowstorm

Hot Air is a compelling indictment of the people and organisations that, for whatever reasons, refuse to accept the evidence of human-induced global warming. The scientific case for this has been clear for more than thirty years. It is disappointing that there is still a need for this book, but gratifying to find such a clear exposition of the science and the politics. The most important book you are likely to see this year.”

—John Gribbin

This important book lays out many of the stories behind the most important science in human history–the effort to prove, against the well-funded denialists and vested interests, that the planet was heating, that humans were responsible, and that we better take swift action. If there are historians around someday to tell this epic story in all its complexity, they will lean heavily on this account.”

—Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

Gripping, urgent and human… Stott provides a unique “eye-of-the-storm” perspective on the story of the century.”

—Leo Hickman, Director and Editor, Carbon Brief

“This is a rare and gripping insight into the drama behind the UN’s landmark science reports shaping how the world responds to rising temperatures. With the feel of a fast-paced thriller, Peter Stott takes the reader on a tense and sometimes painful journey through battles with climate deniers and oil-rich powers. It’s a book that reveals the exhilarating triumphs and personal challenges of the researchers discovering how our planet is changing.”

—David Shukman, Science Editor, BBC News

Peter Stott has been a key figure both in demonstrating the strength of climate science and in fighting the climate deniers, and HOT AIR is a thrilling, enthralling and, yes, enraging account of his years at the heart of the most important battle of our time.’

—Rowan Hooper, New Scientist, author of How To Spend A Trillion Dollars

In today’s world climate scientists don’t just do science. As Peter Stott reveals in this extraordinary story, over recent years climatologists have also had to do battle with fossil fuels-financed deniers with a dark and dangerous agenda – of that blocking international action to tackle the most pressing crisis of our times, global planetary heating. Whether science wins or loses this high-stakes war still remains to be seen…

—Mark Lynas , author of Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency

Writing at KGV

King George V Grammar School – KGV for short – was a state grammar school in Southport on the Lancashire Coast that was founded in 1920 and that was succeeded in Autumn 1979 by King George V Sixth Form College. I wrote this for inclusion in the Old Georgians magazine for 2021.

The last remark I recall a teacher making to me before I left school was by George Wakefield who told me I should carry on writing. I’m glad he did, because it’s a remark that I remembered. Over the years since, that encouragement has helped me to keep on writing and recently to achieve a long-held ambition to write a book. 

At KGV, I was part of a small group of ex-grammar school boys and former High School girls who met in Autumn 1979 in the newly formed Sixth Form College to take the Oxbridge Entrance exams. The preparations for our tests – written as well as oral interviews in our chosen colleges – seemed somewhat haphazard, a mixture of tackling previous exams – physics questions in my case – and meeting together once a week with Mr Wakefield for a debate on history, philosophy or politics. In his class we were set essays as homework, none of which of mine had any discernible merit, except for the week we were tasked with writing a short story. My tale about a young lad who loses his way on a mountain and finishes up meeting his time-travelling granddad was praised by my teacher and featured in the 1980 edition of The Georgian. It marked a second essay success for me at KGV, which followed a previous piece of homework I’d been set as a 12-year old by my previous English teacher in 3X, Mr T.B. Johnson.

“Why I would like to visit America” was the title, and my first line, which I only re-read quite recently, now seems like it would be hard to beat. “I would like to go to America”, I wrote, “to see whether it is really as bad as it is made out to be”. It was clearly an original take for kids at that time, most of whom would have wanted to visit Disneyland, and Mr Johnson liked it enough to stump up the one pound entry fee and post it off to the organisers of the 1975 National Essay Competition. My essay  was selected as the winner of the Junior Section. Not only did I receive a silver cup from Prince Charles at St James Palace – for which I was happy to miss my end of year exams – my parents and me as well as my teacher and his wife (thanks to that one pound entry fee) got to enjoy a lovely sunny holiday in Bermuda, all expenses paid. (We were supposed to cross to New York on the QE2 and then fly to Bermuda but the ship caught fire shortly before we sailed so we flew directly to Bermuda instead.)

So writing at KGV seemed to pay off, at least when it wasn’t debating historical, philosophical or political topics (I remember a caustic comment by my history teacher, Mr Collier, that my line “Meanwhile back at the Royal Palace” belonged in a mass-market novel and not in a serious essay about the Russian revolution). But after I left school, I concentrated on science. The absorbing business of studying physics and maths at Durham, then maths at Cambridge and a PhD in environmental science at Imperial College took up much of my time, effort which has been rewarded with a fulfilling career in climate research at the Met Office. I became a scientist, not a writer.

Nevertheless, I didn’t give up creative writing completely. In 2009, I attended my first writing course at one of the houses belonging to the Arvon Foundation, a wonderful organisation dedicated to fostering the development of writers of all abilities. After that I tried my hand – with limited success – at writing a climate change thriller and a climate change play, but eventually, after attending another Arvon course in 2016 on Popular Science Writing, I started writing a book about my own experiences in scientific research. I wrote about the search for the causes of climate change, the antics of the climate deniers who sought to delay action on climate, and the victims of climate-related disasters including the people I met whose house had burnt down in deadly fires. Many words and several years later, I was taken on by a literary agent who sold my book, Hot Air, to Atlantic Books for publication in 2021.

It will have taken me a long time to become a published writer, 42 years from when I left KGV in December 1979 with those words from George Wakefield, if not ringing in my ears, then at least resonating somewhere in my psyche. Thinking back to those days it reminds me how important my teachers have been to me, not just in the sciences, but also in the arts. Messrs Collier, Johnson and Wakefield taught me to have confidence with words as well as with mathematical symbols. Thanks to them, I have had a writing as well as a scientific life, and for that I am very grateful.