Last December, James Anderson published a new book: GOOD ENOUGH FOR THE CLIMATE: The Surprisingly Simple Math of the Planet and Inspiring Stories of Action and Innovation (both Kindle and a paperback versions are available).
Here are two reasons why I bought it.
The title. C’mon. Who labels anything as merely “good enough” in today’s world of hype and clamor for eyeballs and attention? And when was the last time you saw the words “surprisingly simple” and “math” in the same sentence? As for“inspiring stories?” A notion not usually juxtaposed with the topic of climate change. The majority of books and serious written material occupying this space are rather gloomier.
Definitely wanted to find out more.
Considering the source. Then there’s who Jim Anderson is. He’s been at Earth Networks and its antecedents for two decades, where he is currently Senior Vice President, Global Sales. Formerly he consulted and conducted economic and policy research in the agricultural, energy, and environmental sectors. His education includes an MBA from Georgetown University, an MS in environmental economics and policy from the University of Maine, and a BS in biology and economics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. (Hmm. Quite different from the usual picture of higher education as “learning more and more about less and less.”)
Unsurprisingly, as a result of this broad experience spanning many years at the highest levels of the private-sector and operating across a truly global theater, Mr. Anderson is well-known to those in our field. But there’s more. The people from this corporate world, his peers, those who know him the best, respect him the most – electing him chair of the International Association of Hydro-Meteorological Equipment Industry (HMEI) at their Twenty-first General Assembly meeting in 2019. They like him as the voice for their entire industry and the big idea of for-profit weather and climate products and services.
Book-length perspectives on climate change from this particular source – corporate leaders – aren’t all that common. As a class, the business C-suite crowd are an unusually thoughtful bunch, have much to teach the rest of us, but the pressures of market competition provide them incentive to keep their thoughts in-house, focus on advantaging their individual companies. We don’t often get to hear from them in this vein.
On the face of it, then, this book provides a rare chance to see the climate-change problem in its broadest aspects through a private-sector, for-profit lens.
OK, Bill, that’s why you bought it. What did you actually find?
A few things.
Start with the title. In a word, it’s apt. (To greatly oversimplify – apologies all around), the author’s premise is that the climate challenge is big and complicated. There’s not perfect solution, only coping strategies. These are/will be expensive and take time and effort to implement. But they’re good enough to turn a big problem into a handful of smaller, more-manageable ones. There’s no real showstopper too big for humanity to handle. The needed science and technology are basically available.
The key is the carbon budget, and Anderson begins by walking the reader through these basics. Although the math involves truly big numbers, reflecting Earth’s size, burgeoning human population and increasing per capita consumption, the math that matters is essentially no more than arithmetic.
He then asks: what would happen if we simplified the climate change problem down to its essential elements and took action? In the middle chapters, Anderson explores general principles of innovation, and problem framings that would foster progress.
Using Laura Zinke’s “colors of carbon” as his frame, Anderson’s closing chapters examine, in turn, green carbon (the land); blue carbon (ocean and coasts); black carbon (engineered solutions). In each he summarizes the basic challenges and opportunities for driving the world toward more favorable carbon budgets. He borrows from the “existence theorem” language and approach of mathematicians – instead of limiting himself to actual solutions (a very small set), he looks at the much larger body of successful work by individuals and/or corporate or government or NGO entities already underway that need only be successfully scaled up.
This brings readers to his chapter on gold carbon (a hue not covered by the Zinke paper). Here Anderson focuses on innovation of a different sort – he lifts the veil and offers examples of the innovative thinking underway worldwide on the part of financiers, venture capitalists, and clever entrepreneurs designing business models to incentivize, sustain, and scale up work in this space.
So…the title’s promise is fulfilled. The book doesn’t present a polished picture of the path to climate stabilization so much as a rough outline of basic features.
Content/approach. There’s much to like here. The basic issues are captured, but without unnecessary refinements or overmuch detail. And that level of detail is consistent throughout. What’s more, he makes his message clear, without flogging the readers with it. Perhaps the material on gold carbon is the best example of this. He stresses the need for massive investment. Then, instead of being prescriptive, saying “and this is the way that has to happen,” he simply starts telling stories -stories of individuals and startups and venture capitalists who see a specific piece of the puzzle and say “there’s a profit-making investment opportunity here.” Each story is in itself a little bit inspiring (per the book’s title), but what’s really inspiring is the aggregate of these interviews and cases. Readers will conclude something like “I don’t know whether this exhausts the stories out there, or whether these are only the tip of the iceberg – but it sure feels like the latter, like he’s just scratching the surface of tons and tons of diverse innovation, spanning the full range of actions where innovation is needed.” And that’s what’s inspiring about the stories, that’s what gets us to his premise that “we’ve got this.” It’s less about accomplished fact than it is about emergent possibilities.
Writing style. Here the book is stellar. The language is crisp and clean – the vocabulary and minimal use of jargon make the main ideas accessible to readers from a broad range of perspectives – those in the weather and climate enterprise, their customers, lay people across the board, and even the author’s children, who loom large in his motivation for the book. Emphasis on interviews (all the mini-narratives making up the larger message) keep readers engaged. The writing flows; the book is a page-turner. The weekend’s coming up. You can buy the Kindle version and read it through before returning to work on Monday.
The conclusion? This book is way-more-than-simply-good-enough to repay your investment in it. Buy it, and follow through and actually read it, and you’ll be reminded that climate change is a big problem but not an intractable one. You’ll return to your current work within the Weather and Climate Enterprise with renewed hope and sense of purpose. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to drop what you’re doing to build your own startup. Whatever your path, you’re on your way to becoming heroes of this story as it unfolds.