Writing a book about climate change is challenging due to the scale and many facets of the problem. With Our Biggest Experiment, climate campaigner, writer, and lecturer in science communication Alice Bell delivers a large book that tightly focuses on the history of both climate change research and our current fossil-fuel-dominated energy system. Driven largely by her curiosity about the people behind the data on climate change, this well-structured and easily readable book is full of remarkable stories. Bell excels in drawing your attention to the individual strands that make up the complex texture and weave of this huge history. As such, this is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in the backstory of how we arrived at our current predicament.
Before diving in, I think it is worth pointing out what is not in the book. As I alluded to above, Bell has maintained a laser focus on telling the history of the climate crisis. As such, beyond some basics, this book is not intended to communicate the science behind climate change. There are also no data or graphs that show how our climate has changed, or how fossil fuel consumption has increased to drive civilization. Lastly, this is not a book that proposes solutions, though by the end I was really curious to hear her thoughts (for example, how much does she think overpopulation is a problem?). Reading between the lines, you can deduce some of what she thinks would and would not work, but this would need another book (which, incidentally, she has written). Nevertheless, her focus provides more than enough material for a thick book with a larger-than-usual trim size for Bloomsbury Sigma titles.
Given the scope of Our Biggest Experiment, it would be futile for me to give you a summary of all the key players; the cast is probably larger than some epic fantasy series (yes, George R.R. Martin, I am looking at you). Rather, let me highlight what I think are some of the strong points.
First, the structure and pacing are excellent. This is a complex history with many intertwining and overlapping narrative strands, yet each chapter sees Bell take one particular period or theme and explore how it fits into the larger picture. Beyond a well-stocked 23-page reference section, whenever certain people or topics are beyond her scope, Bell drops book recommendations into footnotes, which I always appreciate. The result is twelve chapters that all clock in at 20-30 pages and largely deal with one of three themes.
One is the history of science, from the very early physics that demystified the nature of gases, heat, and our atmosphere, to the birth of meteorology and later climatology. Two is the development of our fossil-fuel-dominated energy system, tracing the story through coal, whale oil, steam, natural gas, oil, and how electrification came to invade every aspect of developed societies. Though the people and episodes covered overlap with Rhodes’s Energy: A Human History, I found Our Biggest Experiment a superiorly written book, with Bell refraining from bringing her own views into the story compared to Rhodes’s pro-nuclear stance. The third theme is the slow, decades-long, reluctant change of heart amongst scientists, politicians, and the general public that increased carbon dioxide emissions and a rising average temperature are real, might just be a problem, and need our attention.
“the structure and pacing [of this book] are excellent. This is a complex history with many intertwining and overlapping narrative strands, yet each chapter sees Bell take one particular period or theme and explore how it fits into the larger picture”
The second strong point of this book is that it honours the complexity of the subject matter. Her introduction promises that she will neither tell a story of heroes and villains nor blame people. With the benefit of hindsight, some past ideas now strike us as naïve, but context is everything: “global warming didn’t arrive in a single ‘eureka’ moment (or even a single exclamation of ‘oh, shiiiiit’)” (p. 16).
Thus, when the historically overlooked Eunice Newton Foote and later John Tyndall noticed carbon dioxide gas was a good insulator and could retain heat, this was just another theoretical contribution to physics. When Guy Stewart Callendar revisited the link between carbon dioxide and temperature, he – like many others – argued this would be beneficial and save us from another ice age. There was even a bizarre period where climate change research focused on weather control. When the links became clearer, scientists remained unconcerned: this was something of the distant future and, for now, an interesting intellectual opportunity. Oceanographer Roger Revelle immortalised this when he quipped that climate change was “an experiment which could not be made in the past because we didn’t have an industrial civilization and which will be impossible to make in the future because all the fossil fuels will be gone” (p. 11). You see what inspired Bell’s choice of title. Indeed, in the optimism of the 1950s and 1960s, many people did not foresee fossil fuels would stick around, thinking we would transition to nuclear energy soon enough.
Another way Bell shows the story is not black and white is that, like other young writers, she seeks to decolonise her discipline. Many early scientists made important contributions but also had racist or eugenic views. And for some in the early conservation movement “protecting the environment and white supremacy were part and parcel [of] the same thing” (p. 172). Many scientific disciplines have historically had a close link to military interests, and much research happened to further colonial exploitation, laying the basis for the unequal impact climate change is having now.
“If there are villains receiving criticism, it is the merchants of doubt […] Bell points out the clever turning of tables: just as the packaging industry blamed consumers for littering, the fossil fuel industry has made climate change a consumer issue”
If there are villains receiving criticism, it is the merchants of doubt who went by the playbook of the tobacco industry. By the 1990s, the fossil fuel industry started a campaign of industrial-strength denial, sowing confusion and division, and wasting scientists’ time. Bell points out the clever turning of tables: just as the packaging industry blamed consumers for littering, the fossil fuel industry has made climate change a consumer issue. (They have a role to play, but not exclusively so.) The dithering of governments clearly frustrates her. Already at the 1989 climate change conference in Noordwijk countries “didn’t want to sign something they saw as endangering their economies and really hadn’t much idea about how they’d go about reducing emissions either” (p. 324). For years to come “The annual jamboree of UN climate talks continued [with] the same parade of arguments and counter-attacks […] For some delegates, it felt a bit like a circus” (p. 330-331). And she suspiciously eyes the net-zero emissions concept: “How much of this is just a smoke-and-mirrors PR game and how much a serious transition is yet to be seen” (p. 339).
In Losing Earth, Nathaniel Rich argued the 1980s is when we failed to stop climate change. However, for me, the picture that emerges from Our Biggest Experiment is that this could be said for any decade before or after. Furthermore, Bell argues that “nothing was inevitable about our addiction to fossil fuels” (p. 345), and this choice remains. Time is running out, though, and her outlook is pessimistic: “in many ways we’ve already lost” (p. 345). It sounds like an interesting idea, but I am reminded of the point Vaclav Smil made regarding power density (i.e. how much energetic bang you get for your buck). He argues civilization advanced by exploiting ever power-denser fuels, making the switch to less power-dense renewable energy sources an additional challenge.
Only one book comes to mind as being comparable to what Bell has written here: Spencer R. Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming. Not having read that, I cannot recommend one over the other. What I will say is that Our Biggest Experiment is both thoroughly researched and incredibly readable. Bell is an outspoken writer who provides much valuable context to understanding how we ended up in our current climate crisis.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: