Geologist Ian Plimer has dug up the simple answers kids of all ages need to understand climate shenanigans, writes reviewer Thomas D. Wilson.
One of the greatest things about the modern world is our highly specialised division of labour. A baker need not study accounting to have his books checked, and an accountant need not waste resources in order to eat a croissant. Likewise, a prince busy with royal duties does not have time to learn climatology or other sciences—but can ask a geologist what exactly all this climate change furore is about. That is precisely what happened in 2018 when HRH Prince Philip (1921–2021) wrote to Australian geologist and University of Melbourne Professor Ian Plimer, seeking straight answers to convoluted questions. The prince was perplexed as to why wind turbines were appearing like mushrooms across the countryside, a thought that has crossed my mind too when driving to Canberra and looking out across Lake George. In response Plimer has written three interconnected books that try to bring some balance to the climate change debate. Each of the books is targeted at a different readership: pre-teens, teenagers, and adults of all ages. Similar ideas run through each, but by reading them progressively one can see that they go into more-and-more detail.
The fundamental points that Plimer puts forward across all three books are:
1) Carbon dioxide is necessary, natural, and not evil.
2) Our own carbon output is negligible in the grander scheme of things.
3) The alternatives to fossil fuels actively harm civilisation and are not all they are cracked up to be.
Plimer insists on the need for common sense to overrule the falsehoods that dominate the climate change discussion. The way he tackles each of his main points is humorous, succinct, and tailored for the age of each book’s reader. What Plimer does best is to put everything into perspective. Much of the content across all three titles are various cost-benefit analyses, at which any geologist should be very good.
Getting children to read can be difficult, let alone getting them to read a book about climate change. That is why the first book in this series, For Ankle Biters, does not focus on such a large topic. The short chapters have headings such as ‘Do You Like Cookies? I do’ and ‘Let One Rip!’, and the writing style attempts the kind of gross-out humour that kids love. There are plenty of colourful pictures to keep kids interested. Essentially, it follows the cycle of how food gets made and how it, well, passes through you. It can best be summed up as a gentle introduction to Plimer’s reservations around climate change.
Carbon dioxide provides plant food.
Kids, as you might be aware, are constantly hungry. What kids might not know is how the food they love ends up in their bellies. As David Attenborough says, “We depend upon the natural world for every mouthful of food that we eat and indeed every lungful of air that we breathe.” Very true, and Plimer agrees. Little humans need food to grow. Plants provide food. Plants also need food to grow. Carbon dioxide provides plant food. This is spelled out quite clearly for kids with simple colour pictures and fun analogies about eating too many cookies (my 4-year-old had a laugh at the boy vomiting after doing just that). We follow the cookies as they are then turned into various waste products and along the way Plimer plies the reader with fun facts and ‘science experiments’ which are really excuses for further toilet humour. The purpose of all this is so children understand that carbon is vital, and as Plimer summarises, “Carbon is everywhere. In the air. In rocks. In the sea. In your food. In your wee, poo, farts, burps, breath, boogers, and ear wax.” All this for a cookie.
Not much of the first book focuses on the history of Earth and the formation of fossil fuels, but once the fun bit has been covered the last chapter does touch on all the positive changes that fossil fuels have brought. These include stopping the forests from being burned, saving the whales from being hunted, and—most humorously—removing horse poo from our streets. All of these facts are covered in greater detail in the other two books, but for littlies it is not as important as coming to understand that the things they enjoy do not come out of thin air. Even in the book aimed at younglings, he makes the following astute observation:
To eat three time a day, we need a farmer three times a day. We may need a doctor or dentist a few times a year, the police every few years, and the fire brigade or ambulance once in our life. We need a miner all day every day for the metals, concrete, plastics, fertiliser, and energy we use all the time.
This is not something that many adults—let alone children—would consider. Kids do not understand opportunity costs and factors of utility, but the comparison hits home because they are obsessed with doctors and police. Among provocations like this there are a few political comments and blunt words that could have been avoided when talking to kids, but for the most part the language is fun and engaging. For kids under 10 the language is well-suited and engaging, and the message will open their still malleable minds to how the world really works.
If you have teenagers, they might have been swept up by the climate change protests and school walkouts over the last few years. Certainly, they will have friends who did and be aware of it. Do they know why schools and teachers stepped out of the classroom? Did they feel a sense of hope, or even of power? Did they feel they were on the right side? Have you asked them if they are even aware of the other side?
In book two, For Teens, Plimer clearly outlines why the protests were for naught. This book is full of digestible facts and stimulating questions to get teens thinking beyond whatever diatribe they have previously been fed by the media and education system. It starts with the title ‘A planet in crisis?’, and soon dispels this notion. This idea—that of the end of the world—is the fundamental belief that climate change believers rely on. They insist any act of civil disobedience or a change in law that affects liberty is ‘for our own good’. Teens, an emotional group, are vulnerable to such pronouncements of doom.
Plimer begins by showing how the narrative that climate change is causing disasters is wrong. “Climate activists shout that every slight change, be it a dust storm, heavy rain or broken fingernails, is a result of climate change,” he says. For example, he says that a majority of bushfires are started by accident or by arsonists and are often the result of poorly managed forests. They are not a direct result of carbon emissions, no matter what sound bites tell you in the wake of a disaster. You just need to look at the recent wildfires in Greece and Canada to confirm this. A very interesting segment explains how throughout history volcanoes have had actual, measurable impacts on the Earth’s climate and how water vapour is a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon. All of this is to assuage readers that not all is cut and dried when it comes to climate.
Carbon is not as evil as teenagers have been led to believe.
After this introduction we get a short history lesson about glaciation and warm periods, which is easy to follow for the average school student. It is accompanied by simple graphs and clear examples to keep it from becoming a wall of text. Rather than focus on how carbon is a naturally occurring element in our atmosphere as he did in the first book For Ankle Biters, Plimer successfully imparts that carbon itself has very little to do with the variations in climate across the Earth and is not as evil as teenagers may have been led to believe.
This is all in the second book’s first half. Most of the book uses this platform to reveal the agenda of the proponents of human-caused climate change. In the history lesson when talking about the witch hunts during the Medieval cold period, Plimer says, “Sometimes much of the population goes nuts all at once. Killing witches because of natural climate change is one example.” The implications of this are self-evident, especially in the current culture of cancellation and COVID-related ‘othering’.
Changes in climate necessitate scapegoats of some sort, and in the modern age it is obviously carbon dioxide and its advocates. He spends most of the book showing that climate action would invariably have negative consequences. For example, he says, “Burning fossil fuels per person means less polluted air, especially if you live in a wealthy democratic Western country.” How many people die each year from global warming? Why is there not more attention paid to air pollution, which has measurable impacts including—according to a 2021 study—killing more than 10 million people a year? This is precisely the point that Plimer aims to show teenagers. Actions have consequences, and while it is all well and good to protest, perhaps they should be picking better battles.
There are constant digressions, pictures, graphs, pithy one-liners, barely relevant facts, and some genuinely thought-provoking questions. You cannot say it is boring. You could read any number of articles that summarise Plimer’s arguments, but you would be missing out on the humour and visual aspects that lend this book some power.
The last book, For Twenties & Wrinklies (presumably everyone in between is too busy?), is where Plimer comes into his element. This is the most information dense and daresay academic of the three, but with a little bit of concentration even a total layman should be able to follow it. Parents looking to get either of the other books should see this book as a companion that will provide fundamentals to answer questions raised by their children.
The preface rightly says we are all environmentalists, but quickly comes to Plimer’s bugbear that what we are taught at school and told by the media is propaganda. He even writes about people becoming “serfs controlled by unelected elites”. Perhaps, or perhaps the incentives are all wrong. There is also a digression into why violent videogames are bad, which sticks out like a wind turbine on a green hill.
Plimer’s knowledge of geology comes to the fore when he delves into the Earth’s deep history. This first section is mostly explained as if the reader were a scientist ‘discovering’ how bacteria, oxygen, and the atmosphere initially formed on Earth, and the scientific process is consistently highlighted. That is, Plimer actively questions even his own suppositions and asks the reader to do the same.
Fossil fuels are the best option for civilisation to flourish.
Whereas in the first two books the questions were simple and isolated, here they are more complex. We are taken through various glaciation periods and all the extinction events that have come before. Plimer also juxtaposes the knowledge of history and thus of real data with the climate models that try to predict the future. He makes the salient point that the former is based on a scientific approach of testing hypotheses to reach solid conclusions, while the latter is merely a model used to project fear and climate anxiety with false noise.
Plimer shows that the climate change agenda is more ‘scientism’ than science, which with great irony the cultural critic Darren Allen summarises as follows:
We ordinarily call this approach to life—the abstraction or isolation of a few elements of experience, the complete disregard for everything else (technical term; “noise”) and the manipulation of these elements in order to produce a definite result—science.
Taking the time to show how real science is achieved is important, and Plimer carries it off with aplomb. By now the reader will be more than aware of how various elements interact to change climate, far more than the paltry amount of carbon dioxide we have released in a relatively short time if we consider the geological scale. Even then, the average citizen might feel that alternatives to fossil fuels are better for the Earth.
The last quarter of the book lambasts this position. There is a quick rundown of basic facts, such as how wealth and prosperity has bloomed and boomed alongside the advent of fossil fuel technologies. Then wind turbines, solar energy, and electric vehicles are all given a hosing for their deleterious effects on the environment, from leaking waste to wasting energy. What this shows is how a net zero approach would not only undermine growth and prosperity—particularly for developing nations, as Plimer emphasises—but also backfire from an environmentalist point of view. These are all aspects that concern adults because these are things that can be voted on and vetoed.
While these are not the most sophisticated of climate realism books, they are straightforward, fun, and most of all thought-provoking. That said, there are a few aspects that could have been fleshed out. In the second book Plimer offers a list of activities that would be more beneficial than protesting fossil fuels, such as cleaning your local beach. A more thorough exploration of these alternatives would be proactive (a fourth book perhaps). Nuclear energy is also not explored enough, and books two and three do have a marginal amount of repeated material.
Overall, the picture painted by Plimer is one where those in control are hiding the facts, and that if you only scratch beneath the surface—or merely read these books—one could find a more balanced perspective.
A recurring point made by Plimer is that kids today are not being taught about the past (or at least nothing before The French Revolution). When it comes to climate science they are at the whim of presentism and propaganda. The thinking behind these books, certainly the first two, is that kids like to explore their world and question authority, so Plimer has tried to engage their curiosity without being didactic.
Kids are not taught about the past.
The solution to overrun schools is for parents and grandparents to take the initiative back and these books are a good first step on that road. The questioning provocations by the author will get the reader (your child) to think for themselves. The hope would be that a reader could use these as a springboard to start questioning further, and reading the works of others such as Steven E. Koonin, Bjørn Lomborg, and Alex Epstein. Or those featured in the IPA’s next edition of Climate Change: The Facts, due in 2024.
Climate activists presume that any current warming is almost entirely the result of human-induced carbon emissions. However, as Plimer clearly demonstrates in these books, there is nothing unprecedented about large shifts in carbon dioxide levels nor overall climate, whether from hot to cold or vice versa. Fossil fuels and by extension carbon dioxide are necessary, negligible in climate effect, and most importantly the best option for civilisation to flourish.
Thomas D. Wilson has worked in the Australian publishing industry for a decade and is a part-time writer. His work mostly includes fiction and literature reviews and he’s always had an interest in how ideas get out into the world. He has two small children he hopes will also become big readers and curious thinkers.