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Good Reads  Earth System Sciences  Atmosphere  Climatology

Our Biggest Experiment A History of the Climate Crisis

Popular Science
By: Alice Bell(Author)
384 pages, no illustrations
Alice Bell's riveting book takes us back to science's earliest steps in foreseeing anthropogenic climate change. Read our Q&A with Alice Bell.
Our Biggest Experiment
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  • Our Biggest Experiment ISBN: 9781472974785 Paperback Sep 2022 In stock
  • Our Biggest Experiment ISBN: 9781472974778 Hardback Jul 2021 In stock
Selected version: £11.99
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About this book

Read our interview with Alice Bell. 

It was Eunice Newton Foote, an American scientist and women's rights campaigner living in Seneca Falls, New York, who first warned the world that an atmosphere heavy with carbon dioxide could send temperatures here on Earth soaring. This was back in 1856. At the time, no one paid much attention.

Our Biggest Experiment tells Foote's story, along with stories of the many other scientists who helped to build our modern understanding of climate change. It also chronicles our energy system, from whale oil to kerosene and beyond – the first steamships, wind turbines, electric cars, oil tankers and fridges. Alice Bell takes us back to climate change science's earliest steps in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the advancing realisation that global warming was a significant problem in the 1950s and right up to today, where we have seen the growth of the environmental movement, climate scepticism and political responses like the UN climate talks.

As citizens of the twenty-first century, it can feel like history has dealt us a rather bad hand in the climate crisis. In many ways, this is true. Our ancestors have left us an almighty mess. But they left us tools for survival too, and Our Biggest Experiment tells both sides of the story. The message of Our Biggest Experiment is ultimately hopeful; harnessing the ingenuity and intelligence that has long driven the history of climate change research can mean a more sustainable and bearable future for humanity.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Meticulous and tightly focused
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 14 Oct 2021 Written for Hardback

    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. Reading between the lines, you can deduce some of what she thinks would and would not work, but this would need another book. 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. 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 23 pages of references, 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. Three 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 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). 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 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. 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" (p. 330).

    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", 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.
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Dr Alice Bell is a journalist and historian of science. She was a lecturer in science communication at Imperial College for several years, where she also developed an interdisciplinary undergraduate course on energy and climate change, working with scientists, engineers and medics across the college. From Imperial, she moved to the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, before shifting to freelance journalism. Alice was a key contributor to the International Council for Science's blog on climate policy in the run-up to the UN Paris talks and launched the innovative storytelling website How We Get to Next, as well as lecturing in digital journalism at City University. She set up the science-policy blog at the Guardian and has also written for The Times, New Scientist, New Humanist and Mosaic.

Popular Science
By: Alice Bell(Author)
384 pages, no illustrations
Alice Bell's riveting book takes us back to science's earliest steps in foreseeing anthropogenic climate change. Read our Q&A with Alice Bell.
Media reviews

"Alice Bell's Our Biggest Experiment reads like a "chocolate box of a book" – regaling readers with a curated history of the people, science, politics, and technology that have intersected with the current climate crisis. She deftly weaves subtle and lesser-known details about the brilliant (and sometimes eccentric) individuals who have worked out how to measure and describe what we, as a species, have wrought upon Earth."

"The climate crisis is so overwhelming it can be easier not to engage with the problem. However, Alice had me every step of the way. She guides the reader on an international journey through time, focusing not on statistics but the complex human story and fascinating characters that have led us to where we are now."
– Maddie Moate

"A highly enjoyable rabbit hole of a book. Alice Bell chronicles the science and history of climate change in an intuitive manner that glides easily from one episode to the next. It's a sweeping narrative of industry, energy and atmospheric science, and much of Bell's achievement lies in artfully assembling pieces of the climate puzzle scattered across time and space."
New Statesman

"Our Biggest Experiment is a spectacular achievement – the definitive history of the most consequential issue of our time. Majestic in scope, it offers not one but two epic stories – how we changed the world, and how we came to realize what we've done – told through Alice Bell's charming, witty, and authoritative writing."
– Ed Yong, The Atlantic

"Vibrant and wonderfully detailed . Alice Bell brings to life the characters and corporations from the past whose names we all know, from Tesla and Watt to Esso and Shell. You might think it's more important to focus on the future of our planet, but only by understanding our history can we start to shape what happens next. Read this and be energised to save the world."
– Rowan Hooper, New Scientist

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