My 1986 ‘Climate Book of the Year’

Tickell,C. (1986) Climatic Change and World Affairs. [2nd Edition]. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. 76pp.

This essay continues my series of monthly posts in which I select one ‘climate’ book to highlight and review from one of the 44 years of my professional career in climate research (starting with 1984, my first year of academic employment).  The series will end in September 2027, the month in which I shall retire.  See here for more information about the rational for this series, and the criteria I have used in selecting my highlighted books.

This 1986 essay can be download as a pdf.

Book cover titled "Climate Change and World Affairs" by Crispin Tickell featuring an image of Earth from space, tagged as the 1986 Climate Book of the Year.

In 1976, Crispin Tickell, a mid-career diplomat in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), applied successfully for a mid-career 12 month sabbatical which he decided to take at Harvard’s Centre for International Affairs in Cambridge, Massachussetts.  As Head of Western Organisations Division at the FCO, Tickell had spent the previous decade negotiating arms control with the Russians, guiding entry talks to the European Community in 1972 and navigating the military politics of NATO in Europe.  Now, aged 45, and having recently divorced from his first wife[1], he wanted a new challenge and he decided that he would address his sabbatical study to the question of climatic change, something that would satisfy his long-standing “interest in the relationship between science and politics”[2].  Having, in his words, “read the entire literature on climate change in half a term”[3], Tickell turned the fruit of his Harvard labour into a slim book titled, ‘Climatic Change and World Affairs’, published by Pergamon Press early in 1978.  His aim was to draw attention to the growing vulnerabilities of modern societies to variations in climate and to propose the need for new international agreements and institutions to manage collaboratively the relationship between climate and human development.

Tickell returned to London from Harvard in January 1977, and he was appointed Chef de Cabinet to the new President of the European Commission, the British Labour politician Roy Jenkins.  Following the end of Jenkins’ term of office in Brussels, Tickell was appointed British ambassador to Mexico from 1981 to 1983 before returning to London shortly after Margaret Thatcher began her second term of office in June 1983.  Sir (as he now was) Crispin Tickell was appointed by Thatcher as Permanent Secretary of the Government’s Overseas Development Administration in 1984 and then, from 1987 to 1990, served as British Ambassador to the United Nations, during which time he was Britain’s Permanent Representative on the UN Security Council. 

It was in 1984, during a short spell working as deputy under-secretary of state for economic affairs at the FCO, that Tickell returned to the theme of his Harvard book.  He undertook a revision of its content, based on new developments in scientific understanding of climatic change over the previous eight years and his own widening experience of international affairs.  This revised edition of ‘Climatic Change and World Affairs’ was published in 1986 by the University Press of America and it is this revised edition of Tickell’s book that I have selected as my ‘Climate Book of 1986’

I have made this selection for two reasons.  First, Tickell was one of the first people to advocate, in 1977, for an international treaty to deal with “climatic problems [which] are at once important, urgent and long-term”[4].  The second reason for highlighting the significance of this book is that by 1986, when this revised edition of his book was published, Tickell had gained the ear of the British Prime Minister with respect to environmental issues.  Tickell reflects on this role some years later in an interview given in 1999:

I was giving [Thatcher] advice from 1984 onwards on environmental issues, in particular climate change… I became a very unofficial adviser, and I helped write her famous speech to the Royal Society in 1988 on climate change.  And then after my departure from the Diplomatic Service, I went with her [in 1990] to the second World Climate Conference in Geneva.[5] 

Although self-appointed to this role – Tickell was never shy of later declaring the importance of his influence on international environmental politics[6] – by the mid-1980s he had access to, and it would seem the trust of, the Prime Minister.  The speech that he was referring to above was delivered by Margaret Thatcher to the British Royal Society in September 1988, and which gave early prime ministerial prominence to the enhanced greenhouse effect.  For example, the extract below from Thatcher’s speech was much commented upon, internationally and well as domestically, in the weeks and months following:

For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s systems and atmosphere stable.  But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself[7].

Thatcher’s views on climate change subsequently had significant bearing on the negotiation of the 1992 UN international treaty on climate change[8], one not too dissimilar to that which Tickell had been advocating in his 1977 and 1986 books.  Tickell was certainly one influence on Thatcher’s growing interest in the issue during the 1980s and he also had a hand in writing the 1988 speech.  One of Thatcher’s biographers, John Campbell, claimed in 2023, “It was Tickell who brought the urgency of [climatic change] to Thatcher’s attention and persuaded her to make it the subject of a major speech, which he then helped her to write”[9], although the precise extent of Tickell’s input on the content of the speech is unclear[10].

What about the message of ‘Climatic Change and World Affairs’ and, perhaps more interestingly, what were the significant changes that Tickell made between 1976 and 1984, the years when he was working on the two respective texts? 

Both editions of the book were slim, 61 pages of text in 1977, 72 pages in 1986.  These were not scientific treatises about climate, but concise arguments about the importance of climatic variability for human affairs and advocacy for climate treaties to be negotiated and designed through international diplomacy.  The Foreword to both editions was identical, written by Paul Doty, the founding Director of the Program for Science and International Affairs at Harvard (the Belfer Center) where Tickell had studied in 1976 and the British editions of both books had an additional Foreword, again identical, from Lord Solly Zuckerman, formerly chief scientific adviser (1964-71) to the British Government.

One of the reviews of the 1977 edition of ‘Climatic Change and World Affairs’ was written by the historical climatologist Hubert Lamb, then Director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.  Tickell had read Lamb’s own work on climate and history during his year at Harvard and the book’s central message – that climate is unstable, sensitive to perturbations caused by human activities, and that societies are vulnerable to climatic variations – was one that Lamb had been championing for the past 10 years.  In his review, Lamb describes the book as “a tract for our times, as earnest as any of the religious tracts of the past”[11], a sentiment reflecting the prophetic tones used by some climate commentators in the 1970s.  In the revised 1986 edition, Tickell repaid the complement by drawing upon Lamb’s own newly published book, ‘Climate, History and the Modern World’[12], from which four of the seven figures Tickell newly introduced into his revised book were drawn. 

There was much similarity between the two editions.  In 1977, Tickell spends 15 pages laying out some of the basic physical mechanisms and causes of climatic change, whether from natural or human origins.  The future warming he speculates on is as much about heat domes and increased heat emitted from energy production at the surface than it is about emissions of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere.  Tickell nevertheless points to the possibility of a future atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 400ppm causing 1°C of global warming (the concentration was then around 330ppm).  But he also argues that future global cooling is an equally possible scenario.  Tickell’s call in the 1977 book to hedge against either warming or cooling scenarios through increased societal resilience to climatic variability, especially through enhanced food security, is undoubtedly shaped by Steve Schneider’s 1976 book, ‘The Genesis Strategy’[13].

The final chapter of the 1977 edition, titled ‘A call for action’, puts forward a case for negotiating international agreements about four aspects of the issues Tickell identifies: (i) accumulating and disseminating knowledge about the climate; (ii) regulating any deliberate climate-changing activities undertaken by nations; (iii) a voluntary code of good climatic behaviour, including compensation of climatic victims; and (iv) a Treaty to prevent climate modification for War.  Such a vision is less a precursor to the eventual 1992 UNFCCC, than it is a reflection of a diplomat’s faith in the power of international cooperation and agreement to regulate competing political interests for the benefit of global society.

Nine years later, in his revised 1986 edition, Tickell places much greater emphasis on the carbon dioxide effect and the prospects of global warming.  There is still the emphasis on food precarity being one of the headline impacts of climatic change, a concern typical of the era, and Tickell reveals that concern with ‘weird weather’ is not only a feature of the present discourse of climate change by citing evidence of “30 years or more [since 1950] of freakish weather” (p.51) around the world (interestingly occurring during a time of slight global cooling).  There is no mention of the ‘ozone hole’ — he revised his text in 1984 before the crucial paper from Joe Farman and colleagues was published the following year — but he does draw upon and cite the 1979 Charney Report from the US National Academy of Sciences and the 1982 US National Research Council’s Report on ‘Carbon Dioxide and Climate’, both of which are referenced in a, still minimalist, bibliography. 

The final chapter of the 1986 edition reveals a refinement in Tickell’s priorities with respect to international diplomacy.  His call now is for three things: (i) “an international agreement on how to cope with future climate crises and [to] set rules by which states avoid actions which … might do damage to others” (pp.55-56); ii) “an agreement to prevent modification of climate for purposes of war” (p.65); and iii) “the establishment of means to make effective the agreements and rules which have been reached.”  In the 1977 edition, Tickell spends the final two pages of the book solely on the desirability of an agreement to prevent climate modification for purposes of war; the 1986 edition uses the final five pages to elaborate on these much more broadly drawn ambitions.

Nevertheless, the very last two paragraphs of each edition of the book remain the same (p.61 and p.72 respectively).  Here, in his peroration, Tickell again adopts the mantle of a prophet, claiming “the pleasantly warm moment we now enjoy … will not last forever” and calling upon humanity to meet the “intimidating responsibilities” our actions have created for “the tiny, damp, curved space” we inhabit.  Yet these paragraphs also reveal Tickell’s underlying worldview is one of faith in human rationality.  The purpose of the international treaties he advocates is to secure “a rational world order”, one in which direct forms of climate management might be envisaged: “…a time may come”, says Tickell, “when we may wish to proceed more deliberately.  We might even wish to construct a kind of international thermostat for the management of the world’s climate” (1986 edition: p.47).  His faith that humanity would be able to execute such global climate control is one that, 40 years later, seems to be shared by a small cadre of technicians and entrepreneurs who today are advocating for new technologies for global climate engineering to be developed.

© Mike Hulme, April 2024

Other significant books published in 1986

Maunder,W.J. (1986) The Uncertainty Business: Risks and Opportunities in Weather and Climate. London: Methuen. 450pp.

The author of this book, John Maunder, was a significant figure in international meteorology in the decades of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.  He was head of the New Zealand Meteorological Service and, from 1989 to 1997, President of the Commission for Climatology of the World Meteorological Organisation.  An earlier book by Maunder (1970) had argued for ‘the value of weather as an atmospheric resource’ and now, in 1986, ‘The Uncertainty Business: Risks and Opportunities in Weather and Climate’, drove forward his case in a much expanded analysis.  His case is that information about weather and climate variability has strategic economic and social value in practical decision-making in sectors such as energy, transport, agriculture, retail, water management and the built environment.  Although Maunder doesn’t focus overly much on climate change as such, I regard this book as foundational for the later development of ‘climate services’, an idea which has emerged in the twenty-first century alongside the expanding science of climate change.  A much abridged edition of Maunder’s book was published by Routledge in 1989 under the title, ‘The Human Impact of Climate Uncertainty’.

Tyson,P.D. (1986) Climatic Change and Variability in Southern Africa. (1st Edn.) Cape Town: Oxford University Press. 200pp.

In the mid-1980s, the still small corpus of books about climatic change and variability contained a strong hemispheric asymmetry: the science and literature of climate change remained heavily dominated by Northern Hemisphere scientists.  This book by South Africa’s leading climatologist, Peter D Tyson, then head of the Climatology Research Group at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, was therefore noteworthy for its Southern Hemisphere perspective.  When published in 1986, ‘Climatic Change and Variability in Southern Africa’ was almost alone in highlighting the climatic systems and historical variations in climate over a Southern Hemisphere landmass.  Tyson’s book received the Bill Venter Award for the best book in the natural sciences published in South Africa between 1983 and 1986, and its originality and significance was evidenced by a second edition appearing in 2000, at almost twice the length and co-authored with R A Preston-Whyte.

[1] Brown,P. (2022) Sir Crispin Tickell Obituary. 30 January. The Guardian newspaper.

[2] Quoted in: McBain,M. (1999) Interview with Malcom McBain, 28 January 1999, part of the British Diplomatic Oral History Project (DBOHP).

[3] Quoted in: Pearce,F. (1992) The Green diplomat. New Scientist. 21 March.

[4] p.49 in: Tickell,C. (1977) Climatic Change and World Affairs. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

[5] Op. cit., McBain,M. (1999).

[6] A good example of this is his interview with journalist Fred Pearce in 1992 for New Scientist, op. cit.

[7] Thatcher,M. (1988) Speech to the Royal Society (climate change).  27th September, London.

[8] See pp.240-246 in: Agar,J. (2019) Science Policy Under Thatcher.  London: UCL Press. 304pp.  See also op. cit., Pearce (1982).

[9] p.645 in: Campbell,J. (2003) Margaret Thatcher. Volume 2: The Iron Lady. London: Vintage Books.

[10] Op. cit., Agar (2019), p.242.  See also op. cit., Pearce (1982).

[11] Lamb,H.H. (1979) Review of ‘Climatic Change and World Affairs’ [1st edition]. Third World Quarterly. 1(2): 148-150.

[12] Lamb,H.H. (1982) Climate, History and the Modern World.  London: Methuen.

[13] Schneider,S.H. and Mesirow,L.E. (1976) The Genesis Strategy: Climate and Global Survival. New York NY: Plenum Press. 419pp.

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