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the cover of Under the Weather by James Renwick on a yellow background
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BooksJuly 11, 2023

In Under the Weather, climate change gets personal

the cover of Under the Weather by James Renwick on a yellow background
Image: Tina Tiller

James Renwick’s new book aims to make climate change something we feel, not just experience in the abstract. Shanti Mathias talks to him about the emotions involved in working to understand the climate. 

“The time to act is now,” writes James Renwick, more than once, in his new book Under The Weather. Framed as a “future forecast for New Zealand”, the book is a clear, concise tour through some of Aotearoa’s climatic future – what we know, why we know it, what can change, and what can be done about it. Through it all, Renwick – a veteran meteorologist and climate communicator who has helped author IPCC reports – is clear: as hard as it is to imagine, we don’t have to be living in a world where climate change is happening. There are things we can do to change the dire models, to imagine a newer and better future. 

Climate scientists have been telling us variations on this message for decades now. How does it feel to have been urging action for so long – and to still be so far from where we need to be? “It becomes more and more frustrating,” Renwick tells me. “The message hasn’t changed.” Sometimes, he worries that warnings around climate will be like the proverbial boy who cried wolf – warnings echoing across the imperilled village, taken less and less seriously each time. But the wolf is here: scientists are drawing it with more and more accuracy, learning more about the places it will ravage. 

If it were up to Renwick, he wouldn’t have to communicate anything about the climate at all. He’d be cosied up with his computers, looking at the climate in the big picture. “I do this because I love data analysis, I love looking at clouds. Left to myself that would be all I would do,” he says. But then he started giving talks; people kept telling him that they understood the climate when he talked about it. The climate can’t simply be a scientific curiosity to him, but a place where the messy realities of politics and policy, corporations and culture, act too. 

Under The Weather’s writing style tends toward a calm clarity: measured, even sentences, delivered with authority. It’s not the kind of non-fiction book where there are footnotes or references, or even an index; the last few pages are simply a list of resources for those who want to learn more. This is no mistake: this is climate writing for the person who is alarmed by graphs. (“I like numbers and looking at graphs,” says Renwick. “But if you go down the pub with a graph, you won’t get the same crowd as when you start telling stories.”) So Under The Weather is Renwick’s project of making climate change something to feel, not just experience in the abstract. 

Some of the hardest sections to write, he says, were the parts about his childhood; Renwick describes the feeling of returning to his Christchurch home as a teenager to find the bike shed demolished by the wind, the crunchy feeling of the heavy frosts he knew when he was younger becoming that much rarer. The book took four years to write, sandwiched between his many other commitments. Being in the habit of writing as a scientist, where personal stories are a no-go, Renwick found it difficult to figure out which anecdotes told the best climate stories. “I don’t usually go through my personal history, but I wanted to be engaging, to be a human not a cyborg in an office with a computer.” 

James Renwick and his book.

The other demanding section was where he described how climate change will impact the Pacific islands. One of the best things about Under The Weather is its specificity: while Renwick draws on Australian, North American and European examples, he also has specific details about weather in New Zealand and the Pacific. “I don’t live in the tropical Pacific and I haven’t had direct experience,” Renwick says. “I needed to talk to people who are right in the firing line of extreme temperatures and rainfall, knowing those impacts are happening now. You get heavy-hearted writing about it, so I had to pump up my optimism quite a bit.”

Renwick sees himself as an optimistic person. The book lists solutions that are known and effective: active transport, investing in solar and wind power, better home insulation and efficient appliances and manufacturing processes, more climate conscious land use. He has less time for high-tech, unproven, non-scaled solutions like solar radiation management (blocking out sunlight) and carbon capture and storage (sucking carbon out of the air by seeding iron into the oceans or grinding rocks). “We cannot bet on a technological fix,” he writes. When it comes to implementing climate solutions and imagining a world where these changes are possible, that optimism is urgent. “We need a vision of a positive future or no action will be taken,” he writes. 

Optimism and hopefulness is important, Renwick says. He hopes his book will give people cause to act, not cause to despair. Hope, he says, is an active, courageous frame of mind, not a vague sense of optimism. He doesn’t protest, instead focussing on his work with the IPCC and the climate change commission, but climate action is something that takes all forms. “I can be hopeful because there are young activists glueing themselves to the roads to push along action on emissions,” he says. 

But with the experience of hope comes anger and confusion, too. Fossil fuel executives are the single object of his ire in Under The Weather. “I don’t know what goes through the mind of someone like that,” he tells me. “I don’t know how they sleep at night…. They know the consequences of climate change – how could they not know? – and yet they keep focussing on the short-term bottom line.” He sees powerful, wealthy people continuing to profit from drilling for oil and coal, and despairs. “I don’t know how to change those people’s minds. I don’t know what story to tell. Surely they know what they’re doing, and they’re impervious to it.”

Renwick wants people to talk about the climate; wants people to remember that just because action has been urgent for two decades, it is not less urgent now. To know that they’re already experiencing the effects of climate change; not abstractly as doomsday headlines, but in humid air, tropical storms, warm winters, dry summers. You don’t have to be a climate scientist to know what’s happening – and you don’t have to be a climate change commissioner to know that something has to change. “I have access on my computer to global datasets that show me the change happening on a large scale,” Renwick says. But he wants people to know that the climate is all around them, already. “It’s getting warmer all the time – we don’t get the frosts that we used to. We interact with the climate every day – it’s not like looking out the window to see a big apocalyptic thing. It’s already happening, and it doesn’t have to.”

Under the Weather: a future forecast for New Zealand by James Renwick (HarperCollins NZ, $40) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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