In September 2018, Jacinda Ardern addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York, arguing that global warming is a problem that must be solved collectively. It was a powerful, thoughtful and nuanced speech – but she could only go so far. The most pressing facts about climate change are ones that most of us do not want to hear, so politicians dare not utter them. In other words, there are things that Jacinda simply cannot say.

Beginning with a clear and concise explanation of global warming and its implications, David Chapman examines some of the difficult truths that our leaders are not able to discuss, from the energy buried in everything we buy (and throw away) to the paradox of recycling.

Underpinning this analysis is the idea that a problem cannot be tackled if it is not properly understood. Dr Chapman shines an illuminating light on the complex issues that threaten our future, and explains why we can no longer choose to ignore them.

Read an extract


We began 2020 with the smoke from burning Australia turning the sun red. One senses a shiver of fear about where the world’s climate is heading. Despite all that is happening, there are still those in denial about our detrimental impact on the planet, even though these events have been anticipated and documented for many years. As I view things, most of these climate events have been predicted, based not on prescience, but on science and logical extrapolation of the known facts. In this book I explore some of those facts and cast ahead to consider what their implications might be for all of us.

This book was inspired by Jacinda Ardern’s first speech to the United Nations in 2018, and it explains the mechanisms of climate change and the fantasies we hide behind to insulate ourselves from the facts. The facts are, I argue, things we don’t want to hear; thus, no one whose election depends on popularity can dare utter them. They are things that neither Jacinda nor any other politician can say.

My contention is that until we understand these ‘things that politicians cannot say’ (and I suspect many of them do not fully understand the issues themselves), is it not possible for us to grasp the basics of the problems facing humanity when it comes to climate change. As a result, the options, decisions and actions that possible responses might imply are incomprehensible.

So what has led me to write about these unsayable things? My background is in environmental education. In 1999 I began work on my PhD, having been a senior lecturer in teacher education for more than 20 years. I had established courses in environmental education for final-year bachelor and post-graduate students at Massey University College of Education, and my PhD research involved tracking some of them into their first years of teaching to see what happened. This was interesting from a teacher education perspective as well as an environmental perspective. The results were stunningly disappointing. With the exception of one woman at a tiny country school, none of the teachers were able to incorporate any significant environmental themes into their practice. Most of my doctorate was a sociological analysis of why this was the case.

I am not a career academic. My publication record is relatively small, but by 2010 I had published more work in international journals on environmental education than all other New Zealanders working in the field combined, and I had been invited to participate in and speak at a number of international conferences. Despite all that, the progress being made around the world was largely discouraging. Throughout the 2000s, several healthy environmental education initiatives were growing in New Zealand, but when the National Party took office in late 2008, the funding vanished. I gradually came to the realisation that behavioural change could not be achieved through education alone, especially when it was aimed at school students. A significant reason for this is that change challenges the status quo, and schools are not the place for that.

I also believe that passing environmental problems on to the ‘next generation’ to deal with is pure cowardice. The issues I raise here are not the responsibility of young people, they are the responsibility of adults; we have been party to building the world now confronting us. Furthermore, the more affluent we are, the greater our responsibility, because our environmental footprint is larger. Young people are relatively powerless, so it is little wonder they feel anxious about the rapid pace of climate change (so-called eco-anxiety) – a problem they did not cause.

In writing this book I have at times used plain language. I have done this partly to signal that the topics I am discussing affect everybody – they are not abstract and removed, much as we might hope they were. Thus, plain and unambiguous language is required. As I have indicated, I have written this book for adults, and especially for those who are parents or grandparents. This is not to say that young people should not read it; on the contrary, I hope they read it in great numbers. Then I hope they hand it to their parents and grandparents, and demand: “What are you doing about this?”

Thoughtful parents do not leave prescription medicines, knives or guns lying around, the fire unguarded, the swimming pool unfenced; nor do they let young children play on the road. We have an obligation to keep our children safe. The time has come when thinking about their safety involves lifting our gaze to the bigger picture – the planet that supports us – and considering the wider cost of the way we live.


In late September 2018, our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York and made headlines around the world. She had her three-month-old daughter with her, who added cuteness and novelty to the mix, but what stood out most were Jacinda’s words. They were the words of an extremely thoughtful, principled, knowledgeable and compassionate person.

Her speech to the UN was powerful yet subtle. The main theme was how the crumbling of multilateralism would negatively impact New Zealand and other nations in the Pacific, especially with respect to climate change. As I watched and listened, my scalp prickled, and I felt an overwhelming sense of pride. She spoke for other nations too, mainly our Pacific whānau; after all, Aotearoa is a Pacific nation with strong loyalties to other nations in the region.

Jacinda highlighted the impact of global warming and the effects that changing sea levels were having on many smaller Pacific nations. She made an important statement, pointing out how these nations were in the front line against global warming. She mentioned that earlier in the month –

Pacific Island leaders gathered together at the Pacific Islands Forum. It was at this meeting … that climate change was declared the single biggest threat to the security of the Pacific … Of all of the challenges we debate and discuss, rising sea levels present the single biggest threat to our region.

And, she added, “Nations like Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, or Kiribati – small countries who’ve contributed the least to global climate change – are [suffering] and will suffer the full force of a warming planet.” I was proud to hear our Prime Minister confront these issues on behalf of all Pacific peoples.

She went on to say more. The gist was that the problems faced by humanity are collective problems that must therefore be addressed and solved collectively. To stand apart from the global community would be a catastrophe. I interpreted this as a clear reference to several nations, chief among them the United States of America, that were increasingly pursuing isolationist policies.

This was a courageous act for a young, new leader from a small country, effectively challenging some of the world’s most powerful nations. It was also a fine line to walk. A challenge of this kind can only apply pressure to a certain extent, enough to create an acceptable level of discomfort. Beyond that, if the discomfort is too great, if the challenge goes too far, the challenger will very likely be pilloried and ostracised.

It follows from this that Jacinda had to choose her issues carefully and get the tone right. There were things she might have said that would not have been helpful to her cause because, as I have mentioned, to achieve anything she has to remain credible – credible and popular. Of course, this does not apply uniquely to Jacinda Ardern; it applies to any leader, especially to a politician, whose tenure requires popularity. I would go further and say that Jacinda is possibly the best prime minister I can recall. The fact that she is so good adds power to my case: even the best cannot say these things.

We have a cultural sense that our politicians frequently lie to us and, clearly, this does occur. But it is often the case that we do not want to hear the truth. This is particularly so in relation to environmental issues. It is not a coincidence that the Green Party often gets bogged down in relatively petty issues. It happens because they cannot afford to mount an aggressive challenge on central environmental issues and expect to stay in parliament – the ‘something versus nothing’ paradox.

With all these elements in mind, in this book I highlight and discuss, simply and bluntly, a few of the issues that are not and cannot be raised publicly by our leaders, as well as some of the reasons why this is the case.

Chapter 1: On Global Warming

Global warming (and the associated rise in average global sea levels) is only one aspect of what appears to be an intensifying global crisis, namely accelerated climate change. Writing for National Geographic, Christina Nunez says:

While many people think of global warming and climate change as synonyms, scientists use ‘climate change’ when describing the complex shifts now affecting our planet’s weather and climate systems – in part because some areas actually get cooler in the short term.

Global warming, as a major component of climate change, has become a blanket term under which several other aspects of a wider environmental crisis are hidden. These issues include, among others, coastal flooding, a wave of species extinctions, extreme weather events, decreasing freshwater resources, soil erosion and loss (desertification), shifting wildlife populations and habitats, and serious garbage disposal problems including that of nuclear waste. Threats to human health and the growing risk of pandemics are further issues we face, ones not simply hidden under the coverall of global warming, but rather hidden more surreptitiously because they are highly contentious and exceedingly difficult to solve. As a point of interest, this book was in the final editing stages when the Covid-19 pandemic struck in the early months of 2020. It feels uncomfortable to mention, but more so not to, that everything written here predates the Covid-19 outbreak.

Politicians seem comfortable talking about climate change nonetheless, bandying it about as a buzz term, even while denying its existence. Using the term suggests you are at the forefront of thinking about the environment and the climate change agenda. This is in fact total rubbish, as evidenced by their silence on other global environmental issues and general lack of action in this respect. What’s more, climate change/global warming as a concept is something of a comfort blanket; after all, ‘warmth’ is a word with soothing connotations.

Jacinda cannot say this sort of thing. As I have said, no politician can talk straight on environmental issues and stay credible and popular. The facts are tough and unpalatable, which is central to almost everything I write here. Public figures have to use the current language, and maybe push the envelope of what their supporters are willing to endorse, but not beyond certain undefined limits within the status quo. Beyond those limits they are not credible, which means they get no votes.

The term ‘global warming’ serves also to blur and mask what is actually happening to Earth’s atmosphere. Understanding climate change is simple enough, but it takes more than a few sound bites to explain and convey, so it is too hard a concept for the media to engage with, even if there was a will to do so. But there is more to it than that. The main media message is invariably about getting people to buy stuff, and tough talk will not sell widgets. This failure by the world’s media to engage properly in confronting the causes of global warming is also a matter I will return to. It hardly needs to be said, though, that anyone who falls foul of the media is in serious trouble, especially when it comes to a career in politics.

It is quite difficult to engage with the impact of human activity on the environment without a basic understanding of global warming and climate change. I am going to attempt to explain the mechanisms shortly, but there are several other truths that underpin the issue of global warming that need to be examined beforehand. The most significant of these is economic growth.

Chapter 2: Economic Growth: Infinite Growth?

The importance of economic growth permeates our civilisation at every level. So-called ‘rock star’ economies are those with the fastest growth rates. Advertisements invite companies to grow their business or to move to the next level. Those aimed at individuals are often couched in terms of adding value – to your home, to your car, and so on. The growth message is ubiquitous, but how often do we think it through to its logical conclusion?

Nothing about climate change takes on any particular urgency if you are not familiar with the concept of exponential growth. Exponential growth occurs when something grows in proportion to its present size. We can think of it as compound interest. If you put $100 in the bank at 3% interest compounded annually, it will double in a little under 25 years. After 25 years you will have around $215, and after 50 years it will have doubled again, giving you $430. This will double four times in a century and so will grow by a factor of more than 16, amounting to $1,900. In the next 100 years this will happen again; the increase will be 16 times 16 (approximately), so the initial capital of $100 will have increased about 250-fold. After 200 years of compound interest at 3% per annum, the $100 will have become more than $35,000.

Most economists agree that countries should ideally have a growth rate of between 2% and 3%. We know from our banking example that a nation with 3% annual growth will see its economy double approximately every 25 years. But the essential point is that sustained growth means infinite growth, and you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. Canadian academic and science broadcaster David Suzuki explores the implications of this statement using a parable. To understand it, you need to know that in a series of doubling numbers, the last number is the sum of all the previous numbers, less 1. Take the short series 1, 2, 4, 8, in which each number is double the previous one; the first three add up to 7 (i.e. 8 minus 1). If you extend the series to 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, you can see that the numbers 1 to 8 add up to 15, which is 1 short of 16. Add in the 16 and you get 31, which is 1 less than 16 doubled, and so on ad infinitum. For any longer series, the final number effectively equals the sum of all the previous numbers in the series put together (if the last number is 1,000,000, the total would be 1 short of 2,000,000). With that in mind, here is a summary of David Suzuki’s story.

A single bacterium was put into a test tube of food. The bacteria doubled their numbers (and their consumption) every minute. After 58 minutes, a quarter of the food was gone. A scaremongering bacterium sounded an alarm: “Hey, we better go easy here!”

“You’re mad,” the ‘growthies’ said. “We’ve been here for 58 generations and have only used a quarter of our resources.”

But after another minute the tube of food was half gone (the 59th generation having used as much as all the previous 58 put together). Fortunately, at that point a group of techno-bugs created three more tubes of food – all is saved! Well, no. It’s a doubling sequence, because the bacteria reproduce exponentially. Although at 59 minutes the original test tube would appear half full, after 60 minutes the remaining half would be used up. At 61 minutes another whole tube would be gone as the sequence doubles, and in the 62nd minute, the other two would be depleted as well. The last cohort uses the same amount of stuff as all those from previous cohorts put together; thus, the three new tubes last only two minutes.

This is a simplified illustration, of course, but it reveals the maths governing the relationship between natural resources and population growth. Fortunately, humans do not reproduce in the same way that bacteria do. Material from the UN suggests that the global population will peak at around 11 billion by 2100, but the estimates vary widely (and are as high as 16 billion). The reasons behind this are as follows: In ‘developing’ nations birth rates are typically high, but child mortality is also high, so populations remain stable. When material conditions improve (something the UN is focusing on), child mortality decreases, causing a spike in population while the impact of improved health sinks in, after which point the birth rate declines. What makes predictions so variable is an incomplete understanding of when, where, and within what time frame these changes might take place.

A rate of 2.1 live births per woman produces a stable population level. In 2018 this rate was around 1.5 in Europe and 1.7 in the USA, so in those places the population is now maintained or increased only by immigration. If the global birth rate were to stabilise at 1.5 live births per woman, the population could fall to around 3.6 billion by 2200 and to as low as 1 billion by 2300, so all is not lost. But how much damage will we have done in the meantime?

To explore this question, let’s consider the 2018 edition of the Living Planet Report from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The report calculated that if everyone lived the way an average North American did, utilising close to 8 global hectares per capita of biologically productive land, water and other natural resources (their ecological footprint), we would need at least 4.5 Earth-like planets to sustain us. But this raises an important question: Who is the average American? There are a great many very poor people in the USA who drag that average down, so how do we know what this ‘average’ lifestyle looks like? What’s more, many of us aspire to a greater level of luxury than just the ‘average’, so that would put the number of Earths needed at considerably higher than 4.5. And this only takes into account a global population (in 2018) of 7.5 billion. (At that rate of consumption, 11 billion people would require 6.6 planet Earths, and 16 billion people would require nearly 10.)

When we are already using too much, and we all aspire to have more, it becomes less comforting to know that our population may peak at 11 billion in another century. In other words, when economic growth is our priority, the population does not need to double for our resource use to double. At what point will our use of resources render the Earth uninhabitable or damaged beyond repair? Obviously, I can’t know the answer to this, but our planet has been warning us for some time that we are moving closer and closer to this point. In light of this, it would be prudent to exercise some economic caution.

A credible politician cannot say these things because doing so flies in the face of our civilisation’s founding myths, specifically the myth that ‘growth is good’. Like all myths, this is true on some occasions, but it is profoundly false on others. Consequently, as things are going now, the biggest threat to human welfare is humanity itself. This is foundational to everything I write here. If you take issue with anything I say, come back to the fundamental point: you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet.

Please note:
Footnotes/references have been removed here but are available in the book
No part of this extract can be reproduced without the express consent of the author

© Copyright David Chapman 2021