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Book review: The Handbook for Surviving and Living with Climate Change

The Handbook for Surviving and Living with Climate Change by Jane Rawson and James Whitmore is a detailed and practical go-to guide for future-proofing your everyday life as climate change escalates. It’s also likely to have you wondering whether you’d rather move to Patagonia, Tasmania, Alaska or the South Island of New Zealand to escape the predicted heatwaves, bushfires, sea level rises and extreme weather.

But as Whitmore points out to The Fifth Estate, moving means uprooting every part of a person’s life, which is a difficult thing.

“We conclude in the book that it’s probably easier to stay put,” he says.

The book tackles the topic of adaptation and mitigation on a personal level from a position of accepting the science, and accepting that on our current policy and pollution trajectory, we are on a course for significant and dangerous climate change.

So it steps the reader through the practical realities of staying cool, dealing with power outages, coping with disruptions to food supplies, water supplies, transport and social order, and managing risks of bushfire, storm, flooding and severe heat events.

There are things covered many of us probably haven’t considered, like how to manage when a major king tide or flood causes sewage to back up into your home, or how to create an emergency kit that will keep a family fed, watered and safe for a fortnight or longer.

It also steps through retrofitting existing homes for resilience, and what to look for when contemplating buying or leasing a property.

Throughout, the emphasis is on naming and addressing the most likely risks communities are beginning to encounter, backed up by sound research into policy, science and best-practice emergency responses.

Whitmore says the genesis of the book was the election of the Abbott government in 2013, when he and Rawson saw that the signs “weren’t good” regarding the government taking meaningful action to prevent climate change.

And while it concludes with a call to action to consider policy positions carefully next time the reader is presented with a ballot box, Whitmore says that essentially, the focus is on what an individual can do in their immediate sphere of influence to build resilience.

He says the situation for tenants is more difficult, as landlords can be reluctant to cooperate with attempts to improve thermal performance or energy efficiency.

“I’m currently struggling to get my own landlord to fix a window that won’t shut properly,” he says.

“There are things beyond our control, like governments and leases.”

Because cities themselves are largely beyond individual control, and offer added challenges such as the urban heat island effect and reliance on centralised infrastructure that is vulnerable to disruption, Whitmore says many people look to shifting out of the city to a medium density regional town.

The book contains a number of case studies of people who have done just that, as well as people who have moved into a rural setting, built an “EarthShip” house, started growing produce or switched to a tiny house.

It notes that the tiny house movement can still encounter a range of planning obstacles, including in some areas an outright ban on living in dwellings regarded either as temporary or as a form of caravan if they are chassis-mounted.

A way to build resilience without leaving the city, Whitmore says, is to ensure a person’s employer has flexible work arrangements in place, so that if transport is disrupted or it is simply too dangerously hot to leave home, their job is not compromised.

One of the things he says struck him during the research and writing of the book is the similarities between the habits that helped people survive during World War II and those that will work for us now, like growing our own food and having a frugal approach to life.

“Maybe there are some technological solutions coming, but they’re not here yet, so looking to the past can be useful.”

He points out that one of the major challenges Australians face in terms of assessing their individual climate risk is a lack of data and information.

The winding back of mentioning sea level rises in council planning documents, for example, is not helping anyone plan for how it might affect them so they can work out how they will cope, he says.

“Even on a much greater scale, getting information on this is not easy,” he says, adding that even researching it for the book proved a challenge.

Up-to-date climate projects, for example, are lacking for most places except Tasmania, which has produced quite granular information for local councils.

“Adaptation as a science is still in its very early days, and the information is still very technical, and couched in very bureaucratic and technical language,” Whitmore says.

“And it doesn’t help that everything around this [issue] is couched in lots of uncertainties.”

Whitmore says there is a similarity between the material in the book and having a first aid kit. It’s useful to have, even if it’s not needed. Many of the suggestions will also save a household a significant amount of money too, things like installing insulation, growing food and harvesting rainwater.

“It’s very commonsense,” he says.

It comes down to managing risk – a risk that can sometimes feel overwhelming and somewhat amorphous and hard to grapple with.

“We began the book in a place of quite intense worry [about climate change],” Whitmore says.

“But I feel a lot more confident now. Researching this book made me feel we will probably survive.”

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