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JJ Barnes The Table Read

Written by JJ Barnes

Ahead of the international COP26 climate-emergency conference (being held Glasgow in November) The Table Read meets (new dad) Dr Morgan Phillips FRSA whose beautifully-designed new book, Great Adaptations, offers us humane, positive, plain-speaking approaches to climate change measures and looks a real-life examples of good (and not-so-good) ways in which our communities can adapt to the enormous challenges facing us, our children and our grandchildren ….

“Having a baby after writing a book about the future of the planet is quite something. It is daunting to think about the life he is going to lead and what climate change might have done to his life by the time he’s my age,” says Morgan

Tell me a bit about who you are.

Hi, I’m Morgan, I live with my wife and five-month old son in London, but I am in the process of moving home to west Wales. I run a small charity called The Glacier Trust, that works in Nepal, but I also work for Global Action Plan, an environmental charity.

Dr Morgan Phillips, author of Great Adaptations, interview on The Table Read
Dr Morgan Phillips, author of Great Adaptations

When did you first WANT to write a book?

It’s one of those ambitions that has always lurked around in the back of my mind. In my twenties and thirties, I started, stalled, and stopped several times, but never really wrote more than two or three chapters. But I was perhaps wanting to write a book for the wrong reasons. There’s a difference, isn’t there, between wanting to write a book just to say that you have written a book, and wanting to write one because there is something that needs to be said?

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When did you take a step to start writing?

I do a lot of writing, it’s a big part of my work and I really enjoy it. But it tends to be shorter things like reports, funding applications, blog posts, and thousands of emails obviously! I’ve written lots of songs too and love playing around with words. I started writing this book, Great Adaptations, towards the end of 2019, when it dawned on me that there is an entire side of the climate change story that isn’t really being talked about.

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

I got the idea for the book and started sketching it out in early 2019. I spent a few months that summer collecting the true stories for the book and then began writing it in November. I had a bit of a break from it when work got busy after Christmas 2020 and then the pandemic hit. So I had a lot of evenings to sit down and write. I finished the writing in around June this year and it was released in September.

What made you want to write Great Adaptations?

I’ve been an environmentalist for 20 years now and although I’ve worked on lots of different environmental issues, climate change has always been the big one. If we don’t address it, it will wipe out the progress being made in all sorts of other areas. However, a lot of the work I was doing was focussed on how to stop climate change from happening, or at least slow it down. But, climate change is already having devastating effects on people, animals, and landscapes all over the world.

These impacts aren’t something that might happen in the future, they are happening today and millions of people are suffering. They are suffering, but they are also adapting; they’re finding ways to cope with heatwaves, floods, crop failures, insect pests, landslides, glacier loss and all the other things climate change is causing, or making worse. I am lucky enough to work for a charity that enables these adaptations, in our case in the mountain villages of Nepal, but adaptation to climate change is happening in loads of different ways all over the world.

Some of the methods people use are really ingenious and end up having loads of additional positive effects. For example, agricultural communities are switching to growing trees that are hardier against weather extremes than crops such as rice or maize. Making this switch helps them to continue to earn money as farmers, but the trees also provide shade on really hot days, help clean the air, and absorb carbon dioxide to help in the fight to prevent climate change.

Other adaptations, aren’t so good, and are often quite selfish responses to the impacts climate change is having. There are some ski resorts in France, for example, who as well as making fake snow to keep the slopes white, have also taken to using helicopters to transport snow from one mountain to another to keep the ski season going. The environmental impacts, at a global level, of burning fossil fuels to power snow cannons and helicopters are really troubling.

There is also the rise of air conditioning, the building of huge concrete flood defences, and the heavy use of pesticides to tackle insect pest infestations. Some really dodgy stuff is happening in the shadows and stories about these bad adaptations aren’t being told anywhere near enough, not even in the environmental movement.

So, I wanted to collect some of these good and bad, encouraging and worrying stories together to shine a light on them and get people talking and thinking about them so that as the planet heats up we get better as a society at adapting to it.

We need to adapt to climate change in environmentally-friendly and socially just and fair ways, and that is possible – Great Adaptations are possible. I wanted to write a book to open people’s eyes to that.

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What were your biggest challenges with writing Great Adaptations?

There are a lot of adaptation stories to choose from, some get more attention than others, not that many get any attention at all. So it was difficult choosing which ones to include and which ones to leave out. Adaptation has also been a quite contentious subject within the climate movement. It has been referred to as the ‘A’ word more than once, there are people who really don’t like talking about it. There are people, and entire organisations, who rally against anyone talking about it. So I had to navigate that and try to frame adaptation in a fresh way, to engage more people on it without upsetting too many people. That has been tricky.

The other big issue is that we don’t yet know how bad climate change is going to get. The Earth’s average temperature is already 1.2C warmer than it should be, it could get a little or a lot warmer in the coming decades. A lot depends on the decisions world leaders make at the big climate change conference in Glasgow this year. But adapting to a world that is 1.5C warmer than it should be is a lot different to adapting to it being 3C or 4C warmer. So, in the book I’ve tried to cover what adaptation will look like (or needs to look like) at these different levels of climate change. It wasn’t easy to fit all that in, especially as I was striving to make this a pocket-sized easy read for people new to the topic. Hopefully I’ve managed to stay true to that aim.  

What was your research process for Great Adaptations?

I’ve been reading about adaptation almost every day since I joined The Glacier Trust in 2016, so I have been saving various articles and reports as I’ve gone along. I use the ‘Pocket’ app to store articles, which has been really helpful, and try to organise them in rough categories as I go. Everything in the book derives from these stories, which I then triangulated with other reports and some email or twitter correspondence with the people involved. I’d like to say it’s been a very thorough research process and that I’ve covered all angles, but I know I haven’t. It is one of those topics that gets wider and wider the more you look into it – and there are a lot of rabbit holes to get lost down!

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How did you plan the structure of Great Adaptations?

Dr Morgan Phillips, author of Great Adaptations, interview on The Table Read
Great Adaptations, author of Dr Morgan Phillips

It’s arranged into four main parts, but has a separate introductory section and a conclusion and postscript. The first part examines the story of managed retreat on Staten Island in the wake of Superstorm Sandy as a way to question why adaptation isn’t talked about as much as it perhaps should be in the environmental movement. Part 2 does what the book is calling for others to do, it talks about adaptation. There are stories from the UK, France, Qatar, Morocco, Australia, Nepal, Miami and a few other places, some are quite quirky and seemingly trivial, others are seriously mega, for example what the armed forces are doing to adapt to climate change.

Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Great Adaptations need?

My publisher, Arkbound supported with editing as the book developed, reviewing different drafts and helping me work out the structure. But I also had a lot of help from one of The Glacier Trust’s trustees, Andy Rutherford, who has vast experience in this field and was a brilliant critical friend for the whole project. Around 15 other people supported me too, reading and commenting on various drafts – it was brilliant to get so many different perspectives on the text. I really want to mention one other thing, the artwork.

When I started this project the aim was always to create something tangible that people would enjoy having around. Artwork was vital to this, so I called upon my good friend Hannah Ahmed, who has been working in graphic design and book design for 20 years. Hannah and I worked really closely throughout the project to get the layout and feel of the book right. We’ve included lots of photos and also commissioned five original artworks, one for the front cover and another four for each part of the book. The artworks are papercuts by an artist called Suzie Harrison and they give a flavour of each part of the book. We actually ended up selling the originals through a Crowdfunder before the book was launched.

The book was printed by Calverts with vegetable based inks on recycled paper. Calverts are a workers cooperative. It was such a thrill to pick the books up from them and flick through the first copy. We’re really pleased with how it has come out and I hope people are enjoying having it around. 

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What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?

Well, I’m not sure I am that well qualified to answer this question, this is my first book and I don’t think I’ve really stopped to reflect that much on the process of writing it yet. However, one thing I’ve definitely learned is that none of the words you write are ever a waste of time, even if you discard some of them later.  Everything you write is valuable in that it helps you think the subject matter through. If you eventually bin a few pages, or stash them away to use as an article or blog post later on, they were still worth writing – they needed to be written to help you eventually find the right words (and to help you think through the ideas) for the final book. Don’t ever hold onto a passage just because you spent hours writing it and it is beautifully written: if it’s not right, it’s not right. Just let it go.  

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

I’ve nothing planned yet, I’ve just become a father for the first time and am very busy in that role. Having a baby after writing a book about the future of the planet is quite something. It is daunting to think about the life he is going to lead and what climate change might have done to his life by the time he’s my age, let alone when he’s twice my age and we enter into the 2100s. Right now however, I am trying to be very present and in the moment, which is something us environmentalists are generally quite bad at. I’ll maybe one day write something about environmental education and how that is going to evolve over the coming decades, I’m sure my son’s school years will inspire and infuriate me in equal measure over the next two decades.

And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

Yes, I think so. It’s always the case with anything that it could have been better and if book writing was the only thing in my life I’m sure it would have been. I’ve said what I wanted to say and it is having the desired effect in that the people who have engaged with it so far are talking and thinking about climate change and, in particular, adaptation more than they had before. Was it worth the effort? Who knows? If one or two people in power end up reading it and do whatever they can do to enable more people to adapt in ‘great’ ways to what is happening … well, then it will have been worth it. As part of our Crowdfunder, supporters of The Glacier Trust bought copies of the book for us to send to some movers and shakers. We’ve posted the books off to those influential people now, so we’ll see what comes of that!

More From Dr Morgan Phillips:

@theglaciertrust / @MorganHPhillip

Great Adaptations: In the shadow of a climate crisis paperback, £9.99) is published by Arkbound Foundation and is available through the publisher, internet booksellers and bookshops.

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