After reading a truckload of books on climate change, I’ve come to view the subject much as I view aging: Sometimes I just don’t want to think about it. Unfortunately, climate change is a problem with a very high “procrastination penalty,” as scientists put it. That is, the longer we wait to act, the less chance we have of making a difference. To be sure, we cannot “stop” climate change-not only has global warming long since started, but the latest science says it will continue to gather momentum for thousands of years, even if we ceased all carbon emissions now. Nevertheless, we may still be able to mitigate some of its worst consequences.
The books reviewed below offer exceptional, lucidly written insights into the issue, and they describe ways we, as individuals, can work to reduce our carbon imprint. Their common message, however, is simple: Climate change is the most important issue in the world, and it cannot be meaningfully addressed without global political action.
The rapid pace of climate science means that books on global warming become outdated quickly. Most of the books below are relatively recent, and all are still very relevant. Read up-and take action.
The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold
by Gretel Ehrlich
Two years ago, Ehrlich, who resides half the year in Santa Barbara and half in Montana, published this short, lovely book. In it, she describes a “journey into the cold”-a series of excursions to remote locales: Greenland, Patagonian Argentina, the backcountry of Montana. Brimming with quiet, elegant descriptions of her encounters in the wild, The Future of Ice is a celebration of the earth’s frozen climes. But it is also an elegy-a “cry for help,” she writes, “not for me, but for the tern, the ice cap, the polar bear, and the lenga forest; for the river of weather and the ways it chooses to be born.”
by John Lanchester
This long-form essay was published in March in the London Review of Books. It can be accessed by visiting londonreviewofbooks.com. If you haven’t time for one of the longer books, or are looking to supplement them with an essay, read this. Witty, cutting, and psychologically acute, it manages to sum up current science, current politics, and current culture on climate change in 8,543 beautifully turned words. Warmer, Warmer speaks directly to the average reader, to its great credit. “Are people going to give things up in the present in order to prevent things that computer models tell them are going to happen in 25 years’ time?” Lanchester asks.
by Fred Pearce
My favorite book on climate change, this is also the scariest book I have ever encountered. Pearce is a longtime environment reporter for the venerable British science journal New Scientist; his book is subtitled Read this book. Your children’s future depends on it. For once, idiotic publishing boilerplate is actually appropriate. The Last Generation is an elegant and accessible account of the history of climate change. Pearce’s central point is that if we take past climatic shifts as proxies for the future, when change comes, it will be violent and abrupt. “The history of our planet’s climate shows that it does not do gradual change,” Pearce writes. “Under pressure, whether from sunspots or orbital wobbles or now from the depredations of humans-it lurches, virtually overnight.” The Last Generation was published in 2006; Pearce now has a new book out in hardcover-With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change.