To mark World Earth Day this week, reviews the latest books on climate change
Climate change is generally bad news — or at the very least, extremely challenging — for humanity. Yet there is a small corner of society for which it is something of a godsend: the publishing industry. As the climate and biodiversity emergencies come front and centre in the media, policy, and politics, there is a boom in environment-related titles. There’s even a sub-genre of fiction called “cli-fi” — climate fiction.
But there is a problem too. Research shows that lots of people are reluctant to have “water-cooler” chats about climate because they’re afraid they haven’t got the science of it straight in their heads. That’s where a good, accessible primer comes in, and Small Gases, Big Effect by David Nelles and Christian Serrer (Particular Books, €11.20) fits the bill perfectly.
Nelles and Serrer are two fresh-faced economics students at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany, who wanted to “get to the bottom of things” relating to climate change. They couldn’t find a book that explained the science without going into the politics or culture wars aspects of the topic, so they decided to write one themselves.
The result is a very readable, clear, and commendably short tour through the effects of climate change on the atmosphere, cryosphere (ice and glaciers), sea, land, ecosystems, and humans. The prose is spare and precise, and the graphics and diagrams are little masterpieces of minimalism.
How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other by Naomi Klein with Rebecca Stefoff (Penguin, €14.99) fulfils the same role of explaining the science of climate change very simply for a teenage audience, but is a more political and polemical book.
It adds a layer of analysis to the science, and approaches the debates around climate justice and the Green New Deal in the US with Klein’s familiar critique of markets, and capitalism in general. For someone wanting to understand these debates around incremental vs radical change, this sets out the latter arguments well.
Michael Mann is having none of this radical stuff, though. In his new volume, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet (Scribe, €22.95), Mann sets out the forces at work to delay action on climate change in combative fashion. Mann himself has been a target of the climate denial industry ever since he published his “hockey stick” graph in 1999 showing rapid recent increases in global temperatures.
Mann begins with an overview of organised climate denial in the US, which comprises a network of right-wing think tanks, scientific “guns-for-hire”, fake “astroturf” organisations. His main argument is that deniers have become delayers (or “inactivists” as he calls them), whose goal is not to cast doubt on the existence of climate change, but to forestall any policies that might reduce the use of oil or gas.
Mann sees the campaigns around meat-free diets and other lifestyle choices as part of an inactivist conspiracy to make the debates about climate action focus on the individual rather than on larger systems. As long as people are occupied with “finger-pointing, behaviour-shaming, virtue-signalling, and purity tests”, they won’t be campaigning to change energy, transport, or agriculture systems, he says.
The New Climate War
is a wonderfully confrontational book. Passage after passage reminded me of my daughter’s favourite phrase: “shots fired!” He takes on David Wallace-Wells (author of The Uninhabitable Earth), Michael Moore (producer of Planet of the Humans), author Jonathan Franzen, and a range of others who indulge in overly pessimistic “doomster” narratives.
In a memorable section, he notes that people concerned about climate change cannot avoid having differences of class, gender, age, and ethnicity, but that they are basically on the same side, and should stop arguing among themselves and instead swivel their guns towards fossil fuel corporations and petro-chemical billionaires.
There are two main categories of climate writing: those that state the extent of the problem, and those that put forward solutions. Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has made an important contribution to the latter, with How to Avoid a Climate Disaster (Allen Lane, €19.99)
Gates sets out a range of measures to bring the amount of greenhouses gases we emit into the atmosphere to net zero by 2050. (Net zero means there would be some emissions, but other interventions would actively remove some warming gases as well, giving us a net zero result). He has real and sensible solutions for renewable energy, transport, and food production, but he believes some measure of carbon capture and storage — whereby smokestack fumes are basically buried underground — is necessary.
These geo-engineering solutions come under scrutiny in Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert (Bodley Head, €17.55). Kolbert is a New Yorker staffer, and author of the bestselling The Sixth Extinction. In her new book, she visits the sites of previous efforts to engineer our way out of environmental problems.
She is a beautiful writer, a proper journalist who goes places and talks to people, and she captures well the hubris and ultimate futility of trying to control nature. And once initial efforts at control fail, the response is invariably “more control”. She says her book is less “techno-optimist” and more “techno-fatalist”— that we have gone so far down the control route, it is all we have left.
A respite from these debates comes from Empty House: Poetry and Prose on the Climate Crisis, edited by Alice Kinsella and Ness O’Mahony (Doire Press, €15), an anthology of some lovely nature and place writing that helps us to appreciate what we stand to lose in all this.