We Can't Say We Weren't Warned

A reader's guide to the climate-change bookshelf

For all our suffering during the past pandemic year, scientists tell us that the coronavirus is just a warm-up act for even greater disruptions to come in the form of climate change. Most of us have heard by now that emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases from industry, transportation, ranching, running furnaces—just about everything we do—are overheating the planet. That phenomenon is intensifying storms and droughts, melting polar ice sheets, raising sea levels and acidifying the oceans. The unfolding disaster can already be seen: in the bigger wildfires in California, the giant hurricanes battering the Gulf Coast and the tides often flooding streets in Miami.

It has taken more than 30 years of warnings and increasingly wild weather, but a lot of people and politicians are finally beginning to pay attention to the scientists. A poll of Americans last year done by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication showed that 54% of Americans were “alarmed” or least “concerned” about global warming and another 20% were “cautious.” Only 25% were “disengaged,” “doubtful” or “dismissive.” And Joe Biden made climate change more of a campaign issue in 2020 than in any previous election. It’s near the top of the new President’s agenda: he’s already moved to have the U.S. rejoin the international Paris Climate Accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and will reportedly make fighting climate change the centerpiece of his upcoming multi-trillion dollar infrastructure plan.

Whether you are a believer or a denier, how much do you really know about climate change? Have you ever read a book on the subject? If not, a small army of authors is here to help. In January Yale compiled a list of no less than 12 brand new or newly updated books dealing with climate change. As a former environment editor for Time magazine, I have read far too many global-warming books over the past three decades for my peace of mind, so I will not be reading all 12 of Yale’s recommended books. But I did dip into three of them by authors I admire and have a few thoughts to share about those books, and earlier works that I consider even better than the new volumes. 

For starters, I highly recommend How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates. By his own admission, he is a Billy-come-lately to the climate discussion, having only focused on the issue since late 2006. But, boy, has he made up for lost time. As the co-founder of Microsoft and one of the world’s richest men and most generous philanthropists, he has unsurpassed credibility and influence. Gates has invested more than $1 billion in technologies and initiatives aimed at eventually cutting the world’s net greenhouse-gas emissions to zero. (We can still emit some carbon dioxide as long as we develop technologies to simultaneously take as much or more of it out of the air). And he has persuaded other fat-cat investors to join him in a group called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. His book is an excellent, systematic primer for people who don’t know much about the climate crisis: it covers not just the need to slash emissions from electricity generation, but also from manufacturing, transportation, agriculture and heating and cooling our homes and other buildings. Gates makes a strong case, which I find persuasive, that nuclear power has to be part of the clean-energy mix, even though nukes are anathema to many environmentalists. It won’t be easy for Fox News and oil-financed Republicans to dismiss the billionaire as a left-wing tree hugger. How big is his book? It debuted at the very top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list and stayed there for three weeks. In its fifth week on the list, it’s still in the top five. Yes, a climate change book did that.

Elizabeth Kolbert, a New Yorker staff writer, is one of the most distinguished reporters who cover climate issues. Her latest book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, explores humanity’s efforts to engineer nature, which have sometimes been successful, at least temporarily, but have often backfired. In one section, she examines research into technological fixes for climate change. One idea is to suck carbon dioxide from the air, and incorporate it into rocks that would be buried underground. It’s plausible but the costs and logistical challenges of processing enough carbon to make a difference all over the globe are daunting. A simpler but scarier strategy is to have a fleet of planes continually shoot into the stratosphere aerosol particles that would reflect sunlight and cool the earth. Kolbert questions these researchers with the skepticism of a good journalist, but seems to worry that we may eventually have no choice but to try to geoengineer the climate. As important as that issue may become, I don’t think Kolbert’s new book is as powerful as two of her earlier works: The Sixth Extinction (2014) and Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006). I’ll never forget the last sentence in Field Notes, referring to our failure to slow the release of greenhouse gases: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” Those words have stayed with me for 15 years and haven’t lost their power.

Penn State professor Michael E. Mann is one of the world’s best known climate scientists and a frequent target of climate-change skeptics. His The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet is a very readable history of the 30-year campaign by right-wingers and the fossil-fuel industry to sow doubt about climate science. The book ends on an optimistic note as Mann believes that climate-change denial is finally in retreat and “we appear to be nearing the much-anticipated tipping point on climate action.” I’m not quite so upbeat. Yes, a consensus is forming at last that we have a big problem. But recognizing the problem is a far cry from agreeing how to solve it, much less actually solving it.

That’s all I have for you on Yale’s list of 12 new books, which are merely the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg. A search of Apple’s book store revealed no fewer than five volumes with “Climate War” or “Climate Wars” in the title. Two of them, including Mann’s book, are about the war between climate-change believers and deniers. The others, two non-fiction works and a novel, envision actual shooting wars caused by climate change. The idea is not far-fetched. The coming heat waves seem sure to produce millions of environmental refugees. Already, a prolonged drought helped provoke the civil war in Syria.

Speaking of gloomy books, I downloaded one just because of its irresistible title: Roy Scranton’s We’re Doomed. Now What? I couldn’t bear to read this whole book, but I admired the way Scranton didn’t mince words: “There is no utopia, no Planet B, no salvation, no escape.” Yet even such a pessimist decided to become a father: “I chose to have a child with my partner because I believe in life, because I want the wheel of life to keep turning.” But, for the sake of future generations, Scranton thinks we need to “let our current civilization die” and create something very different: “We need to work together to transform a global order of meaning focused on accumulation into a new order of meaning that knows the value of limits, transience, and restraint.”

My most highly recommended books are not as strident as Scranton’s, but they all recognize how bad things could get and how much work needs to be done to keep the planet livable. The first great book about climate change was Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, published in 1989, and with a series of follow-ups, he has remained the dean of America’s environment writers and a leading climate activist. His latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (2019), is a masterpiece. It has the advantage of discussing not only climate change, but also artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. You get three giant threats for the price of one! On the climate front, McKibben sees hope in the rapid spread of solar-energy panels and the growing nonviolent resistance to the status quo—resistance increasingly led by young people.

Perhaps the most in-depth examination of climate change is the bestselling The Uninhabitable Earth (2019) by David Wallace-Wells of New York magazine. It ranges from the scientific to the ethical and philosophical issues that will arise as our environmental situation worsens. As the title suggests, it’s a scary book. But if you have children, you should be very scared.

You say you want a revolution? For a look at climate change from a left-wing political and economic stance, you can’t beat Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) and On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (2019).

Too much? Don’t have time to read hundreds of pages about global warming? If you’ve gotten this far in my post, thank you, but you may be nearly burned out already. Then let me suggest a single magazine article that will pretty much bring you up to speed. It’s “After Alarmism” from David Wallace-Wells in the January 18-31 issue of New York. I’m happy to report that he is now less downbeat that he was in his The Uninhabitable Earth. Wallace-Wells cites Biden’s victory over Trump and recent pledges of climate action from governments and companies around the world. He also agrees with Michael Mann that the forces of climate denial have been routed. Writes Wallace-Wells: “For a climate alarmist like me, seeing clearly the state of the planet’s future now requires a conspicuous kind of double vision, in which guarded optimism seems perhaps as reasonable as panic.” But more warming is inevitable, since it will take decades to transform the global economy and stop it from spewing carbon. Civilization may be able to adapt and survive, but not without hardship and not if we don’t change our ways. 

The thought of adapting and surviving in a warmer world brings me to my last and best recommendation: a little book called Bankrupt Earth (2020) by Robert Donato, a particularly insightful examination of humanity’s relationship with the planet. Available on Amazon, it’s only 56 pages—perfect for someone wanting more than a magazine article but not hundreds of pages. You can easily read it in a single afternoon, as I have done—twice. It could be an especially good introduction to environmental issues for young people. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that Donato (he’s using a pen name) is a personal friend of mine, a neighbor in fact here in New York City, which doesn’t make his book any less remarkable. Rarely has so much wisdom been packed into so few pages.

Surprisingly, Donato doesn’t even mention climate change until two-thirds of the way through the book. That’s because he astutely sees the climate crisis as just one symptom of a bigger problem. We are depleting all the earth’s resources and consuming our children’s future. Donato uses the metaphor of a household that has a nice inheritance and a perfectly adequate current income. But imagine that the family spends money so extravagantly that it squanders its whole inheritance and maxes out a series of credit cards to live way beyond its means. The inevitable result will be bankruptcy. The parallel Donato draws is that all the energy driving our civilization and all life on earth has come from the sun. We inherited millions of years worth of stored sunlight energy in the form of fossil fuels but are burning it up in just a couple of centuries. In the process we are damaging the environmental conditions that are essential to the earth’s future productivity. In other words, we are exhausting our inheritance and borrowing from the future, thus driving the earth into bankruptcy. Yes, we can use solar and wind energy to increase our current income, but continuing our present profligate level of consumption will not be possible. Donato rejects the idea that the technological “solutions” offered by the geoengineers in Kolbert’s book can save us from a world of hurt and poverty.

Can we build a new kind of sustainable civilization and achieve what Donato calls a “soft landing”? He thinks so, pointing out that the pandemic has shown us we can live simpler lives—that we don’t have to travel so much, keep so busy all the time and consume so much. It was amazing how clear the air was in the first months of the pandemic, and if we just go back to the same rate of pollution, we will have missed an opportunity to change course. To illustrate his “soft landing,” Donato employs a wonderful analogy based on a terrific old movie. I won’t spoil the surprise pleasure of the brilliant last part of the book by naming the movie, but I’ll just hint that it starred John Wayne and Robert Stack. You’ll just have to figure it out or read the book. There are too many profound nuggets in Donato’s writing to list here, but I’ll leave you with one: “Without a future, it does not matter at all what we have today.”

Joe Biden is trying to help us have a future, and my next column will cover my thoughts on his climate initiatives.