A 2019 Gallup poll found that though two-thirds of Americans believe global warming is caused by human activity, fewer than half of those polled “worry a great deal” about it or think it will pose a great threat in their lifetime. The reality of climate change may be accepted, but for many, the immediacy of the crisis is not.
Data-heavy, jargon-laden white papers on climate change hold little appeal for the average reader. Authors of forthcoming books meant for wider consumption, by contrast, are conveying the level of urgency through storytelling and real world examples meant to capture readers’ attention and inspire them to action.
Now, it’s personal
“New books on the climate crisis seem less abstract,” says Allie Merola, assistant editor at Viking Penguin, which is releasing Warmth by Daniel Sherrell in August. “The writing is more grounded in how we’re coping with the reality, either on a personal level, a community level, or even a policy level.”
Sherrell’s climate activism began when he was 18, and his work led to the passage of important legislation in New York, including the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019. In Warmth, he reflects on his decade-plus career, and ponders the feelings of ambivalence and burnout that he and others in the movement feel as their successes are dwarfed by the magnitude of the problem. He also discusses the quandaries faced by young people living in a warming world, including the ethical considerations around raising children who will bear the brunt of climate mistakes.
In Under the Sky We Make (Putnam, Mar.), Kimberly Nicholas, a scientist who specializes in climate and sustainability, discusses the fallacy that individual changes can’t make an impact. “It’s not only businesses and corporations that have to take action and responsibility—individuals who have high-emitting lifestyles also need to make personal changes,” says Nicholas, who grew up in California and teaches at Lund University in Sweden. Like Sherrell, she addresses the emotional aspects of dealing with climate change: “It can be scary and overwhelming, but facing those fears is important and empowering.”
Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason, author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, also finds the personal in the environmental. On Time and Water (trans. from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith, Open Letter, Mar.), his “moving account,” PW’s review said, of the threat of climate change weaves in conversational anecdotes alongside facts about rising sea levels and ocean acidification.
Much of the book is about language, as Magnason wrestles with writing about a problem so great that it nearly defies description. He finds the best way to reach readers is by creating a story they can relate to, such as that of his grandparents, who were founding members of the Icelandic glacial research society. “When you say the word grandmother, then people’s hearts open up, and they start thinking of their grandmother,” he says. “When people have become totally soft, then I can throw in the words ocean acidification when they’re off guard.”
Eric Dean Wilson, an essayist and educator in Brooklyn, was prompted to write After Cooling (Simon & Schuster, July) when he learned that a college friend was making a living neutralizing CFC refrigerants, known commercially as Freon. In the book, a work of literary nonfiction, he traces the history of the once ubiquitous chemical and joins his friend on a road trip to learn where, and with whom, it ended up.
CFCs were used in a range of products including air conditioners and aerosols, and were later found to be the most prevalent cause of ozone depletion. Eventually, the Montreal Protocol of 1987 outlawed their production. California’s cap-and-trade program recognizes the process of neutralizing CFCs as a carbon offset credit, and those credits can be sold to companies that exceed their state-sanctioned pollution caps for the year.
Some of the last CFC refrigerants are found in vintage cars owned by hobbyists in rural America; Wilson’s friend convinced the owners of these cars to sell them, and found that the connections he forged had a greater impact than simply neutralizing the CFCs. “I realized that his real work was in talking to these people who are often seen as enemies of the environmental movement,” Wilson says.
The impacts of climate change will be felt unequally across the globe, a theme emergency management expert Samantha Montano explores in Disasterology (Park Row, Aug.). Drawing from her experience managing disasters including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Montano highlights the impacts felt across communities. “Regardless of the type of event,” she says, “we see disparities in who has the resources to prepare for disasters.”
Montano emphasizes that climate isn’t just a problem for the future; many places around the world, she says, are already becoming uninhabitable.
One acutely affected region is the Arctic, where, as a World Wildlife Federation study put it, “Polar bears are the poster child for the impacts of climate change on species.” In 2016, journalist Kale Williams wrote a feature for the Oregonian about Nora, one of the few polar bear cubs successfully raised in captivity. That story developed into The Loneliest Polar Bear (Crown, Mar.), which PW’s starred review called an “informative and heartfelt portrayal of the Arctic in distress.”
In the book, Williams details how zookeepers at Ohio’s Columbus Zoo managed to raise the cub, an endeavor he compares to tackling climate change—both are highly fraught processes, and there’s no guarantee that the efforts won’t be in vain. “Fighting such a big amorphous problem is not going to yield quick and tidy results,” he says of current threats to the environment. “Despite that, if we don’t do it, the consequences are going to fall on the shoulders of those who have historically been marginalized in our society.”
In Paradise (Crown, Aug.), San Francisco Chronicle reporter Lizzie Johnson draws on her coverage of the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. It had the most profound effects on the town of Paradise. Neglected infrastructure caused the fire, and a flawed alert system contributed to the deaths of 85 people.
“Life will never go back to normal,” Johnson says of the surviving Paradise residents. “They will never get their homes back, they will never get their town back, and their friends and family have moved far away.” She urges readers to understand that the tragedy wasn’t a one-off. “As horrifying as it sounds, Paradise isn’t going to be the last town that burns down like this.”
The way forward
“More people are interested in not just prevention of disaster but mitigation of it,” says Priscilla Painton, editorial director at Simon & Schuster. “There’s more of an acceptance that we’re going to have to live with a certain amount of chaos for some time.”
Painton edited the recently released How to Prepare for Climate Change by CBS Sunday Morning science and technology correspondent David Pogue. It’s a self-help guide for surviving in a changing environment, with tips on what to pack in a go bag, what kind of insurance to buy, and how to prepare for a drought, flood, or hurricane. More long-term, Pogue suggests the safest regions for permanent relocation.
Bill Gates, in How to Avoid a Climate Disaster (Knopf, Feb.), proposes changes not just at the individual but also at the policy level. Though “not all of his ideas strike as politically feasible,” PW’s review said, he provides “an accessible review of how global warming can be countered.” Another policy-centered title, Overheated by New Republic staff writer Kate Aronoff (Bold Type, Apr.), “delivers an urgent and persuasive study of the links between neoliberal economics and climate change,” per PW’s review. (See PW’s q&a with Aronoff, “The Time Is Now.”)
Other authors focus on technological innovation, including Elizabeth Kolbert, whose Under a White Sky (Crown, Feb.) received a starred review in PW. The book surveys scientific interventions aimed at countering climate change. (See our q&a with Kolbert, “Human/Nature.”) Kolbert says that “all forms of moving forward right now do involve some kind of technological change,” a sentiment shared by Nathaniel Rich, author of Second Nature (MCD, Apr.).
“In the future, people won’t be scared of these new technologies,” Rich says, “in the same way we don’t think about eating corn, rice, or other things that have been bred into their current form, and that don’t exist in nature.”
In what PW’s review called a “vividly reported survey,” Rich asks readers to reconsider the idea of natural, and examines how nature can be manipulated to help sustain a world with rising temperatures and booming populations. One example he cites is lab-grown meat: “Though many of us might recoil at the idea of eating a chicken breast grown in a test tube,” he says, “there’s nothing natural about factory farming, and it’s one of the lead drivers of climate change.” However, he cautions, many potentially beneficial changes will meet resistance from those who view intervention as inherently wrong. “In a lot of these debates there’s not a clear moral valence.”
Rich and other authors acknowledge the difficult path ahead in adjusting to, and mitigating, a changing world. “I don’t think we will get to a place where we take on some of these larger questions politically,” he says, “until we grapple with them on a human level.”
Zoë Ettinger is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the Independent, Insider, and elsewhere.
Below, more adult and children’s books on the environment & climate change.
Human, Nature: PW talks with Elizabeth Kolbert
In ‘Under a White Sky’ (Crown, Feb.), the Pulitzer Prize–winning author discusses the technological innovations that just might be the planet’s salvation.
Money Isn’t Always Green: Environment & Climate Change Books 2021
Forthcoming books examine the tension between environmental preservation and monetary gain.
Temperature Checks: Environment & Climate Change Books 2021
Less shopping, more sustainable action: authors urge the public to step up.
Small Acts, Big Impact: 2021 Environmental Books for Young Readers
We spoke with authors and editors of forthcoming biographies about the importance of narrative nonfiction to educate and empower kids and teens about environmental issues.
Teen Titans: PW talks with Loll Kirby
In ‘Old Enough to Save the Planet,’ British primary school teacher and author Loll Kirby profiles 12 contemporary teenage climate activists from around the world, focusing on lesser-known stories and marginalized voices.
No Planet B: PW talks with Naomi Klein
Journalist and activist Naomi Klein discussed her new book, ‘How to Change Everything,’ which aims to prepare children and teens to protect and reshape the planet they will inherit.
Speaking for the Trees: 'The Lorax' Celebrates 50 Years
To mark a half-century of publication, Random House and Dr. Seuss Enterprises are celebrating the environmental legacy of Seuss’s hero with special editions and more.