Home Uncategorized Notable new books on climate and the environment

Notable new books on climate and the environment

Writers tackle themes such as the roles of capitalism and ideology in the future of the planet


Can capitalism fix the climate? If it doesn’t, are we doomed to a world of extreme heat and even the end of life as we know it?

Or have we succumbed to an ideology of “climatism” that wrongly prioritises global warming as humanity’s greatest challenge?

Four new books offer answers to these questions, starting with Climate Capitalism: Winning the Global Race to Zero Emissions (John Murray, £20) by the Bloomberg journalist Akshat Rathi.

Rathi joins a growing number of authors making the case that just because we’ve ignored the climate problem for so long doesn’t mean it will soon be too late. In fact, striking technological, financial and policy progress is being made around the world, argues Rathi, who brings this shift to life with engaging stories of people behind some of the most important advances in recent decades.

There’s the little-known Chinese bureaucrat who has revolutionised electric car production as profoundly as Elon Musk; the British baroness who forged world-leading climate legislation; the Texan oil boss investing millions of dollars in direct air-capture technology, which sucks carbon out of the air and stores it deep underground.

Rathi’s assessments sometimes veer into overly rosy territory, and he repeatedly acknowledges that far faster action is needed. But this is still a highly readable reminder that efforts to cut emissions are achieving a lot more than is widely realised.

More hopeful messages come in Michael Mann’s Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis (PublicAffairs, $30).

Mann is one of the world’s best-known climate scientists and here he plumbs the geological record to show what Earth’s past can teach us about our future in a world of rapid climate change.

He points out that we live on a Goldilocks planet with conditions just right for humans, whose civilisations have been around for an exceedingly brief 0.0001 per cent of Earth’s history. In that fleeting period, we have managed to unleash striking greenhouse gas warming, which is already affecting critical climate systems.

But Earth, Mann points out, has been resilient in the face of natural climate changes in the past. “Even when the planet was hotter than a worst-case fossil fuel emission scenario can plausibly make it, there was no runaway warming,” he writes.

This is not an argument for complacency: Mann is all too aware of the dire risks posed by a failure to cut carbon emissions. But he too has no time for doomist thinking, not least since advances in modelling have challenged conventional wisdom that warming will continue for decades even if we stop emitting carbon into the atmosphere.

More comprehensive models show that if net carbon emissions drop to zero, global temperatures will quickly stabilise.

Of course, emissions are still far from dropping to zero — which makes it so unnerving to read The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet (Little, Brown, £25) by the US journalist Jeff Goodell.

He too is concerned about the prospect of humanity leaving the Goldilocks zone as heat extremes make outdoor life all but impossible in some parts of the world.

A series of poignantly written chapters reconstruct what is already happening as a result of the increasingly ferocious heatwaves seen in recent years.

There’s the 38-year-old Oregon farmworker who died on the job during the 2021 Pacific Northwest heatwave. The couple who died, along with their one-year-old daughter, when overcome by heat on a family hike in California.

The 39-year-old climate scientist who had spent more than a decade studying heatwaves, yet was taken aback by the searing heat she felt while cycling through London in July 2022. Not to mention the fish, plants and other wildlife that struggle to survive in dire heat.

Goodell says he was surprised to learn while writing the book “how easily and quickly heat can kill you” as well as all the other living things that share the burden of heat with us.

For a very different and far more contentious assessment of the climate problem, there is Climate Change Isn’t Everything: Liberating Climate Politics from Alarmism (Polity, £14.99).

Its author, Mike Hulme, is a professor of human geography at the University of Cambridge, and it builds on themes in his 2009 book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, which argued climate change was an environmental, cultural and political phenomenon reshaping the way we think about humanity’s place on Earth.

The new book takes aim at what Hulme calls “climatism” — an ideology he defines as an uncompromising belief that stopping climate change is the overriding priority against which all other policies must be measured.

That thinking, he argues, risks losing sight of wider welfare goals and feeds doomist panic. Although this echoes Michael Mann’s concerns, Hulme regards Mann as “an extreme voice promoting climatism” and claims the scientist’s criticism of the fossil fuel lobby in Mann’s 2021 book, The New Climate War, is “reminiscent of 1950s McCarthyism”.

Confusingly, Hulme does concede that climate change presents “new and challenging contexts for human and non-human life”.

And he devotes many pages to countering the idea that his arguments amount to an effort to downplay the need for climate action.

The result is an analysis that provokes more than it clarifies, not least because it has been published as some of the most brutal heat, floods and wildfires on record strike countries across the world.

With no sign of these alarming extremes fading, and too little action to stop them growing worse, Hulme’s call to make climate change even less of a priority than it has been seems unlikely to take off.

This article was first published on FT.com

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