The start of the year found Australia in the midst of its worst-ever bushfire season, Siberia saw temperatures hit 38C amid an Arctic heatwave and this year is set to be the most active Atlantic hurricane season ever.
Now more than ever, we need clear explanations of the scale of climate emergency, how to cope and the solutions needed to tackle the crisis further.
While 2020 was initially tipped as a critical year for coordinating global climate action, progress has been severely derailed by the pandemic. The UN was forced to postpone the Cop26 international climate conference to next year, and school strikers led by Greta Thunberg and climate activist groups like Extinction Rebellion were prevented from taking to the streets.
Yet scientists now believe the pandemic provides a “make or break” opportunity for the world to change course and avoid climate breakdown.
While the dramatic drop in greenhouse gases seen during the global lockdown will likely have little impact on our warming planet, analysis shows governments investing in a strong “green recovery” could keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5C. -
With time ticking to finally cut our dependence on fossil fuels, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the ecological crisis. As such, we’ve rounded up a selection of books that will arm you with the essential facts and offer hope about how we can achieve a clean energy future to repair our broken climate.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
‘The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future’ by David Wallace-Wells, published by Penguin Books Ltd
If you need to quickly get up to speed with the sheer scale of the climate emergency, journalist David Wallace-Wells’s succinct but brutal portrait of our future lives on earth may be for you. In 200 pages, it deftly unpacks the different dimensions of our forecast doom, from heat death to unbreathable air.
Even for those who feel they are well-versed on the issue, the relentless litany of calamities that have or could be caused by global warming effectively shakes the reader out of any complacency. As Wallace-Wells’s puts it in the book’s first line “it is worse, much worse, than you think”.
While those looking for solutions will be disappointed, the book does offer hope that we already have all the tools we need to avoid the worst effects. But ultimately The Uninhabitable Earth seeks to clarify the horror of the emergency. Unless we accept the urgency, how can we expect to get ourselves out of this mess?
Buy now £10.22, Bookshop
‘The Case for the Green New Deal’ by Ann Pettifor, published by Verso Books
After decades of climate inaction, many environmentalists have come to the conclusion that the globalised capitalist system needs to be fundamentally overhauled to solve the crisis. Their answer is a Green New Deal (GND).
If you’ve heard of the GND but are still not quite sure how it could address the climate crisis, Ann Pettifor’s book is a good place to start. The economist is one of the academics and activists who devised the first GND more than a decade ago in response to the 2008 financial crash. Since then she has gone on to advise congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who helped revive the GND framework and introduce a resolution in US Congress.
The Case for the Green New Deal outlines the broad principles of this plan to tackle both the climate emergency and inequality simultaneously. Crucially, Pettifor debunks the idea that we could not afford to fund such a plan, arguing that the state is capable of financing a zero-emissions programme if constraints are put on moving capital.
The book points to periods of history when money has been no object to determined governments, from the Marshall Plan to the moon landings. Pettifor asks us to consider: “How can we bail out the banks but not the planet?”
Buy now £8.36, Bookshop
‘The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History’ by Elizabeth Kolbert, published by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
The role of the climate emergency in driving the extinction of up to half the world’s species by 2050 is laid bare in Elizebeth Kolbert’s reporting from the frontlines of environmental breakdown. There have been five mass extinction events over the past half a billion years, but this sixth extinction looks set to be the fastest on record.
Kolbert explores the possibility of our impending doom on the animals already gone or at the point of vanishing; from the Panamanian golden frog nearly completely wiped out in the wild by a fungal disease to the Maui, “the most beautiful bird in the world”, in peril due to deforestation.
We are driving these species to extinction in many ways: some connected to the climate crisis through rising sea levels rising and deforestation, as well as by spreading disease-carrying species and poaching. By fundamentally altering earth’s delicately balanced ecosystems, we are risking our own future too. Kolbert says the choice is clear: “Adapt our thinking or die.”
Buy now £7.99, Blackwell's
‘Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change’ by Nathaniel Rich, published by Picador
Part of the tragedy of the climate crisis is that we have known about it for decades and yet done nothing about it. Losing Earth recounts the decisive decade from 1979 to 1989 when we first had a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of global warming. Focussing mainly on the US’s response to the crisis, the book follows the scientists and activists who tried to sound the alarm, and the Reaganite politicians and big businesses who made sure that no meaningful action was taken.
Essayist and novelist, Nathaniel Rich, argues that we came tantalisingly close to signing binding international treaties that would have stopped the acceleration of the global emergency. But by the start of the Nineties, what was once regarded as a bipartisan issue came to be seen as a partisan one after the oil industry "descended and bared its fangs".
In the decades since, more carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere than in all the preceding years of history of civilisation. If you believe that in order to change the future we must understand the past, Losing Earth is an essential cautionary tale for facing the climate battles ahead.
Buy now £8.99, Waterstones
‘On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal’ by Naomi Klein, published by Penguin Books Ltd
While some argue that we missed a crucial opportunity to stop climate change in the Eighties, Naomi Klein posits that “the zenith of the neoliberal crusade” was exactly the wrong moment for bold action. In her collection of environmental essays, written over the past decade, Klein pins the blame for the crisis on capitalism and argues that nothing will be realised without systems change.
On Fire features a diverse selection of Klein’s reporting on the frontlines of climate breakdown, from post-hurricane Puerto Rico to the bleached Great Barrier reef. But a clear thread runs through them showing how our drive for endless growth and profits has engendered this emergency. Although less cohesive than Klein’s other book on the climate crisis, This Changes Everything, On Fire is her most recent work on this topic and is punctuated with useful footnotes that provide updates and reflections.
Klein also observes a new “unfamiliar sense of promise” in her latest title owing to the recent momentum behind the Green New Deal movement and the wave of school strikes led by Greta Thunberg. On Fire leaves the reader with the hope that tackling the climate crisis offers a unique opportunity to transform society and tackle wealth inequality, racism and declining public services.
Buy now £10.99, Waterstones
‘The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable’ by Amitav Ghosh, published by The University of Chicago Press
Novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that what lies at the heart of the climate crisis is a failure of imagination to confront a catastrophe we can’t see. He envisages that our great-grandchildren will look back at our current period as one of denial. In Ghosh’s extended essay, he critiques the involvement of culture makers in this collective denial.
At a time when we need to face the apocalyptic nature of the environmental crisis, fictional books are concerned more with the mundane and every day. But, unlike our ancient texts, the stories we tell today no longer wrestle with vast swathes of time and space needed to address the climate emergency.
Likewise, in politics, Ghosh argues that at the very time it is becoming clear that the situation is “in every sense a collective predicament”, we find ourselves living in the age of the individual. The Great Derangement is a reminder that there are no more vital tasks for writers, artists and politicians than to confront the existential environmental crisis we face and imagine new ways of living.
Buy now £9.99, Blackwell’s
‘The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here' by Hope Jahren, published by Little, Brown Book Group
A simple message lies at the centre of geochemist Hope Jahren’s sweeping examination of how we found ourselves in the middle of a climate crisis: “Use less and share more”. The Story of More explores how the ingenuity that has allowed humans to extract ever more resources from the Earth has also set the stage for environmental catastrophe. What’s more, this rampant consumerism is costing us our happiness too. The only way to solve one problem, Jahren suggests, is to solve both.
The Story of More illustrates the enormous scale of human consumption through compelling statistics. Jahren highlights the developed world’s responsibility for the crisis by observing that if everyone consumed resources on the same scale as the US, carbon dioxide emissions would be more than four times higher. This book does not pummel readers with a sense of guilt, but asks how we can learn to live on a finite planet. “Using less and sharing more is the biggest challenge our generation will ever face,” she says.
Buy now £6.99, Blackwell's
‘Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming’ by Paul Hawken, published by Penguin Books Ltd
By now the existential danger posed by the climate crisis is clear to anyone who’s been paying attention, but what about the solutions? Drawdown pulls together leading scientists and policymakers to present the 100 most effective solutions to the climate emergency using only peer-reviewed research.
These experts predict that if these resolutions are deployed collectively on a global scale over the next 30 years, we could reach the point where greenhouse gases in the atmosphere begin to decline, known as drawdown.
Items on the list are ranked based on the potential amount of greenhouse gases they can avoid or remove – moderating use of air-conditioners and refrigerators are number one. Essentially a reference book, Drawdown is a good guide to have on hand to make sense of the broad suite of solutions we need to tackle the climate crisis.
Buy now £14.84, Hive
The verdict: Climate emergency books
Trying to choose a single book that encapsulates the scale and urgency of the environmental emergency is no mean task. However, The Uninhabitable Earth is a stirring reminder of how the crisis will affect every aspect of human life, and it can shake even the most well-versed reader out of their complacency. If you’re looking for a more hopeful read, Drawdown and The Case for a Green New Deal demonstrate that we already have the solutions to tackle the environmental crisis – we just need the collective will to enact them.
For more top reads, look to our review of the best books to help you live more sustainably