When I first heard about the climate book project being edited by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish “Fridays for the Future” climate striker, I was skeptical. Having curated Yale Climate Connections’ monthly bookshelf collection since early 2015, I was acquainted with over 1,000 books and reports that address climate change in some way, including dozens of guides, handbooks, introductions, and primers. Did we really need another overview on climate change?
Yes, I can say after reading “The Climate Book.” Yes, we do. It’s the most ambitious, wide-ranging, and hard-hitting collection I have ever encountered. And it’s all inspired by the young woman who so publicly dared to speak truth to power at Davos and the U.N. on climate change.
One hundred authors contributed 90 short pieces (of one to nine pages) to “The Climate Book.” Included in that number are scientists who endured decades on the front lines of climate science and policy (Drew Shindell, Michael Oppenheimer); the authors of the first popular books on climate change (Bill McKibben, Elizabeth Kolbert, Eugen Linden, Michael Mann, George Monbiot); one of the most widely read authors of climate fiction (Margaret Atwood); the historian of science who first established the scientific consensus on climate change (Naomi Oreskes); biologists (Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Wanjira Mathai), economists (Thomas Piketty, Kate Raworth, Nicholas Stern); and social scientists (Erica Chenoweth, Naomi Klein).
This impressive roster is a tribute to the 101st contributor to “The Climate Book,” the 20-year-old Thunberg, whose 18 short essays introduce the volume, mark the subsections, highlight the important takeaways, and call readers to action. It’s hard to imagine another figure, of any age, who could inspire such a grand collective effort.
As atmospheric scientist Michael Oppenheimer explained in a phone call with Yale Climate Connections: “Let me put it this way: I get asked to write a lot of stuff. And 90% of it I turn down. This thing I thought was worth doing.”
The organization and themes of the book
“The Climate Book” is divided into five parts: “How Climate Works,” “How Our Planet Is Changing,” How It Affects Us,” “What We’ve Done About It,” and “What We Must Do Now.” But the book seems animated by one governing goal: to recruit and (re)educate dedicated climate activists. And all of us, Thunberg makes clear, have much to learn — and unlearn: “How can we undo our failures if we are unable to admit that we have failed?”
One significant take-away from “The Climate Book” is that the official accounting for climate change is deceptive. By agreements now 30 years out of date, emissions from air travel and shipping are not included in the tallying of a nation’s annual carbon pollution. Further, carbon pollution associated with goods and products is attributed to the country where they’re made rather than, more logically and fairly, where they’re consumed. Worse still, emissions from biomass are not counted because the same agreements presume that only unusable wood wastes are burned; in practice, however, healthy American forests are clear-cut to make the wood pellets for these power plants.
When these loopholes are corrected in the annual carbon accounting of a country like Sweden, for example, a widely trumpeted reduction becomes an embarrassing increase. As reported by journalist Alexandra Urisman Otto and repeated by Thunberg, Sweden’s actual annual emissions are at least three times the number it reports to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Another grim take-away from “The Climate Book” is the damage human-caused climate change is already inflicting on planetary ecosystems and how these damages further complicate accounting for emissions.
In her contribution, climate scientist Joelle Gergis reports that the 2019–20 wildfires in Australia released more carbon in six months than the whole country emits in a year.
In other essays, climate scientists and environmental journalists show that methane from fossil fuel operations is underestimated, that we are nearing critical tipping points for methane from permafrost and ocean hydrates, and that we may eventually see carbon sinks, like the Amazon, turn into carbon emitters.
The people who will suffer the most from these developments are the people of the Global South, those who contributed the least to the global climate crisis. The overarching need for climate justice is the third, and perhaps most important, take-away of “The Climate Book.” Two contributions in a subsection devoted to “Honesty, Solidarity, Integrity and Climate Justice” make the case for redistribution (Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty) and reparations (Olúfhemi O. Táíwò)
From (re)education to action
So what is to be done?
After an honest accounting of emissions and impacts, the next step, in Thunberg’s reckoning, is an honest appraisal of the solutions proposed for limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
Several essays in the fourth part of the book swiftly discredit “magic bullet” solutions like carbon capture and storage, biofuels, recycling, and geoengineering — the very sort of solutions championed by oil companies.
The only realistic solutions are already proven technologies, like wind and solar, as well as possible, if politically daunting, changes in human behavior. Several contributors advocate for radical social change. Others are more circumspect.
Citing the examples of the 2008 financial crisis and the supply-chain disruptions during the pandemic, journalist Eugene Linden, who contributed an essay based on his recent book, “Fire and Flood,” notes that “our global economy is a tightly coupled system … even minor disruptions can lead to devastating repercussions.” Thus attempts at radical social change, Linden acknowledged in an email exchange with Yale Climate Connections, could be as or more disruptive than the near or midterm impacts of climate change. By contrast, Linden applauded the radically experimental, but nonideological, way President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met the challenge of the Great Depression.
In her contribution to “The Climate Book,” political scientist Erica Chenoweth observes that a determined minority can be enough to tip a society toward change. She operationally defines “determined minority” as 25% of the population. Given that about 33% of the U.S. population already polls as “alarmed” about climate change, “determined” may be the more important variable in this calculation.
To succeed, this core group must move climate change much higher up on national and international lists of priorities. How much higher? As high as our defense budgets, Michael Oppenheimer said in his phone call with Yale Climate Connections. “In an economic dislocation, like the financial crisis, our military preparedness doesn’t shut down. That’s what climate change has to get to.” Spending on climate mitigation and adaptation must be regarded as essential, regardless of the current circumstances, which is how the U.S. treats defense spending.
For a determined minority to achieve this goal, the media must report on climate change with the same gravity it brings to discussions of defense and national security. In his contribution to “The Climate Book,” journalist George Monbiot excoriates “the media [as] the engine of persuasion that allows our Earth-destroying system to persist.” To undo this damage, the media must change the narrative and force governments to act on the problem it previously helped them ignore.
Thunberg encourages her readers, whom she invites to join with her in pushing hard for social justice and environmental sustainability, to wrestle with these issues themselves.
“You must take it from here and carry on connecting the dots yourself because, right there, between the lines, you will find the answers — the solutions that need to be shared with the rest of humanity. And when the time comes for you to share them, I would give you just one piece of advice. Simply tell it like it is.”
The many climate books in “The Climate Book”
In this review of “The Climate Book,” I have directly referenced just 21 of its 90 short essays, even with all the authors identified in the third paragraph. Behind most of these original contributions is a full book, several of which have been included in bookshelves that have appeared in Yale Climate Connections since the start of its run in 2015. Several more will appear in upcoming bookshelves. In short, “The Climate Book” is a sampler. Within its 440 pages, one can engage briefly with 100 different minds that have thought deeply about climate change from as many different angles. Readers can then decide which author they want to follow up with for an extended conversation.
The one extended conversation readers can have in the pages of “The Climate Book” is with Thunberg. In the 36 pages interspersed throughout her book, readers will feel her frustration with the inaction and obfuscations of world leaders, her passion for social justice, and her affection for the wild creatures and places on the planet. Readers will likely want to get to know this person better. Fortunately, there are other books for that, too.