2021 was a year of tremendous climate extremes, and may be looked back on as the year that the world began to understand the existential nature of the threat posed by climate change and ecological destruction. In a year of such tremendous transformation, thought leaders and innovators continue to come up with solutions and new ways of thinking that make us reflect and hope. In Earth.Org’s favourite books, we see a world that is ambitious about humanity’s prospects, but humble about our place in nature. Extremely hopeful for our future, while realistic about what we might have to concede.
2021 was a whirlwind of a year. From an ongoing global health crisis to stalling economies and dysfunctional international supply chains, 2021 has taken us to extremes few thought imaginable, and climate is no exception. Devastating floods in China and Europe, record-breaking heatwaves and wildfires across the planet and, apparently, even tornadoes made it truly incontrovertible that climate is everything, and the changes within it will impact every person, every sector and every country.
In 2021, we at Earth.Org revamped and significantly expanded our book review series to include regular talks with authors and more in-depth coverage of their books. Aside from the award-winning writers, world-leading climate scientists and thought leaders paving the way towards humanity’s brighter future, these are our pick of the best books on climate change.
The New Climate War, by Michael Mann
Michael Mann is arguably one of the closest things we have to a climate superhero. His story is certainly reminiscent of some cinematic superhero adventures. After hitting the climate science stage hard in 1999 when co-authoring the now-famous ‘hockey stick graph’ that demonstrates how human activity has contributed to average temperature rise, Michael Mann was lambasted, criticised and dismissed by a system perpetrated by our story’s villains, principally the fossil fuel industry and other actors with vested interests But our hero did not back down, and continued to push for the emerging field of climate science to be recognised.
In The New Climate War, Mann explains how the fossil fuel industry has adjusted its tactics, from outright climate denialism to obstruction and shifting the burden of responsibility to individuals, thereby delaying necessary action to push through systemic changes. The book is a fascinating untangling of the intricate web of misinformation, misdirection and deflection perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry since climate change became an incontrovertible reality. Cautiously optimistic, Mann argues that the fundamental challenges we still face today are not tied to a technological or intellectual inability to achieve systemic change, but in the lack of political will required to do so.
Post Growth: Life After Capitalism, by Tim Jackson
For the economics-inclined, Post Growth may be our pick for the most accessible and inspiring technical environmental books of 2021. Professor Tim Jackson, a highly influential ecological economist, first gained fame for his 2009 book, Prosperity Without Growth, a highly researched deep dive into the economics and models that can bring us into a more sustainable and prosperous future.
Jackson’s 2021 foray is a romantic, passionate and highly readable book that illuminates what a future after capitalism, competition and egregious self-interest really looks like, largely doing away with much of the jargon and economics’ parlance used in Prosperity. Grounded in a deep understanding of ecological economics, Post Growth presents one of the most compelling arguments yet that the economy is not at all separate from the natural world, but an intrinsically embedded subsidiary of it. Under this worldview, it becomes clear that constant economic growth is simply untenable.
Whether or not you agree with Jackson’s more fundamental assertions on the nature of capitalism and its role in a prosperous society, this is a book that sheds light on a version of the future where having outright winners does not necessarily translate to having outright losers, where prosperity is not only linked to material wealth but to wellbeing, health and safety for all members of society. Post Growth does not necessarily offer the solutions and technical means that Prosperity does, but it does provide a way of thinking about the future that is hopeful, bright and entirely achievable.
The Good Ancestor, by Roman Krznaric
Possibly the most philosophical book on this list, Roman Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor delves into the ideas and merits behind long-termism, an ideology that is growing in support and popularity as it becomes clearer that our actions today will have long-lasting consequences on the generations of tomorrow.
“What does it mean to be a good ancestor?” Krznaric’s book largely revolves around this question, addressing the vastly interesting and under-explored topic of intergenerational ethics. Our governmental and economic frameworks incentivise short-term prizes over long-term rewards, but that does not mean that we have lost the ability to think long-term. In his immensely profound and impassioned book, Krznaric reminds us that our actions have long-lasting impacts on future generations and the planet. He provides readers with an empowering and eye-opening prescription for a new way to see the world and our place in it, one that recognises how small humans currently alive are relative to the immense breadth of our species’ past and, most importantly, our potentially limitless future.
Under A White Sky, by Elizabeth Kolbert
For the more scientifically and solutions-inclined, this is the book pick for you. On a world-hopping adventure from one solution to the next, journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert guides readers through the sheer madness of ‘fixes’ that humans have attempted to dominate the natural world. The bottom line is this: we like to think of ourselves as ingenious problem solvers, and we certainly can be, but more often than not, our actions have unforeseen and reverberating effects on ecosystems and human populations.
Under A White Sky immensely readable, vividly describing everything from the flooding marshlands of Louisiana to the mind-bogglingly exciting developments in genetic engineering. In each new location, Kolbert dives into the latest technological fix that is being attempted, often to cover up the unintended consequences of the last techno-fix humans tried out. This is a hugely entertaining book that accurately describes some of the most cutting-edge and complex solutions to the environmental crisis that humans have come up with. But it is also a cautionary tale that puts into perspective just how far we’ve gone, and what that has already done to the world.
On Time and Water, by Andri Snær Magnason
Andri Snær Magnason’s On Time and Water is a lyrical and emotionally moving experience of a book. At its core, this book is a poetic exploration of what processes like climate change, environmental loss and ecological shocks really mean. The book makes the example of ocean acidification, a combination of words that could realistically glean half-interested stares and vacant expressions from most people, and yet inspire visceral fear and dread in the hearts of marine and climate scientists. The same applies to atmospheric carbon buildup. Sure, we know it’s bad, but why?
On Time and Water is a pensive and beautifully written meditation on how to connect our past, present and future, offering a hopeful vision of a world where we feel closer to each other, to our families and to the natural world that surrounds us. It gives us the tools we need to think closely about this future, the language we can use to describe it and the anchors we can turn towards to connect ourselves with it.
Being the Change: Live Well and Start a Climate Revolution by Peter Kalmus
The first on our list of books about climate change, alarmed by drastic changes occurring in the Earth’s environment, climate scientist and suburban father Peter Kalmus embarked on a journey to change his life and the world. He began by ditching the car and bicycling instead, growing his own food and making other simple, fulfilling changes. Kalmus slashed his climate impact to one tenth of the US average and became happier in the process.
Being the Change (2017) inspires individuals who want take climate action, but are unsure of where to start.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs The Climate by Naomi Klein
Rob Nixon from The New York Times called it “the most momentous and contentious environmental book since Silent Spring”. Hard-hitting journalist Naomi Klein uncovers the myths clouding the climate debate, unearthing how powerful and well-financed right wing think tanks and lobby groups are at the source of the climate change denial.
This Changes Everything (2014) challenges the current “free market” ideology, which Klein argues is unable to solve the climate change crisis.
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The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative by Florence Williams
From eucalyptus groves in California, forest trails in Korea, to islands in Finland, Florence Williams investigates the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain. Delving into cutting-edge research, The Nature Fix (2017) exposes the powers of the natural world to improve health, strengthen our relationships and promote reflection and innovation.
Drawdown (2017) gathers the 100 most effective solutions to halt global warming from leading scientists and policymakers, which if adopted, could even reduce the overall greenhouse gasses currently present in the atmosphere . Already firmly anchored in the New York Times bestseller list, Hawken ranks optimal solutions – like moderating the use of air-conditioners and refrigerators, or adopting a plant-rich diet – by the amount of potential greenhouse gases they can avoid or remove.
Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O. Wilson
Half Earth (2016), written by one of the world’s greatest naturalists and a double Pulitzer Prize winner, proposes an realistic plan to save our imperilled biosphere: devote half the surface of the Earth to nature. In order to stave off the mass extinction of species including our own, we must move swiftly to preserve the biodiversity of our planet, Wilson urges in one of his most impassioned books about climate change to date.
Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet by Dieter Helm
The first real attempt to calibrate, measure and value natural capital from an economic perspective, Natural Capital (2015) shifts the parameters of the current environmental debate. Dieter Helm, Fellow of Economics at the University of Oxford, claims that refusing to place an economic value on nature risks an environmental meltdown. He proceeds to outline a new framework to couple economic growth with respect for our natural endowment without sacrificing the former.
Given the recent buzz about the Green New Deal in American politics, we recommend this brilliant book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author who coined the term, Thomas L. Friedman. Hot, Flat and Crowded (2008) speaks to America’s urgent need to expand national renewables and how climate change presents a unique opportunity for the US – not only to transform its economy, but to lead the world in innovating toward cleaner energy.
Sustainable Nation: Urban Design Patterns for the Future by Douglas Farr
An essential resource for urban designers, planners and architects, Sustainable Nation (2018) is an urgent call to action and a guidebook for change. An architect and urban planner, Douglas Farr details how designing cities and buildings with sustainable criteria can mitigate the humanitarian, population and climate crises.
The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells
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 unpacks the different dimensions of our forecast future, from heat death to unbreathable air.
As Wallace-Wells puts it in the book’s first line, “it is worse, much worse, than you think.” Even for those who feel they are well-versed on the issue, the endless stream of disasters that have or could be caused by global warming effectively shakes the reader out of any complacency.
While the book does not offer solutions, it does make it clear that we already have all the tools we need to avoid the worst effects. But ultimately The Uninhabitable Earth seeks to make clear the horror of the emergency of the consequences before us. Unless we accept the urgency, how can we expect to get ourselves out of this mess?
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
By 2050, the climate crisis will have driven the extinction of up to half the world’s species, according to this book that is written on the frontlines of environmental breakdown. We are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction event, which is set to be the fastest such event on record.
Kolbert outlines how humans have driven the extinction of biodiversity, or to the brink of extinction, from the Panamanian golden frog nearly completely wiped out in the wild by a fungal disease to the Maui, which is 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.
Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change by Nathaniel Rich
We have known about the perils of climate change for decades and yet very little to nothing was done about it. This book details the decade from 1979 to 1989 when we were starting to have a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change. 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 businesses who worked to make sure that no meaningful action was taken.
Rich says that the world came close to signing binding international treaties to mitigate the acceleration of global warming. However, by the start of the 90s, 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.”
Since then, more carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere than in all the preceding years of history of civilisation. Losing Earth is an essential cautionary tale for facing the climate battles ahead.
Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change by Dieter Helm
Another entry by Helm, Net Zero addresses the action we all need to take, whether personal, local, national or global, if we really want to stop climate change.
This book is a measured, balanced view of how we stop causing climate change by adopting a net zero strategy of reducing carbon emissions and increasing carbon absorption. It is a rational look at why the past 30 years’ efforts have failed and why and how the next 30 years can succeed. Like the other books on this list, it is a vital read for anyone who hears ecological activists fighting against climate change, but wonders what they can actually do.
Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency by Mark Lynas
This book delivers an account of the future of our earth, and our civilisation, if current rates of global warming persist.But how much worse could it get? Are we already past the point of no return? Cataloguing the very latest climate science, Lynas explores the course we have set for Earth over the next century and beyond. Degree by degree, he charts the likely impacts of global heating and the consequent climate catastrophe.
At one degree – the world we are already living in – vast wildfires scorch California and Australia, while monster hurricanes devastate coastal cities. At two degrees the Arctic ice cap melts away, and coral reefs disappear from the tropics. At three, the world begins to run out of food, threatening millions with starvation. At four, large areas of the globe are too hot for human habitation, erasing entire nations and turning billions into climate refugees. At five, the planet is warmer than for 55 million years, while at six degrees a mass extinction of unparalleled proportions sweeps the planet, threatening to end all life on Earth.
These escalating consequences can still be avoided, but time is running out. We must stop burning fossil fuels within a decade. If we fail, then we risk crossing tipping points that could push global climate chaos out of humanity’s control.
On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal by Naomi Klein
This book gathers more than a decade of Klein’s writing, pairing it with new material on the staggeringly high stakes of our immediate political and economic choices.
These long-form essays investigate the climate crisis not only as a political challenge but as a spiritual and imaginative one as well. With reports spanning from the ghostly Great Barrier Reef, the annual smoke-choked skies of the Pacific Northwest, post-hurricane Puerto Rico, to a Vatican attempting an unprecedented “ecological conversion,” Klein makes the case that we will rise to the existential challenge of climate change only if we are willing to transform the systems that produced this crisis.
An expansive, far-ranging exploration that sees the battle for a greener world as indistinguishable from the fight for our lives, On Fire captures the burning urgency of the climate crisis, as well as the fiery energy of a rising political movement demanding a catalytic Green New Deal.
Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet by Noam Chomsky & Robert Pollin
The last on our list of books about climate change, Noam Chomsky, the world’s leading public intellectual, and Robert Pollin, a renowned progressive economist, map out the catastrophic consequences of unchecked climate change and present a realistic blueprint for change: the Green New Deal.
Chomsky and Pollin show the forecasts for a hotter planet: vast stretches of the Earth will become uninhabitable, plagued by extreme weather, drought, rising seas, and crop failure. Arguing against the fear of economic disaster and unemployment arising from the transition to a green economy, they show how this unfounded concern encourages climate denialism.
The authors show how ceasing to burn fossil fuels within the next 30 years is entirely feasible. Climate change is an emergency that cannot be ignored. This book shows how it can be overcome both politically and economically.
Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea by Callum Roberts
Callum Roberts’ 2013 book, Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea, follows the fascinating relationship between man and water. A powerful warning to save our oceans before it is too late, this book does not hold back – it shows us just how much of an impact overfishing, pollution and climate change have had on marine life.
Instead of speculating about what may happen in the future, Roberts sticks to proven facts and viable solutions. This makes his book stand out from other recent books on climate change and environmentalist works’ inability to offer solutions for the “doomsday scenarios” they present through their barrage of facts and statistics. The last quarter of Ocean of Life is packed with potential solutions that industries, companies, governments and ordinary people can adopt.
All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis” edited by Ayana Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson
This book is a collection of essays and poetry by 60 leading women climate activists. It shows the power that women have in creating the solutions that we need to mitigate the climate crisis.
These are just some of Earth.Org’s best, must-read books on climate change and sustainability in 2021- we hope that you get some inspiration. As the issue of rising global temperatures imperils humanity further, it is crucial to consult a variety of impartial sources to get the most accurate information on the state of the planet.