2020 was a tough year for everyone, but if there was one tiny chink of light, it was that, together, we proved civilization can survive a significant drop in global carbon emissions.
Lockdown is not a solution, of course, but the 7 percent reduction in emissions that we saw in 2020 is exactly what the UN estimates is needed every year for the next decade to keep global temperatures over the next century “only” 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels.
Can we get there? And how will our lives look if we do? Here is Landscape News’s list of five books, penned by some of the most acclaimed climate and environmental writers, that entertain, inform and inspire to show how we can.
Watermelon Snow: Science, Art, and a Lone Polar Bear
Lynne Quarmby (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020)
In Watermelon Snow, Canadian molecular biologist Lynne Quarmby shifts between stories from her lab, polemic from the frontlines of climate politics and memories of a surreal Arctic expedition where dancers, painters and scientists all struggled to sound the warnings of a heating planet.
The phrase in the title, “watermelon snow,” refers to a striking phenomenon that occurs when thin layers of single-celled green algae begin to synthesize a red pigment. Quarmby’s research suggests that this discoloration may insulate the algae from increasing UV radiation, but it also speeds up the melting of the snow by reducing the amount of sunlight reflected by the algae.
Watermelon snow represents one of many feedback loops that are accelerating global heating, and this book is Quarmby’s remarkable response, generating a creative feedback loop to help us all find “life beyond despair.”
Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
Elizabeth Kolbert (Penguin Random House, 2021)
Under a White Sky is a catalogue of humanity’s extraordinary last-gasp efforts to hold back the ongoing environmental disaster that many call the Anthropocene.
In a world where everything is connected to everything else, Pulitzer Prize winner and much acclaimed climate writer Kolbert shows us in her latest work what Herculean efforts are needed to mitigate the unintended consequences of industrialisation. We meet biologists trying to save the world’s rarest fish and engineers turning carbon emissions to stone. Through these insightful, inspiring encounters, Kolbert seeks out miniscule hopes of salvation.
At times darkly-comic, the book also explores the outlandish field of geoengineering, as scientists research grandiose interventions, like spraying tiny diamonds into the stratosphere to turn our sky from blue to white. While living “under a white sky” might sound like a dystopic nightmare, that is the kind of future we face unless we heed Kolbert’s warning.
The Ministry for the Future
Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 2020)
One of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2020, The Ministry for the Future is Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest foray into climate science fiction. But it is worth saying that environmentalist Bill McKibben firmly describes the novel, set in the near future, as “not science fiction”.
The novel opens with a harrowing description of a deadly heatwave in Uttar Pradesh, India, but the majority of the “action” takes place in the conference rooms of the titular Ministry for the Future as the UN thrashes out the economic and monetary policies needed to organize a global response to ecological disaster.
Despite the apocalyptic subject matter, Robinson is ultimately optimistic that the climate crisis could be the existential threat that finally prompts humanity to resolve the inequalities that underpin capitalism. The Ministry for the Future is Robinson’s imaginative leap to show us how we might get there.
How Bad Are Bananas?: The carbon footprint of everything
Mike Berners-Lee (Profile Books, 2020)
Do you dally in the fruit and vegetable aisle, worrying whether your choices are secretly killing the planet? Then this year you need the new edition of How Bad Are Bananas? by carbon accounting researcher Mike Berners-Lee.
In this astonishingly practical book, Berners-Lee runs the numbers on everything you need to give yourself a proper carbon audit, from drying your hands to hosting a football World Cup. Who knew, for example, that drinking three bottles of wine a week is equivalent to driving a car 620 kilometers?
But this book is much more than a spreadsheet. Berners-Lee also analyzes the merits of carbon offsetting, carbon capture and other sources of negative emissions. Down-to-earth, encouraging and outright hilarious in places, How Bad Are Bananas? is a data-driven handbook for people determined to lighten their load on the planet.
Of Wolves and Men
Barry Lopez (Scribner, 1978, 2004)
Nature writer Barry Lopez sadly passed away on Christmas Day 2020, but his death brought renewed appreciation for his 1978 classic, Of Wolves and Men.
The book, dedicated to wolves themselves, marked a dramatic change in the way ecologists thought about our predators, and one can draw a direct ancestral line from Lopez’s lone voice of sympathy to the growing cries of today’s rewilding movement.
Now we see that Lopez was right. Where wolves have been reintroduced in the wild, grazing deer become more shy, woodlands are re-established, sluggish rivers clear of silt and cold-water fish return.
In 2005, Cambridge fellow and nature writer Robert Macfarlane described Lopez as “the most important living writer about wilderness”. I am sure that Macfarlane would agree that the epithet can now be updated: with every passing year, the value of Lopez’s work only grows.