Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining trends in climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” in partnership with Yale Climate Connections. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter to get “Burning Worlds” and other writing about art and climate change delivered straight to your inbox.
This year brought bleak news on climate change, but as if heeding a call to action, writers of all kinds published several books on the subject. This month I’m dedicating my column to the best nonfiction books I read this year about climate change. Some are hopeful, others despairing. Many are instructive in more ways than one. I’ll return to a focus on climate fiction in the new year. Until then enjoy my favorite works of climate nonfiction of 2018!
Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future
By Mary Robinson
From Bloomsbury: “Like class, race, and gender, climate change is a human rights issue. Vulnerable and marginalized communities are far more likely to live on the front line of climate change. In Climate Justice, Mary Robinson relates the eye-opening experience of people, including herself, whose encounters with the all-too-real impact of climate change have driven them to action.”
Below Freezing: Elegy for the Melting Planet
By Donald Anderson
University of New Mexico Press
From University of New Mexico Press: “Climate change is here. This book moves beyond misery and misunderstanding, taking a literary approach to the debate. Below Freezing is a unique assemblage of scientific fact, newspaper reports, and excerpts from novels, short stories, nonfiction, history, creative nonfiction, and poetry–a commonplace book for our era of altering climate. This polyphony of voices functions as an oratorio, shifting from chorus to solo and back to chorus. An unconventional and brilliant book, Below Freezing is both timely and pertinent–an original gaze at this melting ball we call home.”
Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World
By Marcia Bjornerud
Princeton University Press
From Princeton University Press: “Marcia Bjornerud shows how geologists chart the planet’s past, explaining how we can determine the pace of solid Earth processes such as mountain building and erosion and comparing them with the more unstable rhythms of the oceans and atmosphere. These overlapping rates of change in the Earth system—some fast, some slow—demand a poly-temporal worldview, one that Bjornerud calls “timefulness.” She explains why timefulness is vital in the Anthropocene, this human epoch of accelerating planetary change, and proposes sensible solutions for building a more time-literate society.”
Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
By Elizabeth Rush
From Milkweed: “With every passing day, and every record-breaking hurricane, it grows clearer that climate change is neither imagined nor distant―and that rising seas are transforming the coastline of the United States in irrevocable ways. In Rising, Elizabeth Rush guides readers through some of the places where this change has been most dramatic, from the Gulf Coast to Miami, and from New York City to the Bay Area. For many of the plants, animals, and humans in these places, the options are stark: retreat or perish in place.”
No Immediate Danger: Volume One of Carbon Ideologies
By William T. Vollmann
From Viking: In his nonfiction, William T. Vollmann has won acclaim as a singular voice tackling some of the most important issues of our age, from poverty to violence to the dark soul of American imperialism as it has played out on the U.S./Mexico border. Now, Vollmann turns to a topic that will define the generations to come—the factors and human actions that have led to global warming. Vollmann begins No Immediate Danger, the first volume of Carbon Ideologies, by examining and quantifying the many causes of climate change, from industrial manufacturing and agricultural practices to fossil fuel extraction, economic demand for electric power, and the justifiable yearning of people all over the world to live in comfort.”
No Good Alternative: Volume Two of Carbon Ideologies
By William T. Vollmann
From Viking: “The second volume of William T. Vollmann’s epic book about the factors and human actions that have led to global warming begins in the coal fields of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, where “America’s best friend” is not merely a fuel, but a “heritage.” Over the course of four years Vollmann finds hollowed out towns with coal-polluted streams and acidified drinking water; makes covert visits to mountaintop removal mines; and offers documented accounts of unpaid fines for federal health and safety violations and of miners who died because their bosses cut corners to make more money.”
We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change
By Roy Scranton
From Soho Press: “We’re Doomed. Now What? addresses the crisis that is our time through a series of brilliant, moving, and original essays on climate change, war, literature, and loss, from one of the most provocative and iconoclastic minds of his generation. Whether writing about sailing through the melting Arctic, preparing for Houston’s next big storm, watching Star Wars, or going back to the streets of Baghdad he once patrolled as a soldier, Roy Scranton handles his subjects with the same electric, philosophical, demotic touch that he brought to his groundbreaking New York Times essay, ‘Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene’”
This Is the Way the World Ends: How Droughts and Die-offs, Heat Waves and Hurricanes Are Converging on America
By Jeff Nesbit
Thomas Dunne Books
From Thomas Dunne Books: “Longer droughts in the Middle East. Growing desertification in China and Africa. The monsoon season shrinking in India. Amped-up heat waves in Australia. More intense hurricanes reaching America. Water wars in the Horn of Africa. Rebellions, refugees and starving children across the globe. These are not disconnected events. These are the pieces of a larger puzzle that environmental expert Jeff Nesbit puts together. Unless we start addressing the causes of climate change and stop simply navigating its effects, we will be facing a series of unstoppable catastrophes by the time our preschoolers graduate from college. Our world is in trouble – right now. This Is the Way the World Ends tells the real stories of the substantial impacts to Earth’s systems unfolding across each continent.”
Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North
By Mark C. Serreze
Princeton University Press
From Princeton University Press: “In a sweeping tale of discovery spanning three decades, Serreze describes how puzzlement turned to concern and astonishment as researchers came to understand that the Arctic of old was quickly disappearing–with potentially devastating implications for the entire planet. Serreze is a world-renowned Arctic geographer and climatologist who has conducted fieldwork on ice caps, glaciers, sea ice, and tundra in the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic. In this must-read book, he blends invaluable insights from his own career with those of other pioneering scientists who, together, ushered in an exciting new age of Arctic exploration. Along the way, he accessibly describes the cutting-edge science that led to the alarming conclusion that the Arctic is rapidly thawing due to climate change, that humans are to blame, and that the global consequences are immense.”
Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island
By Earl Swift
Dey Street Books
From Dey Street Books: “Chesapeake Requiem is a poignant, inside look at the past, present, and tenuous future of Tangier Island. Acclaimed journalist Earl Swift has spent much of the last two years living in this quaint and charmingly insular community that offers a few restaurants, two bed and breakfasts, and one ATM. Interweaving the story of Tangier’s remarkable past with the first-person stories of crabbers and others who make their living from the sea, it is a bittersweet and eye-opening look at a world that has, quite nearly, gone by—and a crisis that will eventually impact all Americans, regardless of their views on climate change.”
Sustainability: A Love Story
By Nicole Walker
The Ohio State University Press
From The Ohio State University Press: “This book is for the burnt-out environmentalist, the lazy environmentalist, the would-be environmentalist. It’s for those who believe the planet is dying. For those who believe they are dying. And for those who question what it means to live and love sustainably, and maybe even with hope.”
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.
THANK YOU for your amazing column. I’ve been building (and consuming!) a reading queue through all of your thoughtful reviews and recommendations that has been serving as both research and can’t-put-it-down pleasure reading. I’m so glad and grateful that you are doing this.
Nice suggestions! I haven’t read lots of books about climate change actually. I will make great use of this list!
If you decide to read up on climate change, be sure to also read books or articles on the other side of the debate. I would suggest anything by Richard Lindzen (MIT atmospheric scientist), Will Happer (Princeton), or Judith Curry (Georgia Tech). A nice easy-read book on Climate is: The Whole Story of Climate by E. Kristen Peters (Washington State University). The history of science has been spirited debate and those who wish to quash debate are those who think they will lose the argument.