In the days immediately prior to the UN Climate Change Conference (Cop26), which kicks off this Sunday, Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme said: “Climate change is no longer a future problem. It is a now problem.”
Increasingly, warnings such as Andersen’s are making their way into the books – fiction and non-fiction; countless award-winning, bestselling titles released this year have the climate crisis at their heart, from those on the Booker Prize shortlist to Pulitzer Prize winners.
In light of this, we've compiled a Cop26-inspired reading list – a selection of books from 2021 that are not intended to scare or depress, but to energise and entertain; a selection of books that find hope in the intelligence of humanity and the resilience of our natural world.
'The Nutmeg’s Curse' and 'Jungle Nama' by Amitav Ghosh
Booker-shortlisted writer Amitav Ghosh is widely credited for kick-starting the literary response to the climate crisis with his groundbreaking 2016 book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. So it feels apt that he has two books out to coincide with Cop26. The Nutmeg’s Curse is subtitled Parables for a Planet in Crisis, and Ghosh travels back to the 17th century to explain why the climate emergency has its roots in rapacious colonialism – and the misguided belief that nature only exists as a resource for humans to use.
Jungle Nama, meanwhile, is a lovely, illustrated retelling of a famous Bengali poem set in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. Like The Nutmeg’s Curse, it asks us to consider balancing the needs of humans and nature. The Cop26 delegates should all be given a copy.
'Cloud Cuckoo Land' by Antony Doerr
In September, we highlighted Richard Powers’ brilliant Bewilderment as one of our books of the month; a fantastic father-son story set amid a destructive world that made the Booker shortlist soon afterwards. It’s a surprise that Pulitzer winner Antony Doerr’s new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, didn’t also make that list; maybe two "cli-fi" novels was too much, but this is an incredible effort nonetheless.
Stretching over a 700-year period from the 15th century to the 22nd, this is a long and thoughtful book featuring everything from an eco-terrorist to a spaceship leaving Earth with the remaining wonders of civilisation on board. It discusses the climate crisis and the impact of humanity on the world in ways that feel poetic, wise and instructive.
'Under a White Sky: The Nature Of The Future' by Elizabeth Kolbert
Saving nature before it’s too late: it’s surely one of the urgent questions Cop26 will have to grapple with. How exactly we do so, though, is the backdrop of Kolbert’s follow-up to her international bestseller The Sixth Extinction.
While the themes are heavy, Kolbert offers a brilliantly acerbic, witty guide to the ways in which we are trying to tame or bend climate change with technology. Visiting labs and teasing the absurdities and ironies of some of these projects out of well-meaning scientists, Under a White Sky could easily come across as a bit fatalistic – and Kolbert sees that in the people she meets.
“This is a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems,” she writes. But it also celebrates the imagination humanity uses to find solutions for a better world. It’s how we channel those solutions that is now crucial.
'How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need' by Bill Gates
Bill Gates made Elizabeth Kolbert’s book one of his summer reads – as a self-confessed optimist he took issue with the fatalism but found Under a White Sky “compelling and lucid”. It would be great to hear what Kolbert thought of Gates’ new book – it won’t surprise anyone that he leans heavily on the technological efforts to get to zero greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, the projects we can put in place to make these critical changes have a wonder and excitement all of their own, and if the innovation he champions can be harnessed through a methodical plan of the kind Gates lays out in his book, then his optimism will be well founded.
Gates recently made How To Avoid a Climate Disaster free for every college and university student, so he could encourage more young people to consider their role in shaping the world. Timely.
'A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds' by Scott Weidensaul
One of the successes of Terra – The Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai is that it makes taking steps to conserve our world seem like the most obvious thing in the world; it’s a celebration of the wonder all around us rather than a warning of its destruction.
Which is why A World on the Wing is so glorious, full of amazing tales of birds migrating thousands of miles, literally changing their entire being to complete their seemingly impossible flights. A combination of beautiful storytelling and ornithological science, Weidensaul is not, however, shy of counting the billions of birds lost to habitat destruction, pesticides and now the climate crisis, where wind and rain are fatally altering the circumstances migrating birds need to thrive.
Yet the connections birds make on each completed journey are also a cause for celebration, a vision of a more resilient future.
'Finding the Mother Tree' by Suzanne Simard
Another book to read in the grounds of Terra – The Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai might be Suzanne Simard's brilliant memoir Finding the Mother Tree. Her research into the ways trees communicate with one another underground – a wood wide web, if you will – is actually one of the stand-out experiences in Terra’s exhibition hall.
Yet her discoveries were laughed out of town – or should that be forest – many years ago. It was only her fierce belief in a quasi-magical "mother tree", which acts as as a central feeding force for the network of roots around it, that drove her on. It's a book full of wonder at the world and of storytelling itself, and an object lesson in stopping, observing nature and listening to it. Only then can we learn something about ourselves – and our relationships.