The best new writing about climate change

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The best new writing about climate change

18 January 2022 Clean energy investing 0

Now that the headlines from last year’s COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow have faded, you might think attention to planetary havoc has drifted. Not so in the publishing world, where 2022 has begun with an absorbing crop of environmental books on everything from the polar vortex to veganism and, of course, global warming.

Humans may have spent decades wrangling over the existence and cause of climate change, but other species have simply had to adapt to it, writes American biologist Thor Hanson in Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid (Icon £20/Basic $16.99). The lizards in question live on islands in the hurricane-lashed Caribbean and have developed bigger toe-pads to cling on for their lives in the big storms that scientists say are becoming more intense in a warming world.

Then there is the Humboldt squid. It appeared to vanish from fishing grounds in Mexico’s Gulf of California after a rise in water temperatures over a decade ago. In fact, Hanson writes, the animal survived in greater numbers than before thanks to a striking display of “plasticity”, or rapid adaptation. To deal with the heat stress, the squid matured and reproduced in half the time, ending up so much smaller that they often couldn’t bite on the lures once used to catch them. Meanwhile, other creatures are shifting to cooler, higher, wetter or otherwise more hospitable locations in what scientists say is the greatest redistribution of species since the last ice age.

A different story of planetary change is told by British writer Ben Rawlence in The Treeline (Jonathan Cape £20). The title refers to the northernmost edge of the boreal forest, a vast zone containing a third of Earth’s trees that rings much of the northern hemisphere like a green halo. In a warming world, this woody frontier is shifting north at a serious clip. Once it moved a few centimetres per century; now it is invading the frozen tundra at a rate of hundreds of metres a year.

This might sound benign but it isn’t. Delicate ecosystems can be disrupted, along with the humans that depend on them, such as Sámi reindeer herders. In Norway, Rawlence finds that the aggressive growth of the downy birch is fostering snowdrifts too deep for reindeer to dig through and sucking up nutrients vital to the creatures’ food. The birch is one of six species that form the main characters in a story that Rawlence goes to athletic lengths to tell. Memorably, he strips and swims for 30 fraught minutes over “300m of the blackest water” to reach a stand of ancient wildwood on a Scottish island.

No one can stop climate change alone but they can become a vegan. The world would be a better place if more of us did, argues animal rights campaigner Ed Winters in This Is Vegan Propaganda (Vermilion £14.99). Winters begins disarmingly, revealing that he was so addicted to KFC chicken meals in his teens that staff at his local outlet knew him by name. Everything changed in 2014 when, aged 20, he began to form the view that the global farming system was not just cruel, immoral and environmentally destructive, but bad for the health of humans and non-humans alike.

Much of what follows is a grim but compelling mix of statistics and anecdotes bolstering the case for a plant-based diet. The animals skinned alive in slaughterhouses; the forests devastated by the “staggeringly inefficient” production of meat and dairy food. Winters ends with a frank discussion of the hurt that younger vegans can suffer at the hands of unsympathetic family members — and perhaps vice versa. He boycotted the meal at his grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary celebration because it was full of “animal products”.

Finally, Simon Clark’s Firmament(Hodder & Stoughton £20) is an engaging account of something essential to life on Earth yet barely understood by most people: the atmosphere. If you don’t know your stratosphere from your troposphere, you will after reading this lively history of the scientists and gifted amateurs whose discoveries revealed the workings of the system of air surrounding the planet.

Clark, an atmospheric scientist, uncovers the roles played by the likes of writer Daniel Defoe, who realised weather could change in tandem across a vast area, and US scientist Charles Keeling, the pioneer of atmospheric CO2 measurement. Then there are the first humans who managed to leave the lower atmosphere. They were almost certainly two 19th-century English “aeronauts” who still hold the record for reaching the highest altitude unassisted by breathing apparatus after a hair-raising balloon voyage from Wolverhampton. It left one with hands “blackened and immobile with frostbite” and the other insensible. Clark’s story is all the more powerful thanks to a final chapter that explains how this complex system is changing, and what that means for the future of humanity.

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