This post originally appeared on the New Left Project.
A friend recently asked me for book recommendations on energy and climate change. “I want books” they stressed, “not policy briefing papers or essays or scientific reports. Something to curl up on the sofa with, something that digests and explains the issues and spins a few good yarns along the way. A good read.”
Here are my suggestions. I know I’ve missed loads: e.g. Merchants of Doubt, The Carbon Age and The Oil Road. I’ve stuck to factual literature, but if anyone wants to suggest some fiction, please do. Arguably we could do with some better fiction on this issue (good essay in the LA Review of Books on this), and I could also have included long form journalism like Bill McKibben’s piece for Rolling Stone last summer, or books for kids. What would you add?
The Discovery of Global Warming. Spencer Weart (2nd edition, 2008).
Global warming, like most scientific discoveries, was less a singular moment and more a long process of many discoveries. Weart weaves a tale involving many people over many years, gradually learning about the phenomenon and coming to terms with it (as continues to be the case).
Such a picture of slow, gradual development, refinement and sharing of human understanding of climate change might seem a bit depressing. A simple “eureka!” (or perhaps “oh, bugger” would be more appropriate) might seem easier to deal with. We’d see, know and just do something about it. Except the world really isn’t that simple and in many respects, discussion of the complexity is liberating. It’s crucial for understanding where we are now on the science and the policy and, I think, key to thinking about what we might do about it too. It also makes for a much more interesting read. Eureka tales don’t really take you anywhere.
It’s also, in a way, quite a hopeful book, as Weart is keen to stress that we have taken actions to learn more and do something with this knowledge in the past. We can continue to do this, and do more. It’s a story of change, with a real sense that more change is possible.
As well as being the best introduction to climate change I’ve read, this book is also simply a great case study in how scientific discovery works, and fascinating in terms of the interactions between international policy and science in the 20th century. It’s also reasonably short, clearly written and engrossing. Weart’s published a hypertext version too but the linear dead tree version’s my favourite.
Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. Mark Lynas (2007).
A neat bit of narrative non-fiction which won the 2008 Royal Society science book prize, turning scientific modeling into a very literary experience worked step-by-step as we’re invited to imagine first a world where the average temperature is one degree warmer than now, then three, then four, and so on. It’s a form of fantasy fiction, perhaps, but where the rules of this different world are based on scientific research, not simple make-believe (comparable with the way the Mr Tompkins stories tried to explain modern physics in the 1940s). This is a global story, as any on climate change will be, although this time the characters are largely waters, winds and other non-human entities. It’s a science book, although political in a way, it’s about things, not people, and expect a small amount of numbers, but it’s not hard to understand at all.
It’s a bit scary in places. But climate change is scary. I re-read the four degrees chapter at the end of last year, while the Doha conference was crawling on and we were going through quite a cold snap, and found myself hiding under blankets with jumpers and legwarmers, the howls of the sea ominously mingling with the noise of the traffic outside, the heating resolutely off and only a small solar powered torch to read by. It’s when it gets to six degrees it really gets a bit scary. As the climate modeling scientists he’d been using as a guide up till then fall by the wayside, generally falling short of simulating six degrees warming, he starts to uses sketchier geological information about extreme episodes in the Earth’s distant past. There’s something of the horror movie narrative to it, starting in the relatively familiar, gradually unraveling into chaos as he invites readers into “the sixth circle of hell”.
This is another book that manages to end on a relatively hopeful note, arguing we can build a low-carbon society, and leave it as a gift to the future so the nightmare image he presents really is just a nightmare. You might disagree with him on his version of how, which is arguably the rub, but if Weart provides a “yes we can” message, Lynas’ book says “you better bloody get on with it”.
The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. Daniel Yergin (1991).
This isn’t a short book, but it’s a page-turner, and if you give it time, you get really drawn in. It’s got a lot of characters, spanning many countries and covering a historical sweep of over a century. But it’s well structured, so you won’t get lost. It’s choc-full of stories, and would make a good commuting read if it wasn’t so bloody heavy, because you can read it small chunks (perhaps this is what e-readers are for).
You’ll find that learning about the history of the oil will teach you a lot about other aspects of the world (insert your own joke about oiling the wheels of modernity here). Just as Weart teaches you something about the way we invested in climate science partly as an odd attempt at peacekeeping during the Cold War, from Yergin you can expect to learn something about the slow construction of the type of capitalism we’ve built for ourselves over the last few centuries. You’ll also read a lot about war. And you’ll never look at a petrol station in the same way again.
Did you know Shell is called Shell because they used to sell shells? (In the East End of London, not by the seashore, sadly) Or that the American oil market started off selling small veils for medical purposes? (burning came later).
Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. Alexis Madrigal (2011).
We might think of wind energy community co-ops or electrical taxi cabs as something new, a recent response to concerns over climate change and peak oil, but they’re not. There is a long history to both, as there is for solar power, wave energy and more. Madrigal even suggests that, at one point in the late 19th century, it looked like the future of transport in America would largely be a matter of electrically powered public systems, not the fossil fuelled individual vehicles we have today (apparently it’s partly the bike’s fault this didn’t happen). Electrical cabs were reasonably common in Manhattan in the 1890s. Londoners can see one built for their own city in 1897 in the ground floor of the Science Museum.
In some respects, this is a book of roads not travelled and, like Weart’s description of the slow, gradual ongoing story of the discovery of climate change, it could be quite depressing, yet it also manages to be inspiringly hopeful. It is a story of how energy could once have been something different, and so might be something else again. More explicitly than Yergin’s epic, this book helps you realise technology is something we make, and invites you to think about can we might remake it, or at least pay more attention to the structures which build such things so new technologies can be built to meet the needs of the planet, not exploit it.
Madrigal also makes some interesting comments in the concluding chapter about the way we imagine environmentalism, especially with respect to any sense of division between people, technology and nature. The “creation myth” of American environmental movement might be that they put the protection of nature first, but many environmentalists are highly aware that an idea of “natural” is both complex and not necessarily a substitute for “good”. Madrigal stresses the worth of a human focused environmentalism (or at least one rooted in an idea of the anthropocene) which acknowledges how much of an impact humans have had on the Earth and aims to be clever about our role in its future. He weaves into this ideas of national identity and the idea of the American sublime – American wilderness as some ultimate authenticity – and nods to David Nye’s sense that there is a strong history of the American technological sublime too. My critique of Nye’s (in many ways brilliant) book is that he doesn’t unravel the inequality involved in politics of the human construction of this sublime, something which a human focused environmentalist critique, for me, would have to do. But I think Madrigal’s book does help us reflect on this political aspect.