Annie Proulx on the best books to understand climate change

A lone tree stands in a drought-effected paddock in New South Wales, Australia.

A lone tree stands in a drought-effected paddock in New South Wales, Australia. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters

Today we live with non-stop special events of fire, flood, mud slide, rising water, whirling hurricanes, toxic algae blooms, unprecedented droughts. That word “unprecedented” is coming to define our time. Most of us were short-changed by educations that ignored ecology. We need clear explanations of climate change, what it means and how to cope with it.

Tim Flannery, an Australian mammalogist, is a supple writer with a wide-ranging and questioning mind. His 2005 The Weather-Makers gave lucid and easily understandable explanations of climate change, both a history and a look into what might come next. It is still a basic starting point.

Climate scientist Michael Mann and Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles collaborated on The Madhouse Effect. It is drawn straight from the frontline of the climate wars. In trenchant sentences the authors skate out, hockey sticks swinging, and scythe the legs from under the cabal of vested interests, venal payola scientists and shadowy political éminences grises. They name names and present a player list as well as the irrefutable tough news.

The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell is especially good at showing the daunting complexity of solutions to on-the-ground problems in places such as Miami Beach, Alaska, New York, Venice and remote islands whose residents have nowhere to go. Here are real-world headaches of flood insurance, transportation, nuclear reactors on eroding shorelines, the tendency to rebuild rather than rethink following disasters.

People in the Kiribati village of Eita after flooding. They are under pressure to relocate due to sea level rise.
 People in the Kiribati village of Eita after flooding. They are under pressure to relocate due to sea level rise. Photograph: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is literate and probing. He presents a critical discussion of the Paris Agreement vis-a-vis Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’. As for the “unthinkable” in his book’s title, it is left to the reader to decide which of several dreadful outcomes he means. I concluded one was truly unthinkable.

Charles Wohlforth’s The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change looks at two different and sporadically intermeshed groups – science experts from distant universities and local whale-hunter people of the Arctic with millennia of ice experience. The cooperations and rivalries between local residents and academic scientists matters in the way we handle the hellishly complex changes bearing down. Both groups work towards understanding how best to survive.

Peter Brannen’s The Ends of the World is a witty review of Earth’s previous global species extinctions. His discussions with experts present the evidences in the ancient rocks showing that in the vast life collapses of the geologic past CO2 was a major operative and thus a patterned back-story to our present situation; climate change extinction is new to humans but not to the planet. It puts a lid on the hubristic belief that Earth exists solely for human use.

Poet-linguist Robert Bringhurst and classicist philosopher Jan Zwicky offer a meditative approach in their Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. Bringhurst’s essay The Mind of the Wild outlines the liminal relations between the natural world and humans. Here the wild is the bedrock of human ethical and moral values.

He suggests that to understand what is happening we should individually “practise thinking like an ecosystem … ” by “spending a day in the wilds – alone with reality, keeping quiet and letting things unfold”. This exercise can clarify our thinking and open windows of perception. Zwicky’s essay A Ship from Delos guides us towards ways to live and know the situation of climate change. Her beautiful recasting of Socratic excellences – awareness, courage, self-control, justice, contemplation and compassion – can profoundly shape our inner selves.