The Unofficial Climate Change Book Awards

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

As an aspiring climate scientist, I have read dozens of books about climate change over the past few years. Here are my all-time favourites, which I present with Unofficial Climate Change Book Awards. (Unfortunately, the prizes consist entirely of bragging rights.)

Best Analysis of Future Scenarios
Climate Wars, by Gwynne Dyer
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Most of us are aware of how climate change will impact the world: more extreme weather, prolonged floods and droughts, dwindling glaciers and sea ice. In this book, renowned Canadian journalist and military historian Gwynne Dyer goes one step further, and explores how these physical impacts might affect geopolitical relations. Will India and Pakistan engage in nuclear warfare over clean water? Will the United States and Russia begin a “Colder War” over Arctic sovereignty? Many of the scenarios he writes about are, frankly, terrifying, and all have a frightening grain of plausibility to them. Read the full review

Best Introduction to Climate Science
The Discovery of Global Warming, by Spencer Weart
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Scientists overwhelmingly agree that human-caused climate change is underway, but instead of simply stating this conclusion, Weart tells the story of how it was reached: tracing the theory from the 1800s to today. This innovative approach to science education, combined with Weart’s elegant prose, makes the book a joy to read. It doesn’t feel like a textbook, although it contains as much information as one. Read the full review

Best Exposé
Climate Cover-Up, by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore
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If scientists are so sure about the reality of anthropogenic climate change, why does so much of the public think that it’s natural/nonexistent/a global conspiracy? Why does the media present the issue as an equal-sided scientific debate? This confusion didn’t just happen by accident – it was deliberately constructed. Over the past two decades, lobby groups representing industries or ideologies that seek to delay action on climate change have engaged in a campaign to spread doubt about the reality of the problem. This book, rather than throwing around baseless accusations, methodically examines the paper trail of this widespread campaign. Reading Climate Cover-Up is an infuriating but absolutely necessary journey to take. Read the full review

Best Policy Discussion
Storms of my Grandchildren, by Dr. James Hansen
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James Hansen is possibly the most prominent climate scientist alive today, and that title is well-deserved. Throughout his career at NASA, he has frequently made discoveries that were ahead of his time. Dr. Hansen is a very intrinsic scientist who doesn’t enjoy being in the spotlight or talking about policy, but he wrote this book for fear of his grandchildren looking back at his work and saying, “Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.” Although he couldn’t resist slipping in a few chapters about the current frontiers of climate science, the bulk of the book is about policy, featuring compelling arguments for expanded nuclear power, a moratorium on coal, and a rising price on carbon. Read the full review

Best Canadian Focus
Keeping Our Cool, by Dr. Andrew Weaver
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Andrew Weaver is Canada’s top climate modeller, and a fantastic role model for science communication. This book gives a high-level, yet accessible, explanation of the mathematics of climate change – if you have some basic knowledge of calculus and statistics, you should be fine. However, what really makes this book stand out is its focus on Canadian climate journalism and politics, a rare quality in a field dominated by American research. We all know about George W. Bush’s track record of inaction, but what has Prime Minister Stephen Harper done (or not done)? High-profile studies exist on American media coverage of global warming, but how does the Canadian press compare? Read the full review

Best Insider’s Account
Science as a Contact Sport, by Dr. Stephen Schneider
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The late Stephen Schneider, who unexpectedly died last summer of a heart attack, is a true pioneer of climate modelling. He has been active in the field since the 1970s, when computers became fast enough to handle mathematical models. This memoir explains what it’s like to be a climate scientist, and how that has changed over the years. In the 70s, Schneider and his colleagues filled their mind with purely analytical questions, but today, they have to deal with the media, politicians, and hate mail as well. Science used to just be about science, but now it’s about communication as well. Read the full review

Most Gripping
Snowball Earth, by Gabrielle Walker
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Gabrielle Walker is a brilliant woman, as she possesses the ability to make a book about geology every bit as gripping as a murder mystery. Granted, Snowball Earth, a recent theory of climatic conditions during the Precambrian Era, is fascinating. In short, the continents were arranged in such a manner that the Earth would swing back and forth between “Snowball Earth” (frozen oceans and frozen land all over, even at the Equator) and “Hothouse Earth” (massive global warming from volcanic emissions of carbon dioxide). Until this period of massive climatic swings, the only thing that lived on Earth was unicellular goop…but immediately following the Snowball Earth cycles, complex life appeared. Many scientists don’t think this evolutionary timing was a coincidence. It’s possible that multicellular organisms, including us, only exist because of an accident of plate tectonics. Read the full review

If you would like to contest any of my decisions for these awards, please feel free to do so in the comments!


17 thoughts on “The Unofficial Climate Change Book Awards

  1. If I may add a couple of my own: I’d like to add “best historical overview”, Edwards’ history of climate and weather modeling in A Vast Machine. I really enjoyed that book immensely. I’d also add Richard Alley’s The Two Mile Time Machine in the paleoclimatology category, and I’ll give a shout out to How To Find A Habitable Planet by Kasting, which, although not primarily a climate book, was thoroughly enjoyable and highlighted some of the overlap between climate science and astronomy.

    I really enjoyed Alley’s book too, and A Vast Machine is definitely on my list of books to read. -Kate

  2. Under Best Analysis of Future Scenarios you say, “Most of us are aware of how climate change will impact the world:…”

    If only that were true…

    • Ahem.

      You must be using a different definition of “best”.

      If that argument doesn’t make sense, by all means, I (and others) would be happy to walk through it.

      (As an aside – one that can’t be hidden behind sounds-like-science – that book lauds McIntyre, who was just this week caught quote-mining (again!) and slandering Kevin Trenberth. The ripples sent out from that even reached this very blog. That seems contrary to his character as Montford portrays him, doesn’t it?)

  3. I have Snowball Earth on my Kindle and have just started it. And after werecow’s recommendation I have put A Vast Machine on my wish list (it also is a Kindle product–Kindle just makes it too easy to get a book with one click, which I suppose is their point–I thought getting a Kindle would help save me money on books, but I’m beginning to suspect that won’t be the case; oh well, if I’m not saving money, at least I’m saving trees).

    Two-mile Time Machine also gets my vote. I think anything by Dr. Alley is going to be worth reading.

    I’ve just started Under a Green Sky by Ward too. Just done one chapter, but I’m a bit “iffy”. Seems like he’s trying too hard with the metaphorical flowery writing style. Plus the Kindle font (which can’t be changed) renders the letters in a style reminiscent of those old mimeograph machines where parts of letters were missing (in this case, the round-letters like o, b, d, p). Don’t like that font at all.

    And strangely enough, I agree with MikeN’s recommendation. That book is a real expose, but not on the hockey stick. Instead it is an expose on the dishonest methods used by denialists and the utterly confused, like Montford and MikeN.
    [feel free to snip this last paragraph, Kate, if MikeN’s comment ends up in the troll bin].

  4. I forgot to add – to the extent I’ve read these, I agree with your assessment, with one condition.

    I would rank Merchants of Doubt above Climate Cover-Up in the exposé category. The main reason I would do this? Although Climate Cover-Up is spectacularly written, it focuses completely on the PR and exclusively on climate change, instead of looking at the grander scale of climate inactivism in historical context. Merchants of Doubt looks a little bit less on the PR, but far more at the systematic nature of science denial across multiple issues.

    Furthermore, you’d get the impression from Climate Cover-Up that the opposition is primarily corporate-based. Merchants of Doubt supposes that the primary motivation of the eponymous merchants isn’t money (their own or their corporate backers’), but rather a reactionary free-market fundamentalist ideology. The implications are huge – you don’t fight an ideological battle with strategies used to tackle corporations, and vice versa. (Note that other research appears to corroborate this. There’s little doubt that corporations are still involved, but is their motive their own bottom line or their ideology? Is Koch funding things as a chemical company or as a libertarian activist?)

    Climate Cover-Up is easier to read, though, and focuses so intensely on the methods (rather than the history) that I would gladly use it as a required textbook on the social issues surrounding climate change. I just think Merchants of Doubt was a stronger exposé.

    A fair point. I think Climate Cover-Up is accessible to a larger audience, and is more focused on climate change – but you make a very valid point about historical context. Regardless, they are both meticulous and compelling books. -Kate

  5. Correction in my comment above. It is not Under a Green Sky that has the bad font and missing letter parts, but Ward’s other book, Time Machines. The Kindle font in Under a Green Sky is fine.

    Read a free sample of A Vast Machine and it sounds like it will deal with some holes in my knowledge. So, another book ordered.

  6. Nice list, and a couple I might order too (all those trees!).

    I’d add a classic: Chris Mooney’s “The Republican War on Science” (paperback updated version) . It is odd how little has changed. Oreskes covers some of the same bases and is more up to date, but I think Mooney’s is more broad ranging. It is shocking how many of these bad actors persist through the decades, though their techniques are refined daily in response to a kind of “market research”. I see a much more sophisticated and polite sciencey look, very plausible, and one of the new talking points is that deniers are more polite so they must be right!

    Mooney also wrote a fantastic history and analysis Storm World, which came as close as any book can to enlightening my darkness (layperson, sigh) about the intricacies of the pressure valves that are hurricanes etc.

    Also, Eric Pooley’s Climate Wars and Gavin Schmidt’s Picturing the Science.

    Loved Schneider – gripping, and the complete antidote to the nonsensical praise of the likes of Montford – full of facts and information instead of pushing out bias.
    PS. **Beautiful job** on this blog!

  7. Final comment: Am several chapters into Ward’s Time Machines, and am no longer “iffy”. I’d recommend it now. It is only when he moves into personal reminisces does his writing sound like something that might win a bad writing award (e.g. it was a dark and stormy night…). When he’s explaining the science and the history of various “time machines” (sediment layers, radioisotope dating, paleomagnetism, etc), it is hard to put down.

  8. That’s a very interesting slate of reviews, including a few titles I was not aware of. I’ll have to add them to my list.

    I’d like to see a list form you of all the books you’ve read on the subject. No comments needed, just title, author and publisher. That way I can know not to recommend something you’ve already read.

    That would be difficult. I don’t really keep track of the books I read. I couldn’t spontaneously list them all, but I could pick them out of a list or bookshelf. -Kate

  9. In that case, Kate, I’ll just recommend at random — starting with Stephan Faris’s Forecast. It’s not a thick book, and it vividly portrays his travels to some of the spots where climate change is already having effects. Surprisingly, these include the Florida Keys. Residents there are noticing both coral bleaching and sea-level encroachment.

  10. I’m just passing along this recommendation from DeSmogBlog:

    “Canadian readers should keep an eye out for Generation Us, a tiny climate change primer by University of Victoria Professor Andrew Weaver, the Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis.”

    I have pre ordered it and look forward to reading it, Andrew Weaver is one of the scientists I admire most. -Kate

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