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Heat Map: Here’s What Nonfiction Authors Say About Climate Change

Confused about what’s happening to our planet? We mined key nonfiction texts to find out what experts have to say about global warming and climate change.
by Jennifer Duffy | Jan 10 2020

Faced with the enormity of the climate crisis and all the conflicting perspectives around it, it can be hard to tell what the actual facts are. How can we understand the real causes of climate change and what can we actually do about it without feeling completely overwhelmed?

In order to provide a little grounding in what experts actually know about the climate crisis, we’ve delved into some of the best nonfiction work on the topic. This article provides facts and terminology that can help us all better understand how to make a difference. Big global institutional change needs to happen, but small personal changes can have an impact, too. This can pave the way for those larger-scale reforms that could help improve our planet and its future.

What is climate change?

In 1829, Alexander von Humboldt was one of the first scientists to note the negative impact humans could have on their environment. He lamented the significant threats of deforestation and “great masses of steam and gas.”

The term “global warming” was not coined until 1975 when it was first used by geochemist Wallace Broecker. The Guardian has now escalated this term to “global heating” in all climate reporting to more accurately reflect the scale of the crisis.

So why is there such a huge cause for concern? While climate change can be the result of natural phenomena (such as volcanic eruptions or changes in ocean currents) it has been rapidly accelerated by human activity and industry. According to a joint statement by 18 scientific associations, global warming—the heating up of the planet—is largely due to human activity.

In We Are The Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer writes that climate change has different impacts in different parts of the world and as there is no one impact or focus point, it can be harder for people to identify with. This makes climate change seem vast and complex, and thus difficult to understand. It’s also an abstract threat, forcing us to look to the future and imagine the devastation it could cause.

The Guardian has decided to use ‘climate crisis’ or ‘climate emergency’ in place of climate change to reflect the growing urgency of the situation. The re-framing of the issue shows how serious the problem is—as evidenced by crises like the, at the time of writing, still ongoing bushfires in Australia. Another example is the fact that in 2013, carbon emissions were 61% higher than 1990. These accelerating emissions are alarming, and it is clear that change is needed.

Weather vs. Climate

The terms ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ are sometimes confused which can lead to misunderstandings about climate change. Weather is more local and short-term, referring to the climate around us on a weekly, daily, or hourly basis. Climate is broader in scope and is an average taken over a longer period—seasons, years, or decades.

The Climate Crisis and Global Warming

In 2009, world leaders met and agreed to aim to limit global warming to a maximum increase of 2 degrees Celsius. However, scientists now predict there will be a rise of 3.3 degrees Celsius and in their book, The Burning Question (2009), Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark recognize that the temperature rise thus far has had more damaging effects than most scientists foresaw, with one-third of summer sea ice now gone from the Arctic Ocean. The National Geographic has predicted that by the end of the century sea levels will have risen by between 10 and 89 centimeters.

Global warming refers to the overall warming of the planet, whereas climate change can include smaller changes within this. Climate change can lead to global warming, such as when a cascade (a succession of stages) is created. This cascade creates a destructive feedback loop where an effect of climate change accelerates warming. An example of this given by David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth (2019) is the ice sheets melting. Wallace-Wells explains that this results in less heat being reflected away from the earth, and thus more heat being absorbed. This heats the planet, causing more ice sheets to shrink, further speeding up the global warming process. This brings us to tipping points after which irreversible damage to the planet is created.

Facts about Climate Change

Rising sea levels are the most dramatic effect of the melting ice caps. Henry Pollack, author of A World Without Ice, states that roughly 100,000,000 people live on land no more than 3 feet above sea level. Even a modest rise in sea levels could see huge numbers of climate refugees in the not-so-distant future. If actions are not taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, oceans will rise between 1.2 and 2.4 meters in the next century.

Greenhouse gases are those such as carbon dioxide and methane. Carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for more than 100 years while methane has 34 times the GWP (Global Warming Potential) of carbon dioxide as it traps heat.

The Sixth Extinction (2014) by Elizabeth Kolbert shows that deforestation eliminates about 5000 species per year, while the increasing acidity of the oceans is reducing marine biodiversity.

In This Changes Everything, (2014) Naomi Klein reports that the number of people who believe in climate change is declining. In 2011, only 44% of Americans believed fossil fuels cause climate change, compared to 71% in 2007. Klein also points to the links between capitalism and climate change, due to the vested interest many companies have in fossil fuels. A 2013 study showed 72% of books denying climate changes had a link to right-wing think tanks.

David Wallace-Wells presents a chilling vision of the toll the climate crisis might take on the earth. He said the worst-case scenario would see a temperature rise of 8 degrees Celsius by the year 2100 with two-thirds of the world’s cities flooded.

Causes of Climate Change

The impact of fossil fuels is widely acknowledged as a cause of carbon emissions, accounting for 25% of greenhouse gases. The continued investment in this industry means it will be difficult to pull back from our reliance on these sources.

However, the agriculture industry also accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gases. Livestock produce methane (which is 25 times more harmful than CO2) and nitrous oxide (300 times more harmful). When you take into account the fact that the UN has estimated that by 2050, the food needed by the world will have doubled, we see no sign of the emissions produced by agriculture decreasing.

Deforestation is another cause of climate change. While also damaging biodiversity, deforestation greatly increases the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Burning of trees accounts for 15% of carbon emissions, and the trees are also no longer there to absorb CO2.

Possible Solutions to Climate Change

When reading about climate change, it can seem overwhelmingly large and impossible to tackle as an individual. However, prominent writers on the topic recognize the value of individual actions, whether that’s recycling or calling out falsehoods about climate change.

One valuable action is reducing your meat consumption. This is not to say you have to cut it out entirely. In We Are the Weather (2019), Jonathan Safran Foer cites a study claiming that cutting meat and dairy products from your breakfast and lunch would actually result in a smaller carbon footprint than that of a person following a typical vegetarian diet. Cutting down on animal products is one of the fastest ways to fight climate change.

On the topic of food, reducing food waste also would have a significant effect. It is estimated that people waste a quarter of the food they buy. Purchasing seasonal and local produce will also reduce your carbon footprint, as will cooking more efficiently by using lids on pots and lowering the gas.

How Bad Are Bananas? (2010) by Mike Berners-Lee shows effective ways to lower your carbon footprint. You could, for example, buy recycled paper, as it takes twice as much energy to produce new paper. Make sure to say no to junk mail to reduce your paper waste. He also points out that the average 500ml water bottle has one thousand times the carbon footprint of tap water, with the packaging and transport involved so maybe invest in a refillable bottle. Berners also suggests washing clothes at 30⁰C and buying a drying rack to use less energy.

Drawdown, (2017) edited by Paul Hawken, presents a number of practical solutions to the climate crisis. This book shares the research of Project Drawdown, a coalition of scientists and researchers seeking to find solutions to reduce or even reverse humanity’s CO2 emissions. Alternatives we already have include solar power, wind energy, hybrid technology, and geothermal heating. A variety of nonfiction authors recommend focusing resources on these initiatives to lessen our reliance on fossil fuels. Nearly 80% of the world’s electricity comes from fossil fuels. There simply is not room in the carbon budget for this to continue.

The potential solutions listed above could contribute to climate mitigation, i.e. the slowing, then reversing the overloading of our atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Speaking to the British Parliament in London in April 2019, activist Greta Thunberg said “I’m sure that the moment we start behaving as if we were in an emergency, we can avoid climate and ecological catastrophe. Humans are very adaptable: we can still fix this. But the opportunity to do so will not last for long. We must start today. We have no more excuses.”

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