Climate Change Literature That Made Waves in 2019
By Rob Moore
As the planet heated up to record-breaking levels, the seas continued to rise and wildfires, storms, floods or other manifestations of climate change made headlines every single day, the stream of climate change literature turned into a deluge.
The quantity and quality of research, journalism and fiction writing that revolved around climate change and its impacts in 2019 was impressive.
Admittedly, I was only capable of reading a small sliver of it all. This year-end list comprises the pieces I recommend you all read. Because my work at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) revolves around the impacts of climate change, particularly the relationship to flooding, sea level rise and climate-driven disasters more generally, my annual reading list reflects that as well. It's a collection of research, policy papers, reporting by journalists and works of climate fiction.
And this year, because I'm insecure and fear someone judging me by what's not on this list ("How can you not have that on here?!" I know. I know. I hear ya.) I'm including a short compilation of the things that I still intend to read and you do should too!
Major Climate Reports
- Special Report on Climate Change and Land, International Panel on Climate Change
- Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, International Panel on Climate Change
- Global Linkages: a graphic look at the changing Arctic, UN Environment Programme
These reports detailed just how much the world has changed with 1 degree C of warming in the rearview mirror and how much more dire the situation could become. Widespread changes are already apparent on land, in the oceans, in the cryosphere (that's a fancy word for areas that are always cold), and for all life on Planet Earth. These reports are the most comprehensive view yet on the impacts we're already feeling, those that are unavoidable, and the ones we have to make sure we never realize.
Takeaway: The first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge just how big of a problem you're dealing with. And we've got big problems. On the plus side, we've got a good idea of what the big solutions are.
- Climate Fiction: A Special Issue, Guernica Magazine, Amy Brady, Editor
- Issue 58: 2040 AD, McSweeney's, Claire Boyle, Editor
Climate fiction is the hot genre to be writing in these days! This year, both Guernica and McSweeney's elevated the profile of climate fiction with special editions. Addressing the multiple challenges of climate change isn't just a scientific or technical problem … it's also a cultural problem. That's why it's so encouraging that writers, artists and other creative-types are incorporating climate themes into their works, reaching broader and more diverse audiences and subtly helping bring about those cultural changes.
Side-note: I had the distinct privilege of working with Amy Brady at Guernica on an event around climate change and storytelling this year, and was part of a team of people at NRDC that worked with Claire Boyle at McSweeney's on Issue 58. These were such amazing enjoyable projects to be a part of and many thanks to the amazing Elizabeth Corr for coordinating NRDC's involvement in both.
Takeaway: Diving deep into climate science isn't for everybody, but everybody shares stories. The stories contained in these editions give all of us a new place that we can start the climate conversation from.
- Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh
This book had garnered an enormous amount of attention since it's release and is making many of the "Best Books of 2019" lists. Deservedly so, because it's an arresting and beautifully crafted novel that draws upon Bengali folklore, linguistic history and a globe-spanning story that intersects multiple manifestations of our altered climate.
Takeaway: "Amid the freak cyclones and oxygen-starved waters comes the story — or stories — of migration across the ages; tales of escapology, of deprivation and persecution, of impossible yearnings for a new world that bring us, inexorably, to the terrified refugees on the Mediterranean." — The Guardian
- American Climate: The Shared Experience of Disaster, Inside Climate News
Stories of people whose lives have been deeply affected by climate change aren't just the subject of fiction, they're an all too real part of the world we live in. Inside Climate News collected these first-hand accounts from survivors of the wildfires in Paradise, California; Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida; and from those affected by widespread flooding throughout the Midwest.
Takeaway: These personal stories are a visceral reminder that the impacts of climate change aren't some theoretical possibility but are already a reality for many in the U.S.
- The Other Kind of Climate Denialism, Rachel Reiderer, The New Yorker
When faced with the enormity of the challenges of climate change, people can enter a form of climate denialism. No, not denying that it's occurring or that humans are the cause; but denying that anything can be done about it. This essay examines David Wallace-Wells' book, The Uninhabitable Earth, and the work of many others, including NRDC's own Mary Heglar, to examine how we overcome this social-psychological barrier to action.
Takeaway: Hey, it's okay to be fearful, or feel overwhelmed, or be angry because those are the feelings that inspire us to act.
Despairing About the Climate Crisis? Read This, Earth Island Journal, Interview with Dr. Susi Moser by Laurie Mazur
Along the same lines, this interview with Dr. Susi Moser, "talks about communicating bad climate news, the benefits of 'functional denial,' the varied flavors of hope, and the better world we can build in the wreckage of life as we know it." Dr. Moser has been working on climate change issues for a long time from multiple angles. She's seen her share of failures, or at least things that have not come fully to fruition. Still, she remains hopeful because there are so many things we can do, but just haven't yet.
Takeaway: It's not whether you fall down or fail. It's whether you pick yourself up and keep trying.
NRDC Flood Reports
- Going Under: Long Wait Times for Post-Flood Buyouts Leave Homeowners Underwater, Anna Weber and Rob Moore, Natural Resources Defense Council
As sea levels rise, flooding becomes more prevalent and other types of hazards lead people to the conclusion that it's time to relocate, what assistance is available to help make that happen? This report examined more than 30 years of FEMA data on that agency's efforts to finance buyouts of flood prone homes. The typical project takes more than five years to complete after a flood happens. That's not gonna cut it — and the current paradigm for doing buyouts definitely can't scale up to meet the future demand driven by climate change. Inside this report you'll find several recommendations for how buyouts could become more equitable, more efficient and more widely available.
Takeaway: As the old saying goes, "Build it and they will come." With buyouts the corollary is, "If people want to leave, we should unbuild it." Okay, that's not too snappy a phrase, but we'll keep working on it. Meanwhile, you can hear about the buyout experience directly from Kentucky resident Olga McKissic, who pursued a buyout for years before her repeatedly flooded home was finally demolished this summer.
- Changing the National Flood Insurance Program for a Changing Climate, Environmental Law Reporter, Michael Burger and Dena Adler, Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law; Joel Scata and Rob Moore, Natural Resources Defense Council
This paper lays out ways to fix a program that we should already be relying upon to adapt to the growing number of floods that come with climate change. Some of the fixes? Give people accurate information about flood risks and past damages to their home or a home they're buying. Improve community compliance with minimum standards and codes. And if people want to move to higher ground (and doing so would actually save the flood insurance program some dough) then why aren't we doing that?!
Takeaway: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. And, currently, that's what the flood insurance program is all about: flood, rebuild, repeat. But it doesn't have to be that way. Congress just keeps it that way.
Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption, Alice Hill & Leonardo Martinez-Diaz
With the world already having warmed by 1 degree C, the impacts of climate change are being felt in the U.S. This insightful book offers up some real solutions for how communities can cope with the vulnerabilities that have already been exposed and those that will be in the future.
Takeaway: If you were to boil this down to two sentences: First, don't make your problems worse by making bad decisions that you'll regret in the future. Second, start figuring out how to address the vulnerabilities you know you have, then the ones that are foreseeable.
As the Trump administration has dismantled our nation's response to climate change, the Pentagon has been remarkably successful at continuing to address the issue in its own way. This fascinating book looks at why the Pentagon views climate change as a huge national security risk. Climate change threatens its bases, climate change puts additional operational pressure on the military, and climate change may hasten the destabilization of governments, exacerbating regional tensions.
Takeaway: Keep this close by for the climate throwdown with your conservative national security conscious family members. It may just bring them around.
What I Should Have Read, Am Still Going to Read, and You Should Read Too!
- Sea Level Rise: A Slow Tsunami on America's Shores, Orrin Pilkey and Keith Pilkey
- An Ecotopian Lexicon, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy, Editors
Climate change could make it harder to find a good cup of coffee, new research finds. A changing climate might shrink suitable areas for specialty coffee production without adaptation, making coffee taste blander and impacting the livelihoods of small farms in the Global South.
Published in Scientific Reports on Wednesday, the study focused on regions in Ethiopia, Africa's largest coffee-producing nation. Although studies have previously documented the impact of climate change on coffee production, what's less understood is how varying climates could change the flavors of specialty coffee, the researchers wrote.
The team aimed to fill this gap. Their results provide a glimpse into how future climate change could impact local regions and economies that rely on coffee cultivation, underscoring the value of local adaptation measures.
Researchers analyzed how 19 different climate factors, such as mean temperatures and rainfall levels, would affect the cultivation of five distinct specialty coffee types in the future, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) reported. Although researchers found that areas suitable for growing "average quality coffee" may actually increase over time with climate change, regions where specialty coffee is grown will shrink — a pending problem in light of the global demand for high-quality coffee.
"This is an issue not just for coffee lovers, but for local agricultural value creation," Abel Chemura, the study's lead author, told the PIK.
Coffee profiles rely on specific climate patterns for their unique flavors, levels of acidity and fragrances. But in a warmer climate, the coffee cherry — the fruit picked from a coffee plant — matures faster than the bean inside, making for a lower quality cup of coffee, the PIK reported.
For example, the sought-after Yirgacheffe variety of coffee, which is cultivated in southwestern Ethiopia, could lose more than 40 percent of its suitable growth area by the end of the century, PIK reported. This could impact small farms and threaten Ethiopia's economy, the researchers noted.
"If one or more coffee regions lose their specialty status due to climate change this has potentially grave ramifications for the smallholder farmers in the region," Christoph Gornott, co-author of the study, told the PIK. "If they were forced to switch to growing conventional, less palatable and bitter coffee types, they would all of the sudden compete with industrial production systems elsewhere that are more efficient." In a country where coffee exports account for nearly a third of all agricultural exports, "this could prove fatal," Gornott added.
Climate change impacts on coffee production are not unique to Ethiopia. In Columbia's mountainous coffee-growing regions, temperatures are warming by 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit every decade, according to Yale Environment 360. Extreme levels of precipitation, which are becoming more common, also impact production, as they spread insect and fungal diseases.
"In earlier times, the climate was perfect for coffee," one small farmer in Columbia told Yale Environment 360. "In the period of flowering, there was summer. During harvest, there was winter. But from 2008 onward, this changed and we now don't know when it will be summer, when the coffee will blossom."
But researchers say there are glimmers of hope, emphasizing the importance of local adaptation measures that are designed for particular climates and communities. For example, in regions where temperature is an important factor for specialty coffee cultivation, the researchers suggest improved agroforestry systems that could maintain canopy temperatures, a promising step toward sustaining the "availability and taste of one of the world's most beloved beverages and, more importantly, on economic opportunities in local communities of the Global South," Gornott concluded.
By Suzanne Cords
One day Lizzie, the first-person narrator of the novel, receives an old book as a gift, with a dedication wishing the reader to be among the survivors. Like the preppers who build bunkers and stockpile supplies in remote areas to be ready for the end of the world, Lizzie is convinced that the end of the world is definitely near in times of a threatening climate disaster.
Lizzie, who lives in New York with her husband and son, is a university campus librarian. She worries about almost everything: her brother, an ex-junkie, or her dental insurance and the future in the face of the apocalypse. She is obsessed with reading reference books and articles about climate change.
She also devours words of wisdom, including about Buddhist spirituality: "A visitor once asked the old monks on Mount Athos what they did all day, and was told: We have died and we are in love with everything." But nothing can lift her spirits.
'Lizzie Is Just Like Us'
Lizzie observes rich New Yorkers plan their move to regions that are less threatened by climate change, something she simply cannot afford. Sometimes she watches disaster movies, which lead her to worry even more.
Above all, she is a gifted observer of her fellow human beings. "Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters? Old person worry: What if everything I do, does?"
Lizzie, the U.S. author told DW, is a bit like the rest of us — well aware of the climate crisis, but because she cares and worries about so many other things, that awareness falls by the wayside. That's how she felt herself, Jenny Offill said, but the more she looked into the issue, the more she saw a need for action on her part, too.
"I also was trying to see if there was a way to make it funny, because, you know, so much of the world of prepping and imagining disaster is actually sort of strangely funny."
The novel was shortlisted for the 2020 UK's Women's Prize for Fiction and has now been released in German translation.
Climate Activist With a Vision
But then, there is also this serious, scientifically based concern about what climate change means. In the past, says Offill, artists were the ones who would predict disasters; today it's the experts, as well as the students she teaches. In the end, their fears and their justified anger motivated her to take a closer look at the issue. Today, she is a climate activist herself, and is involved in initiatives along with many other artists.
Lizzie, the heroine of Weather, hasn't gotten that far. But she voices her fears, and that's a start. "Of course, the world continues to end," says Sylvia, a mentor of Lizzie's, at one point — and commences to water her garden. There is hope after all.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Jake Johnson
A federal appeals court on Tuesday dealt the final blow to former President Donald Trump's attempt to open nearly 130 million acres of territory in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans to oil and gas drilling.
Though the Trump administration appealed the ruling, President Joe Biden revoked his predecessor's 2017 order shortly after taking office, rendering the court case moot. On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to dismiss the Trump administration's appeal.
"Because the terms of the challenged Executive Order are no longer in effect, the relevant areas of the [Outer Continental Shelf] in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, and Atlantic Ocean will be withdrawn from exploration and development activities," the court said in its order.
Erik Grafe of Earthjustice, which represented a coalition of advocacy groups that challenged Trump's order, said in a statement that "we welcome today's decision and its confirmation of President Obama's legacy of ocean and climate protection."
"As the Biden administration considers its next steps, it should build on these foundations, end fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters, and embrace a clean energy future that does not come at the expense of wildlife and our natural heritage," Grafe continued. "One obvious place for immediate action is America's Arctic, including the Arctic Refuge and the Western Arctic, which the previous administration sought to relegate to oil development in a series of last-minute decisions that violate bedrock environmental laws."
VICTORY: 9th Circuit ends fight over President Trump's illegal attempt to open up 128 million acres of Atlantic & A… https://t.co/TvYVt2F1jO— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice)1618347073.0
In January, Biden ordered a temporary pause on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters, a decision environmentalists hailed as a positive step that should be made permanent.
"We call on President Biden to keep his promise: a full and complete ban on fracking and fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Full stop," Food & Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones said at the time. "The climate crisis requires it and he promised it."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By 2035, every new car and truck sold in the U.S. could be an EV, a new report says.
Accelerations in technology and especially battery affordability, paired with new policy, mean the dramatic transition would save American drivers $2.7 trillion by 2050, an average savings of $1,000 per household per year.
The ramp up in EV production would also create 2 million new jobs by 2035. Battery prices have fallen 74% since 2014, and their unexpectedly rapid fall is a key driver of the cost savings.
EVs are far simpler mechanically, and more efficient, than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, which translates to reduced climate pollution and lower costs for consumers.
Strengthened vehicle efficiency standards and investment in fast charging infrastructure are needed to accelerate the transition, which would prevent 150,000 premature deaths and save $1.3 trillion in health environmental costs by 2050.
For a deeper dive:
Thousands of Superfund sites exist around the U.S., with toxic substances left open, mismanaged and dumped. Despite the high levels of toxicity at these sites, nearly 21 million people live within a mile of one of them, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Currently, more than 1,300 Superfund sites pose a serious health risk to nearby communities. Based on a new study, residents living close to these sites could also have a shorter life expectancy.
Published in Nature Communications, the study, led by Hanadi S. Rifai, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Houston, and a team of researchers, found that living in nearby zip codes to Superfund sites resulted in a decreased life expectancy of more than two months, the University of Houston reported.
"We have ample evidence that contaminant releases from anthropogenic sources (e.g., petrochemicals or hazardous waste sites) could increase the mortality rate in fence-line communities," Rifai told the University of Houston. "Results showed a significant difference in life expectancy among census tracts with at least one Superfund site and their neighboring tracts with no sites."
The study pulled data from 65,000 census tracts – defined geographical regions – within the contiguous U.S., The Guardian reported. With this data, researchers found that for communities that are socioeconomically challenged, this life expectancy could decrease by up to a year.
"It was a bit surprising and concerning," Rifai told The Guardian. "We weren't sure [when we started] if the fact that you are socioeconomically challenged would make [the Superfund's effects] worse."
The research team, for example, found that the presence of a Superfund site in a census tract with a median income of less than $52,580 could reduce life expectancy by seven months, the University of Houston reported.
Many of these toxic sites were once used as manufacturing sites during the Second World War. Common toxic substances that are released from the sites into the air and surface water include lead, trichlorethylene, chromium, benzene and arsenic – all of which can lead to health impacts, such as neurological damage among children, The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a blog.
"The EPA has claimed substantial recent progress in Superfund site cleanups, but, contrary to EPA leadership's grandiose declarations, the backlog of unfunded Superfund cleanups is the largest it has been in the last 15 years," the Union wrote.
Delayed cleanup could become increasingly dangerous as climate change welcomes more natural hazards, like wildfires and flooding. According to a Government Accountability Office report, for example, climate change could threaten at least 60 percent of Superfund sites in the U.S., AP News reported.
During the summer of 2018, a major wildfire took over the Iron Mountain Superfund site near Redding, CA, ruining wastewater treatment infrastructure that is responsible for capturing 168 million gallons of acid mine drainage every month, NBC News reported.
"There was this feeling of 'My God. We ought to have better tracking of wildfires at Superfund locations,'" Stephen Hoffman, a former senior environmental scientist at the EPA, told NBC News. "Before that, there wasn't a lot of thought about climate change and fire. That has changed."
In the study, researchers also looked at the impacts of floodings on Superfund sites, which could send toxins flowing into communities and waterways.
"When you add in flooding, there will be ancillary or secondary impacts that can potentially be exacerbated by a changing future climate," Rifai told the University of Houston. "The long-term effect of the flooding and repetitive exposure has an effect that can transcend generations."
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