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The Four Most Thought-Provoking Environmental Books Coming in February

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Earth photo: NASA

By John R. Platt

This month sees the publication of four striking new environmental books, at least two of which promise to make a stir.


Let's start with the big one: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. The book lays out a pretty tough scenario, asking if the current extent of climate change means we're already doomed. If the title and premise sound familiar, that's because this is an expanded, book-length extrapolation of the author's bleak, widely read and controversial New York Magazine article from 2017. Both the book and the article present a worst-case climate change scenario—warming and sea-level rise are just the start of the chaos to come, writes Wallace-Wells—and the book serves as a fright-fest and a call to action.

If you want to know more about taking action, or about climate change in general, try The Thinking Person's Guide to Climate Change by Robert Henson. This second edition of Henson's classic book lays out the science of climate change, illustrates how we know what we know, talks about the debates in politics, and lays out a series of solutions for people, politicians and companies. The previous edition of this book, by the meteorologist-turned-journalist, is considered a must-read in many circles.

Speaking of solutions, is one going to happen naturally? Just about every statistical model shows the Earth's human population growing at enormous rates through the coming century, but the new book Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson predicts the exact opposite. They argue that the growing empowerment of women around the world means the projected population bomb could soon be a dud. If the human population really does decline, the authors say, that could bring massive benefits to the climate and the planet—as well as a few growing pains for the people who live here. The book, likely to generate quite a bit of debate, explores the possibilities.

While most of this month's books look to the future, it also helps to examine the past. That's the point of Power Trip: The Story of Energy by Michael E. Webber, which looks to key moments in history to see how society has adapted to new energy technologies—and show how we can do it again. Along the way Webber writes about the potential costs of new technologies, the need to tailor solutions for different parts of the globe, and the requirement for public support of innovative new science.

That's our list for this month. For dozens of additional recent eco-books, check out our "Revelator Reads" archives.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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