Michael Svoboda | Yale Climate Connections
This article by Yale Climate Connections is published here as part of the global journalism collaboration Covering Climate Now.
For this year’s holiday book list, a tradition that began in 2016, we reviewed the bookshelves, interviews, and reviews Yale Climate Connections published in 2023 while keeping a watchful eye on new releases.
The result? A mix of brand new and recent titles, five of which have now appeared on “best books of 2023” lists put out by magazines, newspapers, and radio and TV networks.
This year’s holiday list begins with two overviews of Earth’s 4-billion-year climatic history: Michael Mann’s “Our Fragile Moment” and Stephen Porder’s “Elemental.” (Michael Mann was the subject of a YCC interview published Sept. 16, and “The Fragile Moment” was awarded “best of” status by The Financial Times and Scientific American. The Allegheny Front also spoke with Mann about his book.)
The focus then narrows to topical titles on biodiversity, infrastructure, and urban sustainability before turning to climate solutions in general and dietary solutions in particular.
The last five titles offer more literary takes on our complicated relationship with the changing climate; four of these five titles are receiving new rounds of critical acclaim.
NPR included Amy Brady’s “Ice” and Elizabeth Rush’s “The Quickening” in its list of best books of 2023; YCC’s interview with Amy Brady was published June 6.
“Fire Weather,” by John Vaillant, was praised by Bob Henson in his August 11 review for Yale Climate Connections. The New York Times and Time have included it in their best-of-2023 lists.
But the most widely praised title to have appeared on YCC’s webpages this past year (in the bookshelf for March) was “Birnam Wood” by Eleanor Catton, which appears in the best-of-year lists from The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate, and Time, among others.
YCC’s own list ends with Debbi Urbanski’s “After World,” a Dec. 5 release that combines artificial intelligence with cli-fi: the perfect gift for your dystopian-loving college student.
As always, the descriptions of the titles are adapted from copy provided by their publishers.
Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis by Michael Mann (Public Affairs 2023, 320 pages, $30.00)
Elemental: How Five Elements Changed Earth’s Past and Will Shape Our Future by Stephen Porder (Princeton University Press 2023, 240 pages, $27.95)
It is rare for life to change Earth, yet three organisms have profoundly transformed our planet over the long course of its history. Elemental reveals how microbes, plants, and people used the fundamental building blocks of life to alter the climate, and with it, the trajectory of life on Earth. Taking readers from the deep geologic past to our current era of human dominance, Stephen Porder focuses on five essential elements — hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. Blending storytelling with science, Porder takes us deep into the Amazon, across lava flows in Hawaii, and to the cornfields of the Midwest to illuminate a path to sustainability, informed by constraints imposed by these essential elements and the four-billion-year history of life on Earth.
The End of Eden: Wild Nature in the Age of Climate Breakdown by Adam Welz (Bloomsbury Publishing 2023, 288 pages, $28.99)
The stories we usually tell ourselves about climate change focus on the damage inflicted on human societies. But the most powerful impacts are being and will be felt by the natural world and its myriad species. Rising temperatures are fracturing ecosystems that took millions of years to evolve, disrupting the life-forms they sustain — and in many cases driving them toward extinction. The natural Eden that humanity inherited is quickly slipping away. An exquisitely written and deeply researched exploration of wild species reacting to climate breakdown, The End of Eden offers a radical new kind of environmental journalism that connects humans to nature in a more empathetic way than ever before and galvanizes us to act before it’s too late.
See also Eat, Poop, Die: How Animals Make Our World by Joe Roman (Little, Brown Spark 2023, 288 pages, $30.00).
How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World by Deb Chachra (Riverhead Books 2023, 320 pages, $29.00)
Infrastructure meets our basic needs and enables lives of astounding ease and productivity that would have been unimaginable just a century ago. It is the physical manifestation of our social contract — of our ability to work together for the public good. A soaring bridge is an obvious infrastructural feat, but so are the reservoirs, transformers, sewers, cables, and pipes that deliver water, energy, and information. These systems are suffering from systemic neglect and the effects of climate change. Marginalized communities often bear the brunt of these failures. Chachra maps out a path for making our infrastructure not just functional but also equitable, resilient, and sustainable. But first, we must learn how to see these systems — and fix them — together.
The New City: How to Build Our Sustainable Urban Future by Dickson D. Despommier (Columbia University Press 2023, 216 pages, $39.95)
Cities are at once among humanity’s crowning achievements and core drivers of the climate crisis. Their dependence on the outside world for vital resources is causing global temperatures to rise and wildlife habitats to shrink. But we have the opportunity to make cities more sustainable by transforming the built environment. In The New City, Dickson D. Despommier proposes a visionary yet achievable plan for creating a new, self-sustaining urban landscape. Cities built from wood, for example, will be more resilient and less destructive; they will also encourage reforestation, boosting carbon sequestration. In its beautifully designed pages, The New City delivers both a passionate call to action for halting climate change and a bold vision of a sustainable future.
Solving the Climate Crisis: Frontline Reports from the Race to Save the Earth by John. J. Berger (Seven Stories Press 2023, 528 pages, $29.99 paperback)
Solving the Climate Crisis is a hopeful and critical resource that makes a convincing and detailed case that there is a path forward to save our environment. Illustrating the power of committed individuals and the necessity for collaborative government and private-sector climate action, the book addresses three interrelated dimensions: the technological, the ecological, and the social. With real-world examples, Solving the Climate Crisis provides a practical road map for how we can effectively combat climate change. Replacing the fossil-fuel system with a modernized, clean-energy economy will produce tens of millions of new jobs and save trillions of dollars. Thus, protecting the climate is potentially the greatest economic opportunity of our time.
The Cookbook in Support of the United Nations: For People and Planet by Kitchen Connection (Familius 2023, 240 pages, $29.95)
The Kitchen Connection Alliance, in close cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, developed an international cookbook to support the way that we eat for ourselves and for the planet. Celebrity chefs, organic farmers, Indigenous cooks, and food activists share their favorite entrées and side dishes that are not only healthy and delicious but also sustainable. The cookbook features full-color photography along with nutritional information and estimated carbon footprints for the most climate-friendly dishes. Learn how to eat better for yourself and for the planet with The Cookbook in Support of the United Nations: For People and Planet.
Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks — A Cool History of a Hot Commodity by Amy Brady (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2023, 336 pages, $29.00)
In Ice, journalist and historian Amy Brady shares the strange and storied two-hundred-year-old history of ice in America: from the introduction of mixed drinks “on the rocks,” to the nation’s first-ever indoor ice rink, to how delicacies like ice creams and iced tea revolutionized our palates, to the ubiquitous ice machine in every motel across the US. But Ice doesn’t end in the past. Brady also explores the surprising present-day uses of ice in sports, medicine, and sustainable energy — including cutting-edge cryotherapy treatments and new, more energy-efficient refrigerator technologies — underscoring how precious this commodity is, especially in an age of climate change.
The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth by Elizabeth Rush (Milkweed Editions 2023, 424 pages, $30.00).
In 2019, fifty-seven scientists and crew set out onboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer. Their destination: Thwaites Glacier, believed to be both rapidly deteriorating and capable of making a catastrophic impact on global sea-level rise. In The Quickening, Elizabeth Rush documents their voyage, offering the sublime — seeing an iceberg for the first time — alongside the workaday moments of this groundbreaking expedition. Along the way, she takes readers on a personal journey around a more intimate question: What does it mean to bring a child into the world at this time of radical change? From the author of Rising, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, The Quickening is an astonishing, vital book about Antarctica, climate change, and motherhood.
Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World by John Vaillant (Random House 2023, 432 pages, $32.50)
In May 2016, Fort McMurray, the hub of Canada’s oil industry, was overrun by wildfire. The multibillion-dollar disaster melted vehicles, turned entire neighborhoods into firebombs, and drove 88,000 people from their homes in an afternoon. Through the lens of this apocalyptic conflagration, John Vaillant warns that this was not a unique event, but a shocking preview of what we must prepare in a hotter, more flammable world. With masterly prose and a cinematic eye, Vaillant takes us on a riveting journey through the intertwined histories of North America’s oil industry and the birth of climate science, to the unprecedented devastation wrought by modern forest fires, and into lives forever changed by these disasters.
Birnam Wood: A Novel by Eleanor Catton (Farrar, Straus, Giroux 2023, 432 pages, $28.00)
A landslide has closed the Korowai Pass on New Zealand’s South Island, cutting oﬀ the town of Thorndike and leaving a sizable farm abandoned. The disaster presents an opportunity for Birnam Wood, an undeclared, unregulated, guerrilla gardening collective that plants crops wherever no one will notice. But the enigmatic American billionaire Robert Lemoine also has an interest in the place: he has snatched it up to build his end-times bunker, A gripping thriller from the Booker Prize-winning author of The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood is Shakespearean in its drama and Austenian in its wit. A brilliantly constructed study of intentions and consequences, it is an unﬂinching consideration of the human impulse to ensure our own survival.
After World: A Novel by Debbie Urbanski (Simon & Schuster 2023, 368 pages, $27.99)
Faced with accelerating environmental collapse, humanity asks an artificial intelligence to find a solution. Its answer is simple: remove humans from the ecosystem. Sen Anon is assigned to be a witness for the Department of Transition, recording the changes in the environment as the world begins to rewild, the final step in Project Afterworld. An AI storyworker is assigned to capture Sen’s life, and they set about doing this using the novels of the 21st century as a road map. As Sen struggles in the face of impending death, the storyworker struggles to unfurl the tale of Sen’s whole life. Urbanski’s groundbreaking debut follows the story of this Artificial Intelligence tasked with writing a novel — only to fall in love with the novel’s subject, Sen, the last human on Earth.