Now that the headlines from last year’s COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow have faded, you might think attention to planetary havoc has drifted. But not in the publishing industry, where 2022 has opened with an impressive collection of environmental books on everything, from the polar vortex, veganism, and global warming.
Humans can spend decades trying to figure out the cause and existence. Climate changeThor Hanson, an American biologist, says that it is possible for other species to adapt to it. Hurricane Lizards, Plastic Squid (Icon £20/Basic $16.99). Scientists believe that the lizards live on islands in hurricane-lashed Caribbean islands. They have larger toe-pads to hold on to their lives during big storms. More intense A warming world.
The Humboldt squid is another example. It appeared to vanish from fishing grounds in Mexico’s Gulf of California after a rise in water temperatures over a decade ago. In fact, Hanson writes, the animal survived in greater numbers than before thanks to a striking display of “plasticity”, or rapid adaptation. To deal with the heat stress, the squid matured and reproduced in half the time, ending up so much smaller that they often couldn’t bite on the lures once used to catch them. Scientists say that other species are moving to cooler, higher, more humid or other more hospitable places in the greatest redistribution since the last Ice Age.
Ben Rawlence, a British writer, tells a different story about planetary change. The Treeline (Jonathan Cape £20). The title refers to the northernmost edge of the boreal forest, a vast zone containing a third of Earth’s trees that rings much of the northern hemisphere like a green halo. This woody frontier is moving north at a rapid pace in a warming world. It used to move a few centimetres per hundred years, but now it invades the frozen tundra at a rate that is hundreds of metres per year.
This might sound benign but it isn’t. Delicate ecosystems can be disrupted, along with the humans that depend on them, such as Sámi reindeer herders. In Norway, Rawlence finds that the aggressive growth of the downy birch is fostering snowdrifts too deep for reindeer to dig through and sucking up nutrients vital to the creatures’ food. Rawlence is a devoted storyteller, and the birch is just one of six species that make up the main characters. Memorably, he strips and swims for 30 fraught minutes over “300m of the blackest water” to reach a stand of ancient wildwood on a Scottish island.
Although no one person can stop climate change on their own, they can be vegans. Ed Winters, an animal rights advocate, says that the world would be better if more people did this. This is vegan propaganda (Vermilion £14.99). Winters begins to disarm, revealing that he was so addicted at KFC as a teenager that the staff at his local store knew him by his name. He began to see the world as a cruel, immoral, and environmentally harmful system of farming in 2014. This belief changed his life when he was 20, and he started to think that it was bad for both human and non-human health.
The following contains a lot of grim statistics and anecdotes that support a plant-based diet. The animals skinned alive in slaughterhouses; the forests devastated by the “staggeringly inefficient” production of meat and dairy food. Winters ends with a frank discussion of the hurt that younger vegans can suffer at the hands of unsympathetic family members — and perhaps vice versa. He boycotted the meal at his grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary celebration because it was full of “animal products”.
Finally, Simon Clark’s Firmament (Hodder & Stoughton £20) is an engaging account of something essential to life on Earth yet barely understood by most people: the atmosphere. If you don’t know your stratosphere from your troposphere, you will after reading this lively history of the scientists and gifted amateurs whose discoveries revealed the workings of the system of air surrounding the planet.
Clark, an atmospheric scientist, reveals the roles played by Daniel Defoe (a writer who realized that weather can change simultaneously over large areas) and Charles Keeling (a pioneer in atmospheric CO2 measurement). Then there were the first humans to leave the lower atmosphere. They were almost certainly two 19th-century English “aeronauts” who still hold the record for reaching the highest altitude unassisted by breathing apparatus after a hair-raising balloon voyage from Wolverhampton. It left one with hands “blackened and immobile with frostbite” and the other insensible. Clark’s story is all the more powerful thanks to a final chapter that explains how this complex system is changing, and what that means for the future of humanity.
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