Energy and Climate Change: Some Good Reads

by Alice Bell

A friend recently asked me for book recommendations on energy and climate change. "I want books" they stressed, “not policy briefing papers or essays or scientific reports. Something to curl up on the sofa with, something that digests and explains the issues and spins a few good yarns along the way. A good read.”

I thought I'd share my response here, and invite others to add any more in the comments section. I know I've missed loads: e.g. Merchants of Doubt, The Carbon Age and The Oil Road. I've stuck to factual literature, but if anyone wants to suggest some fiction, please do. Arguably we could do with some better fiction on this issue (good essay in the LA Review of Books on this), and I could also have included long form journalism like Bill McKibben's piece for Rolling Stone last summer, or books for kids. What would you add?


The Discovery of Global Warming. Spencer Weart (2nd edition, 2008).

Global warming, like most scientific discoveries, was less a singular moment and more a long process of many discoveries. Weart weaves a tale involving many people over many years, gradually learning about the phenomenon and coming to terms with it (as continues to be the case).

Such a picture of slow, gradual development, refinement and sharing of human understanding of climate change might seem a bit depressing. A simple "eureka!" (or perhaps "oh, bugger" would be more appropriate) might seem easier to deal with. We'd see, know and just do something about it. Except the world really isn't that simple and in many respects, discussion of the complexity is liberating. It’s crucial for understanding where we are now on the science and the policy and, I think, key to thinking about what we might do about it too. It also makes for a much more interesting read. Eureka tales don’t really take you anywhere.

It's also, in a way, quite a hopeful book, as Weart is keen to stress that we have taken actions to learn more and do something with this knowledge in the past. We can continue to do this, and do more. It's a story of change, with a real sense that more change is possible.

As well as being the best introduction to climate change I've read, this book is also simply a great case study in how scientific discovery works, and fascinating in terms of the interactions between international policy and science in the 20th century. It's also reasonably short, clearly written and engrossing. Weart's published a hypertext version too but the linear dead tree version's my favourite.


Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. Mark Lynas (2007).

A neat bit of narrative non-fiction which won the 2008 Royal Society science book prize, turning scientific modeling into a very literary experience worked step-by-step as we’re invited to imagine first a world where the average temperature is one degree warmer than now, then three, then four, and so on. It’s a form of fantasy fiction, perhaps, but where the rules of this different world are based on scientific research, not simple make-believe (comparable with the way the Mr Tompkins stories tried to explain modern physics in the 1940s). This is a global story, as any on climate change will be, although this time the characters are largely waters, winds and other non-human entities. It's a science book, although political in a way, it's about things, not people, and expect a small amount of numbers, but it’s not hard to understand at all. 

It's a bit scary in places. But climate change is scary. I re-read the four degrees chapter at the end of last year, while the Doha conference was crawling on and we were going through quite a cold snap, and found myself hiding under blankets with jumpers and legwarmers, the howls of the sea ominously mingling with the noise of the traffic outside, the heating resolutely off and only a small solar powered torch to read by. It's when it gets to six degrees it really gets a bit scary. As the climate modeling scientists he'd been using as a guide up till then fall by the wayside, generally falling short of simulating six degrees warming, he starts to uses sketchier geological information about extreme episodes in the Earth's distant past. There's something of the horror movie narrative to it, starting in the relatively familiar, gradually unraveling into chaos as he invites readers into "the sixth circle of hell".

This is another book that manages to end on a relatively hopeful note, arguing we can build a low-carbon society, and leave it as a gift to the future so the nightmare image he presents really is just a nightmare. You might disagree with him on his version of how, which is arguably the rub, but if Weart provides a "yes we can" message, Lynas' book says "you better bloody get on with it". 


The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. Daniel Yergin (1991).

This isn't a short book, but it's a page-turner, and if you give it time, you get really drawn in. It's got a lot of characters, spanning many countries and covering a historical sweep of over a century. But it's well structured, so you won't get lost. It's choc-full of stories, and would make a good commuting read if it wasn't so bloody heavy, because you can read it small chunks (perhaps this is what e-readers are for).

You'll find that learning about the history of the oil will teach you a lot about other aspects of the world (insert your own joke about oiling the wheels of modernity here). Just as Weart teaches you something about the way we invested in climate science partly as an odd attempt at peacekeeping during the Cold War, from Yergin you can expect to learn something about the slow construction of the type of capitalism we've built for ourselves over the last few centuries. You'll also read a lot about war. And you'll never look at a petrol station in the same way again.

Did you know Shell is called Shell because they used to sell shells? (In the East End of London, not by the seashore, sadly) Or that the American oil market started off selling small veils for medical purposes? (burning came later).


Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. Alexis Madrigal (2011).

We might think of wind energy community co-ops or electrical taxi cabs as something new, a recent response to concerns over climate change and peak oil, but they’re not. There is a long history to both, as there is for solar power, wave energy and more. Madrigal even suggests that, at one point in the late 19th century, it looked like the future of transport in America would largely be a matter of electrically powered public systems, not the fossil fuelled individual vehicles we have today (apparently it’s partly the bike’s fault this didn’t happen). Electrical cabs were reasonably common in Manhattan in the 1890s. Londoners can see one built for their own city in 1897 in the ground floor of the Science Museum.

In some respects, this is a book of roads not travelled and, like Weart's description of the slow, gradual ongoing story of the discovery of climate change, it could be quite depressing, yet it also manages to be inspiringly hopeful. It is a story of how energy could once have been something different, and so might be something else again. More explicitly than Yergin’s epic, this book helps you realise technology is something we make, and invites you to think about can we might remake it, or at least pay more attention to the structures which build such things so new technologies can be built to meet the needs of the planet, not exploit it.

Madrigal also makes some interesting comments in the concluding chapter about the way we imagine environmentalism, especially with respect to any sense of division between people, technology and nature. The “creation myth” of American environmental movement might be that they put the protection of nature first, but many environmentalists are highly aware that an idea of "natural" is both complex and not necessarily a substitute for "good". Madrigal stresses the worth of a human focused environmentalism (or at least one rooted in an idea of the anthropocene) which acknowledges how much of an impact humans have had on the Earth and aims to be clever about our role in its future. He weaves into this ideas of national identity and the idea of the American sublime - American wilderness as some ultimate authenticity – and nods to David Nye’s sense that there is a strong history of the American technological sublime too. My critique of Nye’s (in many ways brilliant) book is that he doesn't unravel the inequality involved in politics of the human construction of this sublime, something which a human focused environmentalist critique, for me, would have to do. But I think Madrigal’s book does help us reflect on this political aspect.


Alice Bell is an academic and writer based at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex. She is also New Left Project’s climate change editor.

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First published: 10 January, 2013

Category: Book Review, Environment

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16 Comments on "Energy and Climate Change: Some Good Reads"

By Chris Davie, on 10 January 2013 - 18:45 |

Storms of my Grandchildren - Dr James Hansen. One of the original voices leaves the safety of the laboratory and wades into the political debate. There are lots of numbers to get your head around but his prognostications are terrifying. This should be on the National Curriculum. 

By Stephan Matthiesen, on 10 January 2013 - 23:06 |

How about an example how a big industrialised nation is actually moving rapidly to a non-carbon economy with win-win situations for everybody, showing that change is realistic and possible if there is the will to do it and good bottom-up democratic structures exists to enable citizens to do it.

Osha Gray Davidson: “Clean Break” on the energy transition in Germany. A nice summary and interview with the author is here:

I like the bit that the current government mismanage it. Isn’t it encouraging that mismanagent just can’t destroy it any more once the transition has its own momentum?

By David Benque, on 11 January 2013 - 14:37 |

Solar, by Ian McEwan, is great fiction on the topic.

By Tuomas Tielinen, on 12 January 2013 - 19:55 |

I think George Monbiot’s Heat is quite good. In it he gives many practical ways how to reduce energy comsumption.

By Rhoda Klapp, on 14 January 2013 - 16:58 |

Ever think of including any from the other side? Montford, or Booker There really is nothing to fear if the climate change case is sound.

By Robin Guenier, on 14 January 2013 - 18:53 |

Well, Rhoda, Alice invited suggestions. Why not make one/some? I don’t think there’s any “warmist” censorship here.

By Stephan Matthiesen, on 14 January 2013 - 22:32 |

Rhoda, if you have a friend who’s interested in history, would you recommend they should read von Daeniken? And recommend creationists’ books to somebody who’s interested in dinosaurs? There really is nothing to fear if the historians’ and biologists’ case is sound. Only, perhaps your friends would feel they don’t get any useful information out of these books and reading them wastes time that could be spent more usefully?

By lapogus, on 14 January 2013 - 23:46 |

Here’s one: Peter Taylor’s “Chill: a re-assessment of global warming theory” for a start:

For those who are interested in the sociology of AGW, I do recommend Martin Cohen’s excellent essay published in THES in December 2009. (Keywords - Cascade theory, madness of crowds):


By Geoff Chambers, on 15 January 2013 - 06:31 |

Only two books on climate change?Lynas’s “Six Degrees” is simply a compilation of “What would happen if…?” notes for a disaster movie. The Royal Society prize was surely a pat on the back from the scientists for saying the stuff they’d like to say, but can’t because they’re scientists, and are constrained by their fearful “Don’t take my Word for it” motto. It’s no more informative on the science than a book on “What would happen if the Martians invaded?” would be on the reality of extraterrestrial life.Spencer Weart’s book is the only one on your list that actually deals with the science of climate change. The free downloadable version is an excellent source of information because of the hypertext format, partiicularly for the history of the science. In the more recent years, it recounts the official Realclimate view, mentioning the criticism of McIntyre and McKitrick only to dismiss it without description or discussion. Weart’s book should be read alongside Andrew Montford’s “The Hockey Stick Illusion”. Always read both sides of the question. That’s what you tell your undergraduates, isn’t it?

By Rhoda Klapp, on 15 January 2013 - 11:52 |

Lomborg has the right idea. He is not a denier of warming (I don’t think anybody is) but he is very sceptcal indeed of some of the things being done in the name of AGW.  Simply put, these are not sensible things to do, there are better ways to employ limited resources for the betterment of mankind.

Matthiesen, I couldn’t see much harm in anybody reading von Daniken, but it is blatant tosh. Lomborg is not tosh. Neither is Montford, a study of dishonest science relating to AGW propaganda. Warmists ought to disavow the cheats, but they do not.

Booker is more polemic, but well-researched and requiring a response. Do you think that familiarising yourself with only one side of an issue because it is patently one of good vs evil is a sensible intellectual stance?

My own view on warmism is that nothing much is going on, and that some sort of climate disaster is unlikely, but let’s have a debate about that.  I am unlikely to be moved by those who wish to rush to solutions before sizing the problem.

By Paul Matthews, on 15 January 2013 - 12:41 |

A new book called “Hiding the Decline” gets very good reviews at Amazon -

“Montford not only exposes (again) the behind-the-scenes manipulation, distortion and fabrication of climate scientists but highlights precisely the extent to which the political classes in Britain and the US were complicit in supporting them through a series of ‘independent’ investigations explicitly designed to cover up the wrong-doing. It is hard to recommend this book strongly enough.”

“The author has fashioned a fascinating and readable tale out of an ultimately depressing saga in which that malign mix of climate change hysteria with its leechlike renewables-subsidy bonanza has embroiled government and scientific bodies alike in lies and yet more lies.”

By Björn Lindgren, on 16 January 2013 - 11:39 |

                                                                                                  I would without a doubt first recommend Arne Naess book, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, Cambridge University Press, 1982. Naess investigates our basic values, norms, and goals, and makes a clear distinction beteween our basic needs, which are few and simple to satisfy, and our wishes which are endless and impossible to satisfy. Change of policy and technique is not enough; we also need to find a better and a more joyful lifestyle.

                                                                                            Herbert Marcuse also wrote about this in his Eros and Civilization:  A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, Routledge,
London 1998, asking how could we reconcile the principle of pleasure with the principle of neccessity, or how could we work and produce in a (more) liberating way? 





















































































                                                                                      In his book Mind and nature – a necessary unity, Dutton, New York 1979, Gregory Bateson concludes that all societies have both dynamic and static aspects. We need both, but have but all the dynamics in material growth, while being static within the fields of social life, culture, religion, and psychology. Now the state of earth, climate, population, natural resources demand that we put the the dynamics into social life, culture, religion, and psychology, where we can expand endlessly and with joy, and transform the economy into steady state growth.                                                                       
                                                                                              And finally, gather an international conference abolishing nuclear weapons, which even militaries confess to be military impossible to use. Even though these weapons function as deterrance, there are other ways to defend a country: civil disobedience as national defence.


                                                                                                  Cheers, Björn Lindgren
                                                                          Vassmolösa, SWEDEN                                                                                        



By Barry Woods, on 16 January 2013 - 12:47 |

Dieter Helm was at the IPPR with Baroness Bryony Wortington - last night

and I would recommend his book the Carbon Crunch - all about economics and policy, and the realities of coal.  (no climate science)

By Eric Smiff, on 16 January 2013 - 13:46 |

This is good. Written by a Marxist academic.

Green Capitalism: Manufacturing Scarcity in an Age of Abundance, by James Heartfield

Chief Executive Kenneth Lay turned Enron from a company that made its money generating power into one that made its money trading finance. Whatever else it was doing, there was no denying that Enron was cutting back its own CO2 emissions and getting rich doing it. One company memo stated that the Kyoto treaty “would do more to promote Enron’s business than will almost any other regulatory initiative”.[

By Ross Lea, on 19 January 2013 - 11:02 |

Can I recommend:-
Climate: the Counter-consensus (Independent Minds) by Professor Robert Carter.  Also his youtube video presentations.

By Elise Houghton, on 16 August 2013 - 22:43 |

Thanks for inviting a dialogue on climate change, and reading suggesstions.  Here’s a book I came across yesterday in doing some research on the connections between neoliberalism and public school curriculum - havne’t read it, but thought the premise is important, and reviewers seemed impressed. 

The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics,
by Adrian Parr

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