Best Books about Energy, Environment & Climate Change

by Robert Nagle on 6/24/2012

in book reviews,global warming

One sign you have become an energy geek is when your bedtime reading tends to be academic tomes about renewable energy. Despite my literary tendencies, I don’t deny that I find these volumes to be engrossing and fascinating; the subject seems to have an urgency missing from the software or publishing world.  I have come across many books  on the subject over the last 2 years (including many free titles available as PDFs).  I haven’t finished reading these titles yet, but all are worth reading. Here’s my current list:

  •  Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era (2011) by Amory Lovins is an excellent in-depth analysis about energy needs, business innovation and policy. It has the depth and research about the subject and covers a wide variety of topics. It has a good holistic view of the subject. The Best Book on the Subject
  • Eaarth by Bill McKibben. (2011) This journalist, advocate and protest leader makes the spiritual and moral  case for fighting climate change policy. McKibben doesn’t claim to be an expert on anything, but his well-researched book indicates a good understanding of the problem – both from a political and ethical point of view.  This book is very easy to read and passionate as well. Recommended for Laypeople.
  • Our Choice by Al Gore. (2009) Gore has always been a divisive figure in climate change politics, but that doesn’t detract from his ability to do his research and explain technical matters well. I use this book often as a reference guide for  the various energy solutions; Gore certainly has mentioned it here.  Reinventing Fire is a much more comprehensive book, but newcomers to the subject may find Al Gore’s overview to be sane and refreshing.
  • Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity by James Hansen. (2010)Hansen was one of the earliest scientists to call attention to climate change; he has done tireless amounts of research on the topic. In this book he delves into detail about how openly the Bush Administration disregarded the pronouncements of climate science. Even I was shocked.
  • Earth: The Operator’s Manual by Richard Alley (2011). In preparation for the PBS Science series, Alley wrote a science book for the general audience.  This was a very thoughtful and generally nonpolitical book which nonetheless lays out the evidence for climate change in a seemingly incontrovertible way.
  • Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air by David JC MacKay.  (2009)When I started reading this book, I immediately grasped its usefulness.  It defines terms about how to measure the effectiveness of various policy measures and how scientists calculate things like energy efficiency. It also explains the scientific principles and formulas for gathering data.  It doesn’t necessarily make policy recommendations, but clarifies how to have an honest debate without getting lost in quantitative analysis and semantics.  The full book is available for online reading and also downloadable as a PDF… for free!
  • Cooler, Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living. (2012)Expert Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists.   This well-researched guide for consumers helps them to make purchasing decisions and to figure out the carbon footprints of their lifestyle. Although the introduction to climate change is necessary, the rest of the book provides valuable information for consumers and environmentalists alike. Recommended for Consumers
  • The Two Mile Time Machine (2001) by Richard Alley gives a first person account of how scientists use ice core samples from glaciers to estimate the carbon levels and temperature levels of previous millenia. This book is over a decade old, but well-beloved by people in the climate change field.
  • Hack the Planet (2010). Eli Kintisch and How to Cool the Planet (2010)  by Jeff Goodell are two books I’m reading by journalists about the important topic of geoengineering. Many climate scientists warn of the dangers of taking affirmative actions to manipulate the environment to combat global warming, but these two books are the first to describe the ethical and practical problems of doing so.  One climate scientists said that we have been already manipulating the environment through greenhouse gases; we might as well get past the ethical concerns about geoengineering because humanity will have no choice to implement these measures.
  • Global Warming and Climate Change Demystified by Jerry Silver. This book reads like a high school textbook, and that is good. It summarizes the results of the IPCC conference and explains the basic science principles behind  climate modeling and measuring change. Unfortunately, even the IPCC data is out of date (on sea level rise for instance). Nonetheless, this is a good place to get a basic foundation in the science. (Recommended for Students).
  • What’s the Worst that Can Happen? by Greg Craven (2009). Craven is a high school science teacher who put up a short series of entertaining climate change lectures on youtube. I picked a used copy of this book and was struck by the clarity of his reasoning and explanations. Interestingly, this book is less a book about climate change than about how to weigh evidence and how to derive policy conclusions from scientific evidence. This readable book addresses on a more basic level why embracing climate change policy is an example of sound and rational thinking. The book is essentially a manual about how to think scientifically.  Recommended for students and conservative skeptics.
  • Solar by Ian McEwan. (2009)  (A novel). I don’t consider this to a masterpiece, but it is the first attempt to describe global warming as a cultural influence. (leaving aside Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol series). Solar is a social satire of environmentalists, professional deniers and how academia cossets both types. By the way, I am writing a sort of comic novel about climate change as well. I didn’t think the novel worked overall, but several of its set pieces were effective and provocative.

Other Books

Here are some books that I know somewhat well but which I haven’t read for one reason or another.

  • Air Pollution and Global Warming: History, Science, and Solutions, (2012)” by Mark Z. Jacobson (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012) is probably the best college textbook on the subject of climate change written by one of the best climate scientists around. (If you don’t believe me, read his Scientific American article or other ones). The book sells for $130 new and 86$ used, but I expect in a year or so that the price of used copies will go down at least 20%. So keep it on your wishlist until then. (The book’s slides are here).
  • Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2011) by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Oreskes and Conways are science historians who found direct connections between the propaganda effort to sell smoking and the effort to sell fossil fuels. Although the book doesn’t try to do media criticism, Oreskes is famous for her study which found no disagreement from the science consensus in journals while significant controversy in articles written for news publications. I’ve seen several of Oreskes’ public lectures on youtube.
  • Straight Up (2010) and Hell and High Water (2009)  by Joe Romm. Romm is an energy policy wonk who used to work for the Dept of Energy under Clinton. His Climateprogress blog is one of the best informed about climate change policy. Romm does not duck controversy and sometimes may seem too argumentative, but he understands better than anybody the various tradeoffs you make with each climate change solution. I haven’t read either book, but I suspect they have culled the best parts from his blog.
  • Hockey Stick and Climate Change by Michael Mann. Mann is a scientist who was thrown into the limelight after publishing an estimate of the relationship between climate change and carbon over the millennium. Practically every major scientific body has validated Mann’s research, but he has been the subject of an unrelenting attack by the right-wing attack machine.  I’m sure it will be an interesting read, but for more Mann’s personal story than for what he says about climate change.

Other Free Stuff

I’ve downloaded a ton of free white papers about various climate change issues. Here are some favorites:

  • John Cook at Skeptical Science has published two mini-ebooks (each about 15 pages) about climate change. The Scientific Guide to Global Warming Skepticism (PDF)  summarizes the arguments about why humans have caused climate change and why it is a serious problem. It also answers the common charges made against it. This PDF packs an incredible amount of stuff in 15 pages!  The Debunking Handbook is a summary of insights from social psychology about which persuasive techniques have proven to the be the most effective. A fascinating read.
  • Climate Change Impacts is a summary of the potentially disastrous effects that climate change can have on American life.  The federal government commissioned some of its top experts to cover all the major bases, and it is informative and not particularly controversial.
  • National Academy of Science reports. Did you know that you can download practically any NAS report as a PDF? Sure, you have to register for free, but you can get access to first-class analysis for easy reading on your ipad! I haven’t read any of these titles yet (but plan to), but these seem to be the most substantial.  Climate Stabilization Targets (2011)  does a lot of number-crunching about the practicality of meeting targets, America’s Climate Choices (2011) gives a less scientific overview, Understanding Earth’s Deep Past: Lessons for our Climate Future gives a more rigorous overview of the historical climate records.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Raj October 28, 2013 at 1:35 am

Thanks for the list – especially the free ones. I guess I’ll start with it for now. Do let us know about any new and interesting books on this topic. We’re all ears! :)

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