12 books to understand our warming planet—and help turn the tide

Experts outline how we got to this point and how we might move toward a brighter future

This week the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a sobering report on the status of climate change, sounding what U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called a “code red for humanity.” The report reconfirms what most of us already know: Humans, primarily through the usage of fossil fuels, are “unequivocally” to blame for rising temperatures that experts project will result in increasingly dangerous heat waves, flooding, and droughts. We are rapidly approaching a watershed point of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels that most experts agree is a critical point of no return. The outlook for our planet, it seems, is dire

Faced with this bleak news and, no doubt, overwhelmed by its implications, it is time now for individuals to educate themselves, reflect on the history of how we got to this point, and look toward the future and how we might rethink our residency here on Earth.


They Knew: The US Federal Government's Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis by James Gustave Speth

In 2015, a group of twenty-one young people sued the federal government in Juliana v. United States for violating their constitutional rights by promoting climate catastrophe and thereby depriving them of life, liberty, and property without due process and equal protection of law. They Knew offers evidence supporting the children's claims, presenting a devastating and compelling account of the federal government's role in bringing about today's climate crisis. James Gustave Speth, tapped by the plaintiffs as one of twenty-one preeminent experts in their climate case, analyzes how administrations from Carter to Trump—despite having information about the impending climate crisis and the connection to fossil fuels—continued aggressive support of a fossil fuel-based energy system.

“A rousing condemnation of a system bent on short-term gain against long-term health.” —Kirkus Reviews


Electrify: An Optimist's Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future by Saul Griffith

Climate change is a planetary emergency. We have to do something now—but what? Saul Griffith has a plan. In Electrify, Griffith lays out a detailed blueprint—optimistic but feasible—for fighting climate change while creating millions of new jobs and a healthier environment. Griffith's plan can be summed up simply: electrify everything. He explains exactly what it would take to transform our infrastructure, update our grid, and adapt our households to make this possible. Billionaires may contemplate escaping our worn-out planet on a private rocket ship to Mars, but the rest of us, Griffith says, will stay and fight for the future.

“A radical but realistic take on the new direction of infrastructure, investment, and production, Electrify is required reading for an economy-wide green transition in the USA.” —Mariana Mazzucato, Professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value, University College London; author of Mission Economy


Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life by Kari Marie Norgaard

Global warming is the most significant environmental issue of our time, yet public response in Western nations has been meager. Why have so few taken any action? In Living in Denial, sociologist Kari Norgaard searches for answers to this question, drawing on interviews and ethnographic data from her study of "Bygdaby," the fictional name of an actual rural community in western Norway, during the unusually warm winter of 2000-2001. Norgaard finds that for the highly educated and politically savvy residents of Bygdaby, global warming was both common knowledge and unimaginable. Norgaard traces this denial through multiple levels, from emotions to cultural norms to political economy. Her report from Bygdaby, supplemented by comparisons throughout the book to the United States, tells a larger story behind our paralysis in the face of today's alarming predictions from climate scientists.

“An extremely important intellectual contribution...This perspective calls for a much different approach to climate change communications, and defines a new agenda for this field.” —Robert Brulle, The New York Times "Dot Earth"

Read an excerpt from the book in the MIT Press Reader.


What We Know about Climate Change, Updated Edition by Kerry Emanuel

The vast majority of scientists agree that human activity has significantly increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—most dramatically since the 1970s. Yet global warming skeptics and ill-informed elected officials continue to dismiss this broad scientific consensus. In this updated edition of his authoritative book, MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel outlines the basic science of global warming and how the current consensus has emerged. Although it is impossible to predict exactly when the most dramatic effects of global warming will be felt, he argues, we can be confident that we face real dangers. Emanuel warns that global warming will contribute to an increase in the intensity and power of hurricanes and flooding and more rapidly advancing deserts. But just as our actions have created the looming crisis, so too might they avert it. Emanuel calls for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gases and criticizes the media for downplaying the dangers of global warming (and, in search of “balance,” quoting extremists who deny its existence). 

“Written by an award-winning atmospheric scientist, the updated version of this essential book offers a concise explanation about what's going on with global warming and how we can turn the tide.” —The Revelator


Brave Green World: How Science Can Save Our Planet by Chris Forman and Claire Asher

In nature, there is little chemical waste; nearly every atom is a resource to be utilized by organisms, ensuring that all the available matter remains in a perpetual cycle. By contrast, human systems of energy production and manufacturing are linear; the end product is waste. In Brave Green World, Chris Forman and Claire Asher show what our linear systems can learn from the efficient circularity of ecosystems. They offer an unblinkered yet realistic and positive vision of a future in which we can combine biology and manufacturing to solve our central problems of waste and pollution.

“Humans are superb problem-solvers, and the authors make a convincing case that technology will mitigate at least some of the devastation we are inflicting on the Earth… An ingenious, if highly speculative, save-the-planet proposal that emphasizes science over politics.” —Kirkus Reviews


The Untold Story of the World's Leading Environmental Institution: UNEP at Fifty by Maria Ivanova

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) was founded in 1972 as a nimble, fast, and flexible entity at the core of the UN system—a subsidiary body rather than a specialized agency. It was intended to be the world's environmental conscience, an anchor institution that established norms and researched policy, leaving it to other organizations to carry out its recommendations. In this book, Maria Ivanova offers a detailed account of UNEP's origin and history and a vision for its future. Ivanova counters the common criticism that UNEP was deficient by design, arguing that UNEP has in fact delivered on much (though not all) of its mandate. She envisions a future UNEP that is the go-to institution for information on the state of the planet, a normative vision of global environmental governance, and support for domestic environmental agendas.

"Ivanova's book, by far the most profound and insightful analysis of UNEP, combines the author's research rigor with her heartfelt humanity.” —Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (2010–2016)


Carbon Capture by Howard J. Herzog

The burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide (CO2), and these CO2 emissions are a major driver of climate change. Carbon capture offers a path to climate change mitigation that has received relatively little attention. In this volume in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, Howard Herzog offers a concise guide to carbon capture, covering basic information as well as the larger context of climate technology and policy. Carbon capture, or carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS), refers to a suite of technologies that reduce CO2 emissions by “capturing” CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere and then transporting it to where it will be stored or used. It is the only climate change mitigation technique that deals directly with fossil fuels rather than providing alternatives to them.


Tomorrow's Economy: A Guide to Creating Healthy Green Growth by Per Espen Stoknes

In Tomorrow's Economy, Per Espen Stoknes reframes the hot-button issue of economic growth. Going beyond the usual pro-growth versus anti-growth debate, Stoknes calls for healthy growth. Healthy economic growth is more regenerative than wasteful, repairs problems rather than greenwashing them, and restores equity rather than exacerbating inequalities. Stoknes—a psychologist, economist, climate strategy researcher, and green-tech entrepreneur—shows that we already have the tools to achieve healthy growth, but our success depends on transformations in scaling innovations, government practices, and individual behaviors. Stoknes provides a compass to guide us toward the mindset, mechanisms, and possibilities of healthy growth.

“Too often growth supporters and anti-growthers come to loggerheads, neglecting the crucial issue of what kind of economic growth we're creating. Stoknes's growth compass is a crucial tool to guide us toward a finer future.” —Hunter Lovins, coauthor of Natural Capitalism

Read an excerpt from the book in the MIT Press Reader.


To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning by Mitchell Thomashow

How can we respond to the current planetary ecological emergency? In To Know the World, Mitchell Thomashow proposes that we revitalize, revisit, and reinvigorate how we think about our residency on Earth. First, we must understand that the major challenges of our time—migration, race, inequity, climate justice, and democracy—connect to the biosphere. Traditional environmental education has accomplished much, but it has not been able to stem the inexorable decline of global ecosystems. Thomashow, the former president of a college dedicated to sustainability, describes instead environmental learning, a term signifying that our relationship to the biosphere must be front and center in all aspects of our daily lives. In this illuminating book, he provides rationales, narratives, and approaches for doing just that.

“Mitch Thomashow is a preeminent environmental educator, and this book makes clear why: his range of curiosity, insight, and learning is remarkable, and remarkably useful to us all!” —Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?


The Resistance Dilemma: Place-Based Movements and the Climate Crisis by George Hoberg

Organized resistance to new fossil fuel infrastructure, particularly conflicts over pipelines, has become a formidable political force in North America. In this book, George Hoberg examines whether such place-based environmental movements are effective ways of promoting climate action, if they might inadvertently feed resistance to the development of renewable energy infrastructure, and what other, more innovative processes of decision-making would encourage the acceptance of clean energy systems. Focusing on a series of conflicts over new oil sands pipelines, Hoberg investigates activists' strategy of blocking fossil fuel infrastructure, often in alliance with Indigenous groups, and examines the political and environmental outcomes of these actions.

“As this important book makes clear, policy makers must engage local populations in meaningful decision-making processes about renewable energy projects if we hope to address the climate crisis.” —Shannon Elizabeth Bell, Associate Professor of Sociology, Virginia Tech; author of Fighting King Coal


The Politics of Rights of Nature: Strategies for Building a More Sustainable Future by Craig M. Kauffman and Pamela L. Martin

With the window of opportunity to take meaningful action on climate change and mass extinction closing, a growing number of communities, organizations, and governments around the world are calling for Rights of Nature (RoN) to be legally recognized. RoN advocates are creating new laws that recognize natural ecosystems as subjects with inherent rights, and appealing to courts to protect those rights. Going beyond theory and philosophy, in this book Craig Kauffman and Pamela Martin analyze the politics behind the creation and implementation of these laws, as well as the effects of the laws on the politics of sustainable development.

“Kauffman and Martin's comprehensive book demonstrates that like the laws of Nature, the Rights of Nature should be real and ineluctable.” —James R. May, Special Representative on Rights of Nature, International Council of Environmental Law; Distinguished Professor, Widener University Delaware Law School


The Love of Nature and the End of the World: The Unspoken Dimensions of Environmental Concern by Shierry Weber Nicholsen

The Love of Nature and the End of the World is a gathering of meditations and collages. Its evocations of our emotional attachment to the natural world and the emotional impact of environmental deterioration are meant to encourage individual and collective reflection on a difficult dilemma. Nicholsen draws on work in environmental philosophy and ecopsychology; the writings of psychoanalytic thinkers such as Wilfred Bion, Donald Meltzer, and D. W. Winnicott; and ideas from Buddhist and Sufi traditions. She shows how our emotional responses to the vulnerabilities of the natural world range from intense caring and compassion, through grief and outrage, to diffuse depression.

“Heartfelt and well-informed.” —The Ecologist

Read an excerpt from the book in the MIT Press Reader.


Explore more of the MIT Press’s books on the environment