Notable new books on climate and the environment

The new year has brought a trove of opinionated books on the widening debate over the best way to deal with climate change. Their authors want to change your mind about everything, from the power of renewables to the need for zero-sum policies and machines that can suck carbon dioxide out of the air. For a change of pace, there’s a gentler story of what a voyage in a 100-year-old sailing ship can tell us about the future of shipping.

The most weighty work comes from Mark Z. Jacobson, a Stanford University professor who has spent years arguing that wind, water and solar power can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy. Climate activists from Hollywood to Washington have catapulted his work, which has also drawn fire from critics who have questioned the viability of 100 percent renewables.

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Jacobson addresses all parties in No need for miracles: How today’s technology can preserve our climate and clean our air (Cambridge University Press, £11.99). Much of the book explains in detail — and I do mean thoroughly — how wind, water, and solar technologies all work, and why there is a need to eliminate air pollution, global warming, and energy insecurity.

The most contentious sections deal with critics who say 100 percent renewables will risk blackouts on windless or cloudy days, require too much land to distill into wind and solar farms, or cost too many jobs. .

Jacobson responds to every charge, adding that the big advantage of renewables is that they are better than all the alternatives. Natural gas continues to cause global warming. Nuclear energy is expensive. Biofuels cause air pollution. and so on. It also rejects the direct capture of carbon in the air, which is a relatively new technology that extracts carbon dioxide from the air.

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Canadian writer Paul Mackendrick, who has taken a liking to capturing live air in Plain, is unlikely to be bothered by this Scratch the sky: inside the race to cool the planet (Fig. 1, CAD 28.95). This is the story of the scientists, philanthropists, and investors who have spent more than 20 years reviving direct air capture, which uses chemicals to extract carbon dioxide from the air that is then captured for storage underground or use elsewhere.

It’s a book at the right time. Scientists say carbon removal measures will likely be necessary to avoid more harmful global temperatures. Companies including Microsoft and Swiss Re have begun pouring millions of dollars into direct startups to capture the air.

But as McKendrick points out, none of this was likely to date back to 1992 when US-based scientists like Klaus Lackner first came up with the germ for the idea of ​​live air capture. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson also feature in the tech story we’re likely to hear a lot about.

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Live air capture also gets a mention in British journalist Ross Clarke’s anti-network polemic, not zero: How an Irrational Goal Will Poor You, Help China (But Not Save the Planet) (Forum, £20). Clarke’s argument, which will be well known to readers of his columns in British newspapers, is that the UK has been crazy to make a legally binding pledge to reduce its emissions to net zero by 2050.

He says there should have been more debate over a policy fueled by alarming “hyperbole” that could cause “massive damage to our economy” while bigger carbon polluters such as China are letting themselves off the hook.

By now, all too familiar to students for what has come to be known as “climate inactivity,” a new breed of skepticism that no longer dismisses climate science outright but questions the extent and pace of action required.

Clarke is on more interesting ground when he complains that the UK’s net zero target is impractical in a country with a “hopelessly inadequate” electric vehicle charging network; a lean hydrogen infrastructure; Insufficient energy storage and other shortcomings.

Frustrated net-zero advocates make similar arguments. But very few agree with the concept underlying Clarke’s thesis: even if the negatives of global warming outweigh any benefits, “there will be nothing coming beyond our ability to adapt.” Trusting that delightful prediction is, of course, a luxury that most of the world can’t afford.

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Finally, Melbourne-based academic Christian de Boeckeler has written a more gentle yet adventurous climate book, trade windsJourney to a sustainable future for shipping (University of Manchester Press, £20 / $29.95).

In February 2020, De Beukelaer stepped aboard the Avontuur, one of the largest cargo sailing vessels in the world, for what was supposed to be three weeks of fieldwork on the prospects for a zero-emission shipping revival. The three weeks became five months as De Beukelaer and his 14 fellow crew members were thrown overboard due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The result was what he called, with some downplay, “the confrontation flight.” The vicissitudes of life on board make for a vivid travel story. But the intertwined tale is an engaging tale of efforts to decarbonise the global shipping industry – and a compelling assessment of the role sailing freighters might play.

Pilita Clark Columnist for the Financial Times

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