books climate change

Book review: The Future Earth, by Eric Holthaus

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist by training and a leading climate change journalist. I’ve been reading his work for years and have been looking forward to his first book, The Future Earth: A radical vision for what’s possible in the age of warming.

It’s very much a turn of the decade book, knowing that the years ahead will be times of profound change. Taking 2020 as the starting point, Holthaus is “sketching an outline of what that change might feel like, decade by decade, until we have built a world that can truly flourish.”

There are three main chapters: the 2020s, the 2030s and the 2040s. These cast forward and describe projected changes to the climate and how people are affected. It also describes, speculatively, how the world might respond.

The Future Earth, as imagined here, is no utopia. Plenty goes wrong. Some aspects of climate change happen faster than planned. There are flooded cities and major refugee crises. Where Holthaus gives himself creative freedom is to ask what might happen if the international community cooperated and responded appropriately. What sorts of solutions might emerge if countries stopped competing and put aside narrow national interests for a change? What if we could look beyond capitalism and its stunted measures of success? And so we see a Global Marshall Plan for example, this time named after the Marshall Islands. We see fossil fuels eliminated in a just transition. We see ecological restoration proceed in tandem with reparations for indigenous people.

Having said what ‘we’ see, I mean the readership. One of the strengths of the book is that Holthaus has a real awareness of climate privilege, including the racial injustice that I describe in my new book (assuming it emerges from the Covid-induced paralysis of the publishing industry…): “There is no ‘we’ that is causing climate change, even though my language often slips. There are a specific few white men who have done the bulk of the damage out of sheer greed. This basic fact is one of the greatest scandals in all of human history.”

There’s an entirely justified anger here, and that’s another strength of the book. Holthaus doesn’t shy away from the emotional experience of climate change. There are books that take a detached and calculated approach, such as Drawdown or Chris Goodall’s What We Need to Do Now. That’s fine and necessary, but books that address what climate change feels like are more unusual. (I suspect this has something to do with the gender balance of climate writing, which is a post for another time.) It used to be possible to write about climate change as a scientific and even theoretical issue. Not any more.

Depending on who are where you are, climate change is a tragedy, a trauma, an injustice, a betrayal, even a genocide. The way we think and talk about the climate has some catching up to do, and The Future Earth feels like it’s breaking some new ground on that front. It even has a grief exercise at the back. The only other climate book I know that includes a grief exercise is the one I edited, Time to Act.

While it handles grief and anger, the book itself is fundamentally hopeful in tone. It is honest about the worst of humanity while appealing to our better natures. It is imaginative, inspiring, and compassionate. “The thirty years from 2020 to 2050 will be among the most transformative decades in all of human history” writes Holthaus. But for all the chaos that may follow, a better world may be possible on the other side.

1 comment

  1. — “There are a specific few white men who have done the bulk of the damage out of sheer greed. This basic fact is one of the greatest scandals in all of human history.”
    Those specific few white men ought to be brought to trial as a prima facie case for seriously harming the earth and occupants.

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