In the past year or so, there have been several excellent new books (as well as some not-so-great ones) on how we can solve the climate crisis before it causes irreversible harm to the planet. The key is ending the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 2050—a state known as “carbon neutrality” or “net zero carbon”.
The terms “carbon neutrality” and “net zero” are used instead of just “zero carbon emissions” because it will be possible to offset a small amount of emitted carbon via natural “sinks” (such as forests and seaweed) or carbon-capture devices. But it is very clear that we’ll need to eliminate far more than 90% of the causes of emissions, because removing the carbon once it is emitted won’t be practical on a large scale.
That 2050 target date is the goal set by the Paris Climate Agreement back in 2015 as the basis for keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees C, and it is the goal adopted by our Kendal Energy Committee for our campus. (It is also the goal of SSAFE.org, the group of nine Kendal affiliates working together on sustainability.)
I have been reading the books to see which ones have plans with lessons for Kendal, and what kinds of plans they have for the country and the world as a whole. Depending on what interests you most about sustainability and eliminating fossil fuels, one or another of the first six books reviewed below is likely to be of interest. Each has a different approach.
All of the books agree that solar and wind are now cheaper than fossil fuels for generating electricity, and they all agree that getting rid of almost all fossil fuel use (by “electrifying everything”) is a key strategy. Beyond that, though, each book has a unique perspective and each provides unique insights on what we should be doing here at Kendal.
Most of these books will be available from a local library.
In addition to the first six books listed, I have included four more at the bottom. These have something important to say about climate and society, but they are mostly not about getting to net zero. I have not included any books that try to convince you that climate change is real and that we need to do something about it. You already know that.
Electrify: an optimist’s playbook for our clean energy future (Saul Griffith) 2021.
This is my favorite of the bunch. It focuses on practical technologies that work today, and on local solutions to the extent possible. Griffith views regulations (promoted by traditional electric monopolies) and subsidies (promoted by the oil and gas industry) as the biggest obstacles to getting to net zero. He emphasizes that “deprivation” is not necessary meet the 2050 goal. There will be few, if any, negative impacts on lifestyles. Solar will more than pay for itself, but “climate loans” may be needed to help people with the up-front cost. There are lots of great charts illustrating the points Griffith is making. Griffith, an engineer, always cites his sources for the claims he is making, but his writing is clear, accessible, and mostly non-technical. The biggest limitation of this book is that it deals almost exclusively with the US.
Lesson for Kendal: Solar electricity is in our future, and there are big advantages to owning the panels, rather than obtaining renewable electricity from a utility-scale project somewhere else.
Freeing energy (Bill Nussey) 2021.
This book focuses on two technologies—solar and batteries—and makes a plausible case that they (along with other technologies that rely on them) can get us to carbon neutrality. The focus is on “local energy”. Nussey makes many of the same points as Griffith does in Electrify, and he shows how they apply world-wide. Nussey depends much more heavily than Griffith on the assumption that solar and battery prices will continue their rapid decline. That’s a reasonable long-term assumption in my view, but it makes Nussey’s approach a little more open to criticism. Neither of these books requires a science background, but Nussey generally assumes the reader is not interested in knowing much about the science, whereas Griffith assumes she/he is.
This book, alone among the ones I am reviewing here, does not discuss energy use by industry. That’s a serious omission, given that some of the really hard problems that need to be solved (production of steel and cement, fuels for ships and airplanes) are industrial.
Lesson for Kendal: Key an eye on battery technology. There may be an opportunity for a huge battery the size of a semi-trailer (providing campus-wide backup) or maybe small batteries (perhaps one in every cottage) will make sense. It all depends on which kinds develop the quickest, and whether their costs decline as fast as Nussey suggests. And in some scenarios, the batteries in our electric vehicles could help out.
How to avoid a climate disaster (Bill Gates) 2021
Gates provides a menu of technological alternatives for solving the carbon problem over the next few decades. He assumes some won’t work and some will, but he thinks all of them need investment to make sure the successful ones are developed. Some of the more far-fetched ideas will probably be too late, even if successful. Gates is putting his money where his mouth is, by investing billions in many of the technologies he lists. Gates agrees that the top priority is renewable electricity. But unlike the authors of the two books above, he also concentrates on manufacturing, agriculture, and large-scale transportation problems. In addition, he emphasizes the need for capturing and sequestering carbon from the air. (Griffith mostly ignores this idea, and Nussey is hostile to it.)
The Gates book is (perhaps surprisingly) very well written and accessible. It takes a big-picture, long-term view of the whole world, and it emphasizes solutions that involve major industries, huge investments, and technologies that are promising but nowhere near ready for the market. That is a contrast with the focus on small-scale, local projects of the two books above. This book discusses the widest range of options of any book I have read, which means it will continue to be a useful resource as technologies develop in the years to come.
Lesson for Kendal: Solar and batteries are likely to be key components in our 2050 strategy, but there could be some unexpected new resources too. And in addition to the energy we use here on campus, don’t forget issues like the carbon emissions involved in the manufacture of building materials, in agriculture, and in air travel. They are part of the climate problem we need to help solve.
Speed and Scale (John Doerr) 2021
Doerr, a venture capitalist, lays out the details, including costs, of one potential route to carbon neutrality for the world. Doerr organizes his approach into “objectives” and “key results” (OKRs), a useful management tool. If capitalism is to solve this problem (which it created), Doerr is pointing to a reasonable solution. Like Gates, Doerr takes a broad, world-wide perspective on the climate problem. But unlike Gates, Doerr focuses on a single, plausible set of technologies and solutions, and provides specific targets for each. That it a good framework for moving ahead with a specific plan (always allowing for changes as the various technologies evolve).
Lesson for Kendal: As we nudge our elected leaders toward solutions to the climate problem, Doerr’s plan provides some specific objectives we can lobby for.
Drawdown (Paul Hawken, ed.) 2017; updated 2020 on Project Drawdown at http://www.drawdown.org
Drawdown provides 80 steps the world can take toward carbon neutrality. The title “Drawdown” refers to the period that begins when we achieve net zero, when atmospheric carbon stops rising and actually starts to decline, and the book is full of information about how we can reach that point. It contains accessible descriptions of a wide variety of options, and they are ranked according to their potential to reduce carbon emissions. But there isn’t really a “plan”, just a collection of steps that can be taken. There is an emphasis on health and food supply that is missing from the other books. Solutions involving the developing world get far more detailed treatment than in any of the other books.
The data in the book is updated on the website, drawdown.org. A lot of the rankings have changed since 2017. For example, “Improved clean cookstoves” is now (in April 2022) ranked 9th. It was 21st in the book. “Educating Girls” and “Family Planning” were tied for 6th in the book. They are no longer mentioned explicitly, but are apparently part of “Health and Education” (now 2nd).
Lesson for Kendal: If you are interested in improving the lives of people in the developing world while also addressing the climate crisis, this book has many good ideas. It is very readable and lavishly illustrated.
100% clean renewable energy and storage for everything (Mark Z. Jacobson) 2020
This is a very important textbook about all the aspects of getting to zero carbon. It is not an easy read, however. It consists of 425 two-column data-packed pages, intended for advanced college students who already have experience dealing with equations and chemical formulas. But if you really want to dig into the technologies underpinning sustainability, this is your best source. Jacobson makes the case that the world could get to 100% renewable energy (with no nuclear power and no carbon offsets) in about ten years, if the undertaking had popular and political support. Because those supporting factors are missing, he figures it will take until 2050.
For me, this book occupies the role in my work on sustainability that Amory Lovins’ book “Reinventing Fire” (see below) occupied ten years ago: it provides all the ingredients needed for a roadmap to a zero-carbon world.
Public libraries won’t have this book, but they can get it for you on interlibrary loan.
Lesson for Kendal: We can get our community to carbon neutrality a lot sooner than 2050. All the tools exist, and they can be cost-justified. We only need resident commitment and administrative willingness.
Four additional, important books. Of the four following books, the first three aren’t about getting to net-zero carbon, but they raise important issues relating to that process. The final book is included here because it is such a classic, and still relevant.
Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change (George Marshall) 2014
Why is it taking so long for the general public to get fully behind halting climate change? Psychological studies have shown that several aspects of the way we think lead us avoid the consideration of slow, long-term, or distant threats. That was fine earlier in human history, but it’s disastrous now. In addition, some of the stories and the framing around climate change can mislead the public about the need for action.
In this book, George Marshall lays out all the research and concludes with a valuable chapter of advice for discussing climate change in ways that will actually win over the skeptics and those who are uncertain. This is a must-read for those who write or speak to the public about climate change.
The Uninhabitable Earth (David Wallace-Wells) 2019
I don’t really suggest reading this book. It is a grim catalog of all the things that are likely to afflict the planet if climate change is not addressed. But if you want a grasp of what some of the worst-case scenarios could be, this is the book for you. It is well written and well documented.
Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, And Why It Matters (Steven E. Koonin) 2021
There are lots of things science doesn’t yet know about the climate, and Koonin lays them out for you. He’s especially good at explaining the limits of computer-based climate modeling. Koonin is not a climate-change denier, but many deniers have cherry-picked the information in this book to claim that climate change is not factually established. Yes, climate science is continually evolving, because that’s how science works. That doesn’t mean there’s any question about whether to act. It’s worth reading this book to understand which kinds of evidence are solid and which still require more work. If you are interested, please check out my previous review of this book.
Reinventing fire (Amory Lovins) 2011
Written more than a decade ago but still useful, this was a key early work laying out the problems and potential solutions to climate change, including the difficult-to-address industrial aspects. This book marked a turning point for me personally, because it helped me understand that solutions to the climate problem were indeed possible, and it showed me where to focus my energies. Much of its wisdom is still relevant today.