It wasn’t that long ago that the world seemed almost giddy about the climate issue. In late 2015, nations had come together in Paris and reached a landmark agreement to keep global warming in check. Among the reasons to celebrate: The United States had finally agreed to participate in global climate action. After so many decades of stalemate, things were beginning to move in the right direction.
The Paris Agreement wasn’t perfect, though, and certainly wasn’t enough to guarantee a safe future. For one thing, it’s voluntary. For another, the emissions targets that countries around the world committed to won’t keep our coastlines from being swamped or small island nations from vanishing. Nor would it wash away the current impacts of climate upheaval: heat waves, droughts, increasingly severe storms, floods, famines, and resource conflicts. To get to a better place on all this, scientists and activists agreed, we would need to act extraordinarily fast to keep unburnable carbon in the ground, get key rich nations like the United States to significantly amp up their climate goals, and reign in corporate polluters.
Against this backdrop, renowned climate scientist James Hansen analyzed recent ice sheet activity and warned that we were in for much more swift, and much more severe, sea level rise than previously thought. Analysts tracking oil, gas, and coal reserves warned that meeting meaningful climate goals would mean keeping even vaster amounts of those reserves in the ground. Pipeline battles amplified. And international financial bodies, concerned about market instability, issued tougher warnings that significant oil, gas, and coal assets should begin being written off corporate ledgers. Everyone seemed to agree: what happened over the next four or so years would be critical in determining whether or not we can avert climate chaos by mid to late century.
And then, of course, came the new US administration, led by a president who wants to pull out of the Paris Agreement, abandon the Clean Power Plan, amp up fossil fuel extraction, lift regulations on the pollution it causes, lower auto emission standards for cars and trucks made in the United States, and push ahead on controversial pipelines. His first weeks in office show us that the last hurrah for big oil, gas, and coal—industries threatened by global realities as never before—has begun.
What does all this mean for US book publishers?
At Chelsea Green Publishing, where I acquire and develop books, we’ve long understood that the climate issue reaches into every corner of our lives—from the way we structure our local, regional, and national economies and politics to the way we grow our food and feed our families; build, renovate, locate, and power our homes; transport ourselves and our goods; structure our workplaces, communities, our energy grids, industries; and so much more.
Books on our list map out the big picture and dive into on-the-ground solutions. They investigate the links between climate and growth, teach farmers and ranchers how to enrich soil so that it stores more and more carbon in the ground, help business leaders motivate change in their companies and industries, and build the systems-thinking skills necessary to tackle such a complex issue. Some also explore the way we communicate about climate, and the way we cope with and adapt to a changing world. Many point to ways in which building resiliency also improves our lives.
But for us and other publishers, the current political reality heightens the urgency of the climate issue, and calls upon us to address it in new ways, bring unconventional solutions to the table, and balance books that have short, medium, and long-term impacts—as well as shelf lives. Sharing knowledge rapidly but wisely will be key. Here are a few things to consider as we do.
Don’t engage in fake debate. Virtually all scientists have long agreed that climate change is not only real, but also the single greatest threat we face at every level of society, and in every nation of the world. That reality has spurred an equally long industry-funded campaign to discredit climate science and the warnings it has inspired—and to cultivate skeptics. Over the years, that disinformation campaign lured many in the media into giving those skeptics equal play when reporting on the climate. The result was decades of lost progress. With key administration appointees claiming to be climate deniers, publishers should take great care not to ignite this fake debate once again.
Balance angst with hope. Many publishers have seen interest in bad-news climate books flag, with some rare exceptions. That doesn’t mean that we need to hold back on the dire news increasingly coming our way—doing so would be irresponsible—but it does mean that we need to heighten the focus on solutions, without downplaying the challenges.
Find a way to talk to climate deniers. Some people are motivated to action by the harsh realities of climate change. Others are frozen by it. That paralysis, says eco-psychologist Per Espen Stoknes, can be a big step on the road to denial. One book I wish I had been able to read thirty-some years ago, when I first started publishing on climate, is Stoknes’s What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming. It explains why the very ways we’ve communicated about climate often distance people from taking climate action. Even climate deniers, he explains, can be nudged into positive action.
Don’t offload the problem to the future. It’s easy to discount the climate backlash we’re seeing in the current administration as a temporary woe—something that future efforts can mitigate. It’s also easy to think that people are too overwhelmed with the climate issue to respond in great numbers to new books about it. In reality, though, we can do vast amounts of damage in the next four years, and it is an all-hands-on-deck time.
Even if you aren’t a mission-driven publisher, remember that everything you publish on climate has a hand in shaping a movement—one that began forming in a new way when 400,000 people swarmed the streets of New York City during the first Peoples Climate March. But also one that is, in many ways, in its infancy. How that movement takes shape has much to do with how we’ll live on earth in 2050 and beyond. And how it is informed will determine its success.