The Climate Book, created by Greta Thunberg review – an angry call for action

The environmental activist curates a supergroup of climate experts in a valuable set of essays, which at times risk overwhelming the reader

Being Greta Thunberg is no picnic. Still not yet 20, she has fame but not wealth and an army of obsessive detractors who cannot seem to decide whether she is a puritanical fanatic, a gullible puppet or an attention-seeking hypocrite and therefore call her all three. What they hate most, I think, is her effectiveness. A teenager from Sweden has succeeded in dramatically escalating the discourse around the climate emergency. Global heating is not a dire possibility but a present reality; reducing it is no longer just a question of looking after the planet but of preserving human civilisation in a recognisable form.

Thunberg is unusual (but should not be) in speaking and behaving in a manner appropriate to what the science tells us, ripping away the standard sticking plasters of reassurance and consolation to leave only raw urgency. She is often dismissed as a Cassandra but, of course, the whole point of the Cassandra story is that she was right. The Climate Book coincides with COP27, just as the UN environment agency has acknowledged that there is “no credible path” to keeping global heating below 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels. The current figure is 1.1; at the present rate of carbon emissions, it could go as high as 3.2 by the end of the century. As Thunberg writes: “Hope is something you have to earn.”

Thunberg’s first book was a slim jeremiad called No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, but there is nothing small about her latest (cue jibes about paper consumption). This time she takes on a curatorial role, convening a kind of supergroup of scientists, activists and authors, each of whom contributes a short essay about the mess we’re in. Big names such as Margaret Atwood and Naomi Klein mingle with veterans who have been raising the alarm for decades. Amid all the maps, graphs and hair-raising statistics, Thunberg’s connective essays give the book an angry moral pulse. The crisis cannot be addressed, she writes, without talking about “morality, justice, shame, responsibility and guilt”. She is not in the feelgood business.

Given the facts the writers are working with, the book is relentless and somewhat repetitive. The cumulative effect of all this writing about heatwaves, wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, floods, epidemics, species extinctions and melting ice sheets walks a fine line between galvanising and paralysing. Most people avoid climate news because it is liable to induce an overwhelming sensation of hopelessness and impotence, given the knowledge that the people with the power to minimise disaster (“avert” is no longer the right word) continue to make weak promises based on rigged figures. The Swedish journalist Alexandra Urisman Otto describes how, while researching a profile of Thunberg, she “went from ignorance and unconcern – straight down into the abyss of despair”. Then she became a climate reporter. First grief, then action. For George Monbiot, rewilding “could be our best defence against despair”.

What some readers, even those who recycle diligently and drive electric cars, may find hard to take is the book’s political prescriptions: systemic change, including an end to the obsession with economic growth. The phrase “green industrial revolution”, embraced by both Labour and Conservatives, inspires only contempt from Thunberg. When some parts of the world are suffering from the emissions produced by wealthier parts, Thunberg argues, avoiding the question of injustice would be dishonest.

And the truth is that if governments, journalists and citizens had acted appropriately as recently as the year of her birth, then the transition to sustainability could have been much smoother. Such is the price of denial. A fundamental rethink of how we live may be a tough sell, but, as David Wallace-Wells outlines, the global response to Covid-19 proves that we can rise to an emergency if the will is there.

Who is The Climate Book for? Those who have pitted themselves against scientific reality are unlikely to read it, and committed climate activists will know most of this already. It will make a dispiriting Christmas present. Still, it is a valuable resource for anyone who wants an ironclad summary of the problems, combined with some credible remedies. One phrase from entomologist Dave Goulson seems to summarise all 464 pages: “It is not quite too late.” Emphasis on the quite.

• The Climate Book, created by Greta Thunberg, is published by Allen Lane (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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