Books For Our New, Climate-Changed Summers

After the daunting heatwaves and storms of this summer, our cheery visions of the season seem at odds with our climate-changed reality.

Officially, the end of summer is marked by the autumnal equinox on September 23. Unofficially, summer ends some weeks earlier, with the start of classes in the nation’s schools and colleges. This year, however, there is a third way to define “the end of summer;” a growing chorus of voices wonders whether “summer” itself has ended, whether climate change has irrevocably contradicted our traditional, cheery visions of the season.

Writing for the New York Times, environmental journalist David Gelles asks “Is It Too Hot for Fun in the Summertime?” In the pages of Catalyst, the quarterly publication of the Union of Concerned Scientists, UCS fellow Derrick Jackson observes that “summer rituals—and healthy childhoods—are increasingly threatened by climate change.” And in other pieces, parents and proprietors have lamented the climate-forced closing, or severe curtailing, of summer camps.

Can our traditional notions of “summer reading” survive this radical revision of the season?

With this month’s bookshelf, Yale Climate Connections offers a “yes and no” answer to this question. Yes, we’ll still have books that thrill, books that offer quirky takes on history, books that take us to new places, and books that connect us with nature and the soil. In short, we’ll still have enticing and eminently readable selections of fiction and nonfiction. But, no, the carefree vibe of summers past is gone.

In the list below, readers will find a harrowing but bestselling story of heatwaves, an offbeat history of climate science and politics, a personal account of a scientific expedition to Antarctica, two studies of the impacts of climate change on American locales, a history of dams, two travelogues, and reflections on gardening and birding.

Rounding out the list is a selection of fiction: a collection of short stories and two immersive novels.

All but one of these titles were published in 2023. Several are August releases; they are “end of summer” books for the year that summer as we knew it may have ended.

As always, the descriptions of the titles are adapted from copy provided by their publishers.

The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet by Jeff Goodell (Little, Brown & Co., 2023, 400 pages, $29.00) 

The Heat Will Kill You First is about the extreme ways in which our planet is already changing. It is about why spring is coming a few weeks earlier and fall is coming a few weeks later. It is about what will happen to our lives and our communities when typical summer days in Chicago or Boston go from 90° F to 110 °F. A heat wave, environmental reporter Jeff Goodell explains, is a predatory event — one that culls the most vulnerable people. But as heat waves become more intense and more common, they will become more democratic. Masterfully reported, mixing the latest scientific insight with on-the-ground storytelling, Goodell’s new book tackles the big questions and shows how extreme heat is a force beyond anything we have reckoned with before.

The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial by David Lipsky (W.W.W. Norton 2023, 496 pages, $32.50) 

In 1956, the New York Times prophesied that once global warming really kicked in, we could see parrots in the Antarctic. In 2010, when science deniers had control of the climate story, Senator James Inhofe built an igloo on the Washington Mall and plunked a sign on top: “Al Gore’s New Home: Honk If You Love Climate Change.” In The Parrot and the Igloo, best-selling author David Lipsky tells the astonishing story of how we moved from one extreme to the other. Featuring an indelible cast of heroes and villains, mavericks and swindlers, The Parrot and the Igloo traces the long, strange march of climate science and delivers a real-life tragicomedy — one that captures the extraordinary dance of science, money, and American character.

The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth by Elizabeth Rush (Milkweed Editions 2023, 424 pages, $30.00)

In 2019, fifty-seven scientists and crew set out onboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer. Their destination: Thwaites Glacier, believed to be both rapidly deteriorating and capable of making a catastrophic impact on global sea-level rise. In The Quickening, Elizabeth Rush documents their voyage, offering the sublime—seeing an iceberg for the first time—alongside the workaday moments of this groundbreaking expedition. Along the way, she takes readers on a personal journey around a more intimate question: What does it mean to bring a child into the world at this time of radical change? From the author of Rising, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, The Quickening is an astonishing, vital book about Antarctica, climate change, and motherhood. 

The Octopus in the Parking Garage: A Call for Climate Resilience by Rob Verchick (Columbia University Press 2023, 288 pages, $32.00) 

One morning in Miami Beach, an unexpected guest showed up in a luxury condominium complex’s parking garage: an octopus. The image quickly went viral. But the octopus — and the combination of infrastructure quirks and climate impacts that left it stranded—is more than a funny meme. It’s a potent symbol of the disruptions that a changing climate has already brought to our doorsteps. Rob Verchick examines how we can manage the risks we can no longer avoid. Although reducing CO2 emissions is essential, we need to address the damage we have already caused, especially for disadvantaged communities. Engaging and accessible, The Octopus in the Parking Garage empowers readers to face the climate crisis and shows what we can do to adapt and thrive.

Charleston: Race, Water, and the Coming Storm by Susan Crawford (Pegasus Books 2023, 336 pages, $28.95)

At least 13 million Americans will have to move away from American coasts in coming decades, as rising sea levels and increasingly severe storms put lives at risk and cause billions in damages. In Charleston, South Carolina, denial, widespread development, and public complacency about racial issues compound these problems. In her new book, legal scholar Susan Crawford tells the story of a city that has played a central role in America’s painful racial history and now stands at the intersection of climate and race. With its explosive gentrification, Charleston illustrates our tendency to value development above all else. But Charleston also stands for the need to change our ways—to build higher, drier, densely-connected places where all citizens can live safely.

Cracked: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World by Steven Hawley (Patagonia Books 2023, 320 pages, $28.00)

During the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the messy truth about the legacy of last century’s dam-building binge has come to light. Governments plugged the nation’s rivers in a misguided attempt to turn them into revenue streams. Water control projects’ main legacy will be one of needless ecological destruction, fostering a host of unnecessary injustices. Cracked: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World is a speed date with the history of water control. Examples from the American West reveal that the costs of building and maintaining a sprawling water storage and delivery complex in an arid world is well beyond the benefits furnished. But success stories elsewhere point to a possible future where rivers run free and the Earth restores itself.

Soil and Spirit: Cultivation and Kinship in the Web of Life by Scott Chaskey (Milkweed Editions 2023, 264 pages, 18.00 paperback)

As a farmer with decades spent working in fields, Scott Chaskey has been shaped by daily attention to the earth. He has combined a longstanding commitment to food sovereignty and organic farming with a belief that humble attention to microbial life and diversity of species provides invaluable lessons for building healthy communities. In this lively collection of essays, Chaskey explores the evolution of his perspective — as a farmer and as a poet. He recalls learning to cultivate plants and nourish reciprocal relationships among species, even as he was reading Yeats and beginning to write poems. “Enlivened by decades of work in open fields washed by the salt spray of the Atlantic” — Scott Chaskey has given us a seed of hope and regeneration.

Climate Travels: How Ecotourism Changes Mindsets and Motivates Action by Michael M. Gunter, Jr. (Columbia University Press 2023, 360 pages, $30.00 paperback)

Many accounts of climate change depict disasters striking faraway places. How can seeing the consequences of human impacts up close help us grasp how global warming affects us and our neighbors? Michael M. Gunter, Jr. takes readers around the United States to bear witness to the many faces of the climate crisis: sea level rise in Virginia, floods in Tennessee, Maine lobsters migrating away from American waters, and imperiled ecosystems in national parks, from Alaskan permafrost to the Florida Keys. But Gunter also finds inspiring initiatives to mitigate and adapt to these threats. By showing how travel can help bring the reality of climate change home, Gunter offers readers a hopeful message about how to take action on the local level themselves.

Avid travelers should also check out A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World by David Gessner (Torrey House Press 2023, 320 pages, $21.95 paperback).

Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World by Christian Cooper (Random House 2023, 304 pages, $28.00)

Christian Cooper is a self-described “Blerd” (Black nerd) who devotes every spring to gazing upon the migratory birds that stop to rest in Central Park, just a subway ride away from where he lives. While in the park one morning in May 2020, an encounter with a dog walker exploded age-old racial tensions. Cooper’s video of the incident went viral. In his new book, Cooper tells the story of his extraordinary life leading up to the now-infamous incident in Central Park and shows how a life spent looking up at the birds prepared him, in the most uncanny of ways, to be a gay, Black man in America today. Equal parts memoir, travelogue, and primer on the art of birding, Better Living Through Birding shares what birds can teach us about life, if we would look and listen. 

No More Fairy Tales: Stories to Save Our Planet, edited by D.A. Baden (Habitat Press 2022, 352 pages, $8.95 paperback)  

A collection of inspiring, funny, dark, mysterious, tragic, romantic, dramatic, upbeat and fantastical short stories. These 24 stories are written by a variety of authors, with the aim to inspire readers with positive visions of what a sustainable society might look like and how we might get there. The stories are diverse in style, ranging from whodunnits to sci-fi, romance to family drama, comedy to tragedy, and cover a range of solution types from high-tech to nature-based solutions, to more systemic aspects relating to our culture and political economy.‘There’s an abundance of imagination in these stories,” says climate activist Bill McKibben. “They’ll make you think again, and in new ways, about the predicament of the planet and its people.”

The Deluge: A Novel by Stephen Markley (Simon & Schuster 2023, 896 pages, $32.50)

In the first decades of the 21st century, the world is convulsing, its governments mired in gridlock even as an ecological crisis advances. America is in upheaval, battered by violent weather and extreme politics. In California in 2013, Tony Pietrus, a scientist studying deposits of undersea methane, receives a death threat. His fate will become bound to a stunning cast of characters — a drug addict, an advertising strategist, a neurodivergent mathematician, a cunning eco-terrorist, a religious zealot, and a brazen young activist named Kate Morris, who, in the mountains of Wyoming, begins a project that will alter the course of history. A singular achievement, The Deluge is a once-in-a-generation novel that meets the moment as few works of art ever have.

The Great Transition: A Novel by Nick Fuller Googins (Atria Books / Simon & Schuster 2023, 352 pages, $27.99)

Emi Vargas, whose parents helped save the world, is tired of being told how lucky she is to have been born after the climate crisis. But following the public assassination of a dozen climate criminals, Emi’s mother Kristina disappears. A determined Emi and her father, Larch, journey from their home in Nuuk, Greenland to New York City. Thirty years earlier, Larch first came to New York with a team of volunteers to save the city from rising waters and torrential storms. Kristina was on the frontlines of a different battle, fighting massive wildfires that ravaged the western U.S. They became part of a movement that changed the world. A triumphant debut, The Great Transition is a breathtaking rendering of our near future, told through the story of one family.

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

This story originally appeared at Yale Climate Connections and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.