Review: 3 books tackle aspects of climate change, from hard science to the beauty of what is lost



As our planet teeters towards its 52nd Earth Day on Friday, April 22, the global medical report isn’t… great. This month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that if we don’t stop dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as soon as possible, we will soon be living in hell. California experienced the driest first three months of the year in its history. The Antarctic sea ice is melting before our eyes.

Three new books explore the perilous realities of life on Earth in 2022. One takes a holistic view; another focuses on fiery California. The third celebrates the beauty of the Sierra Nevada, while acknowledging the possible loss of that beauty.

“Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, 1979 to the Present” by Eugene Linden. Photo: Penguin Press

“Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, 1979 to the Present”
By Eugene Linden
(Penguin Press; 336 pages; $28)

In every good doomsday movie, there’s the moment when a brave scientist tries to alert the powers that be to impending doom – and fails. Think of astronomer Jennifer Lawrence futilely warning President Meryl Streep of the approaching killer comet in last year’s “Don’t Look Up.” “Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, 1979 to the Present” by veteran science journalist Eugene Linden covers 50 years of such moments. It is a detailed account of climate science and policy from the Jimmy Carter-era government’s first recognition that global warming was a threat to today. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, the Koch brothers and Greta Thunberg’s moving speech at the United Nations in 2019 – they’re all here, and the avalanche of mostly grim news can become overwhelming.

Eugene Linden is the author of “Fire and Flood”. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

Still, Linden is a clear and concise writer. He knows his climate science, and “Fire and Flood” makes points that stick with you. First, it took a few years for the science to settle – and early disagreements between experts fueled climate change denial for decades. Second, human beings are bad at grasping serious but gradual threats. Linden writes, “We naturally tend to worry about what’s in front of us, not about the threat of invisible gases miles above our heads.” Above all, Linden argues, the Earth has been betrayed by a business and financial community that prioritizes short-term profits over planetary health. “What we have right now is a blind, amoral system that invites the clever to play and manipulate. … It’s a system whose flaw is to chase the cliffs.

“In Hell” by Stuart Palley Photo: Blackstone Editions

“Into the Inferno: A Photographer’s Journey Through California’s Megafires and Fallout”
By Stuart Palley
(Blackstone Publishing; 240 pages; $28.99)

Stuart Palley’s memoir, “Into the Inferno: A Photographer’s Journey Through California’s Megafires and Fallout,” is the product of a decade’s work capturing California as it burns.

“Turns out I was preconditioned to be drawn to wildfires.” Palley writes, crediting a Southern California upbringing where smoke and flames were always in the background. After studying photojournalism at the University of Missouri, he came home knowing he wanted to shoot fires.

Stuart Palley is the author of “Into the Inferno”. Photo: Blackstone Editions

What makes “Into the Inferno” compelling is that it shows a state struggling to combat a new era of megafires and a young photographer learning to photograph them. Palley dresses in firefighter gear and undergoes firefighting training. He acquires a high-end Nikon and a low-end 10-year-old Ford Expedition which he dubs the Fire Wagon. He lives like a firefighter, ready to respond 24/7: “It all comes down to being ready to get to a fire quickly and take pictures when the action unfolds.”

He succeeds. Palley draws on the 2015 Lake County Valley Fire, the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura County, and the aftermath of the 2018 Campfire in Butte County. His images of flaming hills and charred neighborhoods (many of which are included in this book) are nightmarish, hallucinatory. Palley’s cameraman skills and line of fire nerve have earned him publication in The Washington Post, Wired and more. They also bring broken relationships and post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, he writes, there is nothing like photographing a forest fire: “You realize your place in the universe. … Nature, the planet, whatever you call it, shows us who’s boss.

“The Paradise Notebooks: 90 Miles Across the Sierra Nevada” by Richard J. Nevle and Steven Nightingale. Photo: Comstock Publishing

“The Paradise Notebooks: 90 Miles Through the Sierra Nevada”
By Richard J. Nevle and Steven Nightingale
(Comstock Publishing Associates; 192 pages; $29.95)

“The Paradise Notebooks: 90 Miles Across the Sierra Nevada”, by Richard J. Nevle and Steven Nightingale, guides you through a sweeter California: still Eden, even if damaged.

Richard J. Nevle is the co-author of “The Paradise Notebooks”. Photo: Chloe Peterson-Nafziger

In 2017, hiker friends Nevle and Nightingale set out with their wives and daughters for a 13-day trek from west to east through the Sierra Nevada. “The Paradise Notebooks” is a joint journal of this expedition, 21 paired essays on subjects from the Sierra, from rivers to aspens to western tanagers.

The result is a thoughtful, intimate and moving book. Nevle, a geologist who is deputy director of Stanford’s Earth Systems Program, sheds light on the physical forces — collision of continental plates, crushing of glaciers — that are sculpting the mountain range. The poet Nightingale wields metaphysics: a shard of obsidian pushes him to write: “The spirit is stone and light, river, comet / Confidence and history, gut, sun, sonnet…”

Steven Nightingale is the co-author of “The Paradise Notebooks”. Photo: Comstock Publishing

“Notebooks” is not blind to problems, personal and planetary. Backpackers suffer from sore feet and severe thunderstorms. Once-beautiful views are being scorched by California’s warming climate. Nevle looks across a mountainside to see “much of the once dark sea of ​​coniferous forest is dead”.

And yet, in the end, “Notebooks” finds hope on the track. Climbing to the 10,689-foot Kaweah Gap, Nevle observes that the higher elevations of the Sierra are “broken all over,” their granite slopes heaved by melting snow and ice. Dreary and dangerous terrain, and yet, in the cracks between the rocks, you see flowers. “Look closely,” he advises, “there are little graces everywhere.” Just like this book.

Author Events

Launch and reading of the book: Richard Nevle and Steven Nightingale, along with special guest Deborah Levoy, read “The Paradise Notebooks”. In person. 5:30 p.m. May 6. Free. Stanford Educational Farm, 175 Electioneer Road, Stanford University. Register here.

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