Your essential climate change reading list

Alice Gawthrop 27 July 2022

If the recent heatwave has thoughts of climate change on your mind, explore these works of fiction that offer new perspectives on a burning issue

After the initial excitement of a hot UK summer at last, the recent heatwave may have left you feeling a little concerned about climate change. Perhaps you saw someone’s Instagram story warning you that this is the coldest summer of the rest of your life, and now you’re wondering what to do next.

Reading a work of fiction may seem like an odd choice of action, but books are a great starting point for coming to terms with certain harsh realities. So, if you want to brush up on your climate change understanding, but would rather avoid the cold hard numbers and dry facts of a non-fiction book, this is the reading list for you.  

Books full of heart as well as hard truths, they will bring climate change a little closer to home for you, but they will also remind you that you can always take action

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour Barbara Kingsolver

The migration patterns of monarch butterflies may seem a slightly mundane starting point for a story, but it’s a challenge Barbara Kingsolver takes on expertly. Flight Behaviour follows Dellarobia, a young mother who is on her way to start an affair when she unexpectedly stumbles across a swarm of monarch butterflies. 

This discovery starts a chain of events that turns Dellarobia’s life upside down. The unexpected presence of monarch butterflies in the Appalachian mountains instead of Mexico, caused by global warming, brings other unexpected presences into Dellarobia’s home, including a handsome scientist named Ovid. Over the course of the book, Dellarobia comes upon a startling realisation: just as the world is transforming in ways she never expected, so too can her life, for better or for worse. 

"Kingsolver encourages us to look a little closer at the world around us and see how it is changing"

What to the rest of America is barely a blip on their radar, little more than a quick news story, to Dellarobia’s family is utterly life-changing. By tying her representation of climate change so closely to family life, Kingsolver effectively takes it from something abstract and faraway and gives it a face that will be recognisable to us all, encouraging us to look a little closer at the world around us and see how it is changing.  

Read more: How to save the endangered monarch butterfly

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation Jeff VanderMeer

A pioneer of the “New Weird” literary genre, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is certainly a strange book. The first in the Southern Reach trilogy, it follows four women as they enter “Area X”, an uninhabited area that has been closed to the public for years. They are unnamed, identified instead by their job roles: biologist, anthropologist, psychologist, and surveyor.  

"Things start weird and get progressively weirder"

The book takes the form of the biologist’s field journal, in which she records her encounters of not-entirely-natural phenomena in Area X and of the other women in her expedition. Things start weird and get progressively weirder, with towers that go down instead of up, mysterious living writing and diaries left behind by previous expeditions into Area X.

VanderMeer has a longstanding interest in the environment, and Area X can be read as a metaphor for climate change in the way that it is slowly changing the world around us into something a little alien and a lot dangerous. A must-read for anyone who cares about the environment—but be prepared, this one comes with a side serving of existential dread

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones Jesmyn Ward

Inspired by her own experiences, Jesmyn Ward hones in on a specific 12-day period in the life of one family in Mississippi as they attempt to hold their own against Hurricane Katrina. Although it is not specifically about climate change, Salvage the Bones is an unflinching depiction of the natural disasters that are becoming all the more common due to global warming

The story is told from the perspective of Esch, who must navigate unexpected pregnancy and tricky family dynamics on top of an impending Category 5 hurricane. Esch comes from a poor Black community in the American south. They are used to hurricanes, and they are used to having to make do on their own, boarding up their houses and settling in for the storm while their richer neighbours can drive away to safety.  

Ultimately, it is a story about home, family, and the importance of community in the face of adversity—in particular, the adversity that is faced by people on the margins of society, who are often neglected during crises. Ward demonstrates how existing inequalities are exacerbated in the face of catastrophe, and it becomes an urgent call to ensure that no one is left behind in the fight against climate change.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler

Parable of the Sower Octavia E Butler

At the time of writing, Octavia E Butler chose to set her dystopian tale many, many years into the future—2024. It’s a little unsettling that the year in which Butler envisioned this environmental and political apocalypse is now so close.  

Parable of the Sower takes the form of Lauren Oya Olamina’s diary. Lauren is a teenager growing up in a gated community in California as the world collapses beyond the neighbourhood's walls. As the environmental, political, and social situation worsens, Lauren is drawn into the chaos and finds herself embarking on a journey to safety elsewhere with an assorted group of survivors.  

"Butler emphasises the action we can take to shape the world around us rather than sitting back and accepting things as they are"

Both a gripping survival story and a thoughtful commentary on power dynamics in times of crisis, Parable of the Sower is, at times, a bleak vision of a no-longer-distant future. However, there is a strong sense of hope throughout. Butler emphasises autonomy and responsibility, and the action we can take to shape the world around us rather than sitting back and accepting things as they are. It is, above all else, a call to action.  

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