Nothing is more definitive than extinction, nor more brutal. Given the rate at which species are dying off as humans destroy their homes and heat up the planet, it’s no surprise that extinction features prominently in a new series of climate books. Heavily, but by no means tediously.
The British naturalist writer Peter Marren tackles the subject with admirable brilliance in After their extinction: past, present and future extinctions (Hodder Studio £16.99). We are witnessing, he argues, a sixth mass extinction in which species are again disappearing at an abnormally high rate. The difference is that this time the cause is us.
As depressing as it may sound, there are benefits. The threat of extinction, he writes, has spurred an unprecedented wave of efforts to find and catalog species before they become extinct. Half of the world’s frogs and sharks have been discovered in the past 50 years.
Plus, many extinct creatures live on in our imaginations. The flightless dodo is still one of the most famous birds in the world, although the Dutch liked to call it “dod-aars” or “fat ass”, and its name seems to come from the Portuguese word for “crazy”.
But above all, the threat of extinction has accelerated the work of environmental conservation. Marine conservation successes are at the heart of Charles Clover’s latest book, Revive the sea: How to save our oceans (Witness books £22).
Clover, an environmental journalist turned conservationist, is known for his 2004 book on overfishing, The end of the line, which was made into a documentary film. Fish stocks continue to be seriously over-exploited globally and, in some cases, to collapse. But his new book argues there is evidence the problem can be solved by ‘re-saving’ the sea, either actively restoring habitats and species or leaving them alone to recover.
These efforts have helped restore species that were once sliding towards extinction, such as bluefin tuna prized for sushi and sashimi. They have also boosted the recovery of conger eels and coral off the coasts of Dorset and Devon. The challenge now is to expand the effort faster and further.
Meanwhile, on land, conservation efforts can have worrying side effects for vulnerable humans, writes French environmental historian Guillaume Blanc in The invention of green colonialism (Policy £15.99).
Blanc’s scathing critique of the international conservation groups that helped create national parks in Africa caused a stir when it was first published in French in 2020. In this English translation by Helen Morrison, Blanc is quick to say that he does not wish to denigrate environmental causes. . Rather, he wants to highlight the impact the parks have had on Africans, thousands of whom he says have been driven out, sometimes violently, in favor of animals, forests or savannahs.
At least a million people were forced out of protected areas during the 20th century, reports Blanc, who focuses on Simien Park in Ethiopia, which he has visited on several occasions since 2007.
The problem stems from what he says is a misconception of Africa as one last untouched desert, and the West’s futile attempts to preserve it. “The more we destroy nature herethe harder we try to save it the,” he writes.
Finally, there is a new addition to the growing number of books offering creative policy solutions to climate change: Facing the climate impasse: How diplomacy, technology and politics can unlock a clean energy future (Yale University Press £20/$28).
Author Daniel S Cohan, an atmospheric scientist in the United States, says existing international systems for reducing emissions, such as the extremely slow UN climate negotiations, are not working. It makes a compelling case for building smaller, more nimble coalitions of countries willing to advance climate action, rather than waiting for laggards to catch up.
Elements of this approach have already begun to emerge. One of the biggest announcements from last year’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow was an $8.5 billion pledge from the United States and other wealthy nations to help South Africa quit. the coal. Cohan also advocates for “carbon clubs” of countries offering exclusive benefits that encourage joining and discourage leaving. These groups could have common carbon pricing systems and carbon tariffs on imports from non-members that do not set the price on carbon. Or they could coordinate green energy research.
His ideas may seem outlandish today, but as the thirst for new ways to tackle the climate problem grows, they are also welcome.
Pilita Clark is a business columnist for the FT
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