Report provides a preview of the 'new Arctic'

I’ve been covering how climate change is affecting the Arctic for a few years now, so for me, the release of the annual Arctic Report Card every December is usually something of a ho-hum moment.

Overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and representing the work of dozens of Arctic experts, the report card is a useful summary of the changes taking place in a region that’s warming faster than any other on the planet. But since I write about those changes throughout the year, to me it feels a bit like old news.

But the release of this year’s report card, on Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, felt different. As I reported, it contained the usual detailed information on the state of the region — second-highest average temperatures on record, drastically low sea ice, shrunken snow cover that led to severe wildfires, and more.

This time, though, the framing was different. It was not just that the Arctic is changing — that’s been said umpteen times. It was that the region is shifting to a fundamentally different climate, that it is well on its way to becoming a place defined more by open ocean and rain and less by sea ice and snow. The Frozen North that we know is fading, and that will bring — and already is bringing — other changes far to the south.

The report felt like it was signaling a sea change (or perhaps more appropriately, an ice change), both for the region and for Arctic scientists. As Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska and one of the report’s editors, put it, change in the Arctic is happening so quickly “there is no reason to think that in 30 years much of anything will be as it is today.”

It’s not a comfortable thought. Nor is it necessarily new. Scientists have recognized that this shift is occurring, and there have been a number of studies about it. I wrote about one in September in which the researchers suggested that for sea ice, a permanent change has already happened.

But the “new Arctic” discussion has stayed largely within the confines of science and academia. To see it become the centerpiece of a report geared to a general audience was, for me at least, remarkable. Perhaps it will jolt more of the public into supporting action to combat climate change.

Five climate books from 2020

In 2020, we should congratulate ourselves for having read anything longer than the back of a cereal box or, failing that, a tweet. So much chaos! So many distractions!

Here’s hoping that 2021 brings us clearer heads and time to think. Here are some of the books about climate change and the fate of our planet that those of us on Team Climate liked this year. If you decide to buy one for yourself or for a holiday gift, please consider using an independent bookstore or a website like to support your neighbors who keep books alive.

The Largest Polar Expedition of All Time
By Esther Horvath, Sebastian Grote and Katharina Weiss-Tuider

Is there an armchair traveler or an armchair scientist (or both) on your gift list? This might be just the book for them. It documents the largest Arctic science expedition ever undertaken, in which a German icebreaker drifted in pack ice for a year while a rotating team of researchers probed the ice, ocean, clouds and other elements to better understand how the region is changing as the world warms.

It’s a large-format book, which does justice to the extraordinary photographs by Esther Horvath, who was on board the icebreaker for several months. You might recognize some of them, as Ms. Horvath is a friend of the Times’ Climate team and her work has often graced our articles. (My favorite is a shot of a pair of inquisitive polar bears checking out equipment set out on the ice; it won Ms. Horvath an award in the 2020 World Press Photo contest.)

But it would be a mistake to call “Into the Arctic Ice” just another pretty coffee table book. The text covers the serious science that was conducted throughout the year, much of it during 24-hour darkness. Together, the images and words draw a vivid portrait of a journey like no other. — Henry Fountain

One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret
By Catherine Coleman Flowers

It is easy to turn away from what Ms. Flowers calls America’s dirty secret. But don’t. Especially not now, not when the country is in the throes of a profound reckoning about its inequities.

Ms. Flowers’ book is ostensibly about the indignity of living without proper sanitation, chronicling the lives of people who can’t afford to install or repair septic tanks under their houses in rural Alabama. The book is also a memoir of growing up Black in Alabama (her short praise song to the front porch is one of my favorite passages) as well as an episodic tour of her town, Lowndes County, a crucible of the civil rights movement.

The book’s greatest value, though, is in the details Ms. Flowers, a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, shares about how to organize for social change, which, you quickly learn, requires far more steady strategic thinking than generating bursts of public outrage. It’s less about one woman’s fight than a primer on how to fight. — Somini Sengupta

In Search of Future Fossils
By David Farrier

This is the kind of book that stays with you — which is appropriate, since it’s about the persistence of the junk and other objects we are leaving behind, from plastic waste to spent nuclear fuel. Our own fossils, so to speak. Mr. Farrier writes, “Our future fossils are our legacy and therefore our opportunity to choose how we will be remembered. They will record whether we carried on heedlessly despite the dangers we knew to lie ahead, or whether we cared enough to change our course.” It’s a thought-provoking and elegiac book that asks us to think about the generations to come, and what they might think of us if we don’t mend our wasteful ways. — John Schwartz

Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis
Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson

The collection of essays, poems and artwork by more than 40 women on topics ranging from sustainable architecture to how Indigenous values could inform the climate movement is a powerful read that fills one with, dare I say … hope?

Since its release in September, the editors have made good on their desire for action, forming “circles” dedicated to both discussing the writings and uplifting female climate leaders committed to tackling the climate crisis. So far, more than 350 people have signed up to lead such circles. You can go here to learn more about “All We Can Save” circles and how to get involved. — Lisa Friedman

Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States
By Leah Cardamore Stokes

There are plenty of books out there with ideas for solving global warming. But that raises the question: Why aren’t we doing those things? In this book, Ms. Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, dives deep into the history of how fossil fuel companies and electric utilities have quietly worked to undermine clean-energy laws across the United States. It’s a compelling story in its own right, but Ms. Stokes also develops some insightful theories about how and why political change happens (or doesn’t). If you’re interested in the nuances of climate policy, I’d really recommend this one. — Brad Plumer

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