State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Books for the Climate and Sustainability Enthusiasts in Your Life

Wondering what to buy for that eco-conscious special someone in your life? Chances are they don’t want more plastic junk. How about giving the gift of deeper knowledge instead?

Below are eight books authored by experts at the Columbia Climate School and our affiliates within the past year or so. There’s something for nearly everyone in this mix, whether they’re a finance wonk, aspiring organic farmer, or just a nature-lover.

For books published by Columbia University Press, enter this discount code for 20% off your purchase: CUP20 

What Would Nature Do? A Guide for Our Uncertain Times

By Ruth DeFries, Co-Founding Dean of the Columbia Climate School and Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development

book cover for What Would Nature Do?
What Would Nature Do? was published by Columbia University Press in 2020 and went to paperback in June 2022.

From the publisher:

Not long ago, the future seemed predictable. Now, certainty about the course of civilization has given way to fear and doubt. Raging fires, ravaging storms, political upheavals, financial collapse, and deadly pandemics lie ahead—or are already here. The world feels less comprehensible and more dangerous, and no one, from individuals to businesses and governments, knows how to navigate the path forward.

Ruth DeFries argues that a surprising set of time-tested strategies from the natural world can help humanity weather these crises. Through trial and error over the eons, life has evolved astonishing and counterintuitive tricks in order to survive. DeFries details how a handful of fundamental strategies — investments in diversity, redundancy over efficiency, self-correcting feedbacks, and decisions based on bottom-up knowledge — enable life to persist through unpredictable, sudden shocks. Lessons for supply chains from a leaf’s intricate network of veins and stock market-saving “circuit breakers” patterned on planetary cycles reveal the power of these approaches for modern life. With humility and willingness to apply nature’s experience to our human-constructed world, DeFries demonstrates, we can withstand uncertain and perilous times. Exploring the lessons that life on Earth can teach us about coping with complexity, What Would Nature Do? offers timely options for civilization to reorganize for a safe and prosperous future.

Read more about What Would Nature Do?: How Lessons From Bees, Leaves and Our Own Blood May Help Us Save Civilization

Investing in the Era of Climate Change

By Bruce Usher, Columbia Climate School Faculty Member and Co-Director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School

book cover for Investing in the Era of Climate Change
Investing in the Era of Climate Change was published by Columbia University Press in October 2022.

From the publisher:

A climate catastrophe can be avoided, but only with a rapid and sustained investment in companies and projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To the surprise of many, this has already begun. Investors are abandoning fossil-fuel companies and other polluting industries and financing businesses offering climate solutions. Rising risks, evolving social norms, government policies, and technological innovation are all accelerating this movement of capital.

Bruce Usher offers an indispensable guide to the risks and opportunities for investors as the world faces climate change. He explores the role that investment plays in reducing emissions to net zero by 2050, detailing how to finance the winners and avoid the losers in a transforming global economy. Usher argues that careful examination of climate solutions will offer investors a new and necessary lens on the future for their own financial benefit and for the greater good. Companies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions will create great wealth, and, more importantly, they will provide a lifeline for humanity.

Grounded in academic and industry research, Usher’s insights bring clarity to a complex and controversial topic while illuminating the people behind the numbers. This book sets out a practical and actionable plan for investors that will alter the course of climate change.

Rethinking Education for Sustainable Development

Edited by Radhika Iyengar and Ozge Karadag Caman of the Center for Sustainable Development at the Columbia Climate School

The anthology also includes chapters by Columbia Climate School scholars at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

Rethinking Education for Sustainable Development was published by Bloomsbury Academic in November 2022.

From the publisher:

This book explores how education can be used as a tool to promote sustainability practices as the world faces huge challenges related to climate change and public health. The chapters consider all types of literacy approaches that fall under the umbrella of education for sustainable development (ESD). These approaches include scientific literacy, ecological literacy, health literacy, education on climate change and climate resilience, environmental education and others linking education, global health, and the environment more broadly. “Education” is used in the widest sense to incorporate non-formal, informal and formal/school settings. This volume will help to bring together these interconnected areas and interrogate their research methods, assumptions, field-based application and their policy potential.

Taking a critical approach to ESD, the book suggests new pedagogies, tools, and technologies to strengthen the way we educate about sustainability issues and go beyond the current thinking about ESD. The book includes a foreword by Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University.

Read more: New Book Reimagines Sustainable Development Education for All Audiences

Climate Change Adaptation: An Earth Institute Sustainability Primer

By Lisa Dale, Lecturer at Columbia Climate School

book cover for Climate Change Adaptation
Climate Change Adaptation was published by Columbia University Press in July 2022.

From the publisher:

Climate change policy has typically emphasized mitigation, calling for reducing emissions and shifting away from fossil fuels. Yet while these efforts have floundered, floods, wildfires, droughts, and other disasters are becoming more frequent and potent. As the risks escalate, we must ask how to adapt to a changing climate. How might farmers modify their practices to maximize food security? Can coastal cities protect their infrastructure from rising seas? Are there strategic ways for developing countries to combine climate resilience with economic growth and poverty reduction? For people and societies around the world, these questions are not theoretical: adaptation is already underway.

This book offers a concise overview of climate adaptation governance. In clear, accessible language, Lisa Dale describes key strategies that governments, communities, and the private sector are now deploying. She presents the theory and practice that underlie climate adaptation efforts at local and global scales, providing illuminating case studies that foreground the problems facing developing countries. Dale analyzes the effectiveness of a range of policy interventions, drawing out principles of good governance and discussing how practitioners can navigate complex tradeoffs. She emphasizes equity and inclusion, considering how climate adaptation policy can account for the needs of historically disadvantaged groups. Written for a wide audience, this book is an invaluable introduction for all readers interested in how societies can meet the challenges of an altered climate.

Read more about the book in this interview with Columbia News.

Greenhouse Planet: How Rising CO2 Changes Plants and Life as We Know It

By Lewis Ziska, Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center

book cover for Greenhouse Planet
Greenhouse Planet was published by Columbia University Press in September 2022.

From the publisher:

The carbon dioxide that industrial civilization spews into the atmosphere has dramatic consequences for life on Earth that extend beyond climate change. CO2 levels directly affect plant growth, in turn affecting any kind of life that depends on plants—in other words, everything.

Greenhouse Planet reveals the stakes of increased CO2 for plants, people, and ecosystems—from crop yields to seasonal allergies and from wildfires to biodiversity. The veteran plant biologist Lewis H. Ziska describes the importance of plants for food, medicine, and culture and explores the complex ways higher CO2 concentrations alter the systems on which humanity relies. He explains the science of how increased CO2 affects various plant species and addresses the politicization and disinformation surrounding these facts.

Ziska confronts the claim that “CO2 is plant food,” a longtime conservative talking point. While not exactly false, it is deeply misleading. CO2 doesn’t just make “good” plants grow; it makes all plants grow. It makes poison ivy more poisonous, kudzu more prolific, cheatgrass more flammable. CO2 stimulates some species more than others: weeds fare particularly well and become harder to control. Many crops grow more abundantly but also become less nutritious. And the further effects of climate change will be formidable.

Detailing essential science with wit and panache, Greenhouse Planet is an indispensable book for all readers interested in the ripple effects of increasing CO2.

The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization

By Peter Coleman, Founding Director of the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity at the Columbia Climate School

book cover for the way out
The Way Out was published by Columbia University Press in November 2022.

From the publisher:

The partisan divide in the United States has widened to a chasm. Legislators vote along party lines and rarely cross the aisle. Political polarization is personal, too—and it is making us miserable. Surveys show that Americans have become more fearful and hateful of supporters of the opposing political party and imagine that they hold much more extreme views than they actually do. We have cordoned ourselves off: we prefer to date and marry those with similar opinions and are less willing to spend time with people on the other side. How can we loosen the grip of this toxic polarization and start working on our most pressing problems?

The Way Out offers an escape from this morass. The social psychologist Peter T. Coleman explores how conflict resolution and complexity science provide guidance for dealing with seemingly intractable political differences. Deploying the concept of attractors in dynamical systems, he explains why we are stuck in this rut as well as the unexpected ways that deeply rooted oppositions can and do change. Coleman meticulously details principles and practices for navigating and healing the difficult divides in our homes, workplaces, and communities, blending compelling personal accounts from his years of working on entrenched conflicts with lessons from leading-edge research. The Way Out is a vital and timely guide to breaking free from the cycle of mutual contempt in order to better our lives, relationships, and country.

Managing Environmental Conflict: An Earth Institute Sustainability Primer

By Joshua Fisher, Director of the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity at Columbia Climate School

book cover for Managing Environmental Conflict
Managing Environmental Conflict was published by Columbia University Press in February 2022.

From the publisher:

Conflicts frequently arise over environmental issues such as land use, natural resource management, and laws and regulation, emerging from diverging interests and values among stakeholders. This book is a primer on causes of and solutions to such conflicts. It provides a foundational overview of the theory and practice of collaborative approaches to managing environmental disputes.

Joshua D. Fisher explains the core concepts in collaborative conflict management and presents a clear, practical, and implementable framework for understanding and responding to environmental disputes. He details strategies to bring stakeholders together in pursuit of collective solutions, emphasizing ongoing processes of dialogue, analysis, action, and learning. This collaborative approach can create new opportunities for stakeholders to better understand each other and the natural world, which enables more effective and context-appropriate environmental governance. The primer examines why and how system dynamics can constrain or expand the possibility of constructive management of conflicts. It features a case study from the Amazon Basin, where local communities, extractive industry operators, conservationists, and land managers have often clashed over access to natural resources, drawing out lessons to illustrate how to adapt the conflict management framework to distinct contexts.

Managing Environmental Conflict synthesizes knowledge, methods, and practices spanning consensus building, collaborative governance, complex adaptive systems science, environmental conflict resolution, and environmental peacebuilding. Its presentation of this important and timely topic will be invaluable for academics and practitioners alike, including decision makers, scientists, and conflict management professionals.

Read more about the book: As Environmental Conflicts Increase, How Can They Be Managed?

Sustainable Food Production: An Earth Institute Sustainability Primer

Co-authored by Shahid Naeem, Chair of the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University and Director of the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability

cover art for Sustainable Food Production
Sustainable Food Production was published by Columbia University Press in November 2021.

From the publisher:

Industrial agriculture is responsible for widespread environmental degradation and undermines the pursuit of human well-being. With a projected global population of 10 billion by 2050, it is urgent for humanity to achieve a more sustainable approach to farming and food systems.

This concise text offers an overview of the key issues in sustainable food production for all readers interested in the ecology and environmental impacts of agriculture. It details the ecological foundations of farming and food systems, showing how knowledge from the natural and social sciences can be used to create sustainable alternatives to the industrial production methods used today. Beginning with a discussion of the role of agriculture in human development, the primer examines how twentieth-century farming methods are environmentally and socially unsustainable, contributing to global change and perpetuating inequalities. The authors explain the principles of environmental sustainability and explore how these principles can be put into practice in agrifood systems. They emphasize the importance of human well-being and insist on the centrality of social and environmental equity and justice.

Sustainable Food Production is a compelling guide to how we can improve our ability to feed each other today and preserve the ability of our planet to do so tomorrow. Appropriate for a range of courses in the natural and social sciences, it provides a comprehensive yet accessible framework for achieving agricultural sustainability in the Anthropocene.

Read our interview about the book: Can We Feed Billions of Ourselves Without Wrecking the Planet?

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