Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It was published in 2008, so some of the science it discusses is becoming slightly outdated. Even so, it’s still the most comprehensive and compelling overview of global warming (both the science and its human consequences) that I’ve read to date.
The premise is simple. The author examines what changes will take place in the world in response to each degree Celsius of global warming. The chapters are organized accordingly: one degree of warming, two degrees of warming, etc. Each chapter explains what the various models and projections indicate will be the likely climatic, ecological, and human consequences of that degree of global warming.
What impresses me most about this book is its readability. This book is as engaging as it is informative. The author has provided a thorough overview of what the science says about the effects of global warming and what the implications are for the future habitability of our planet for both human and non-human life. There were many moments when I was impressed by the amount of source material that the author was reviewing and synthesizing. I felt an even greater appreciation for the tremendous amount of research and publication that climatologists and other scientists have done to develop our current understanding of global warming and make a book like this possible. Given how much scientific research the book discusses, it could have easily turned into a dry review of the data. Instead, the author breathes life into the data, weaving a qualitative narrative of what life will be like at X degrees that is firmly rooted in what the science tells us. It takes the reader on an increasingly intense roller coaster ride of rising sea levels, extreme storms, burning rainforests, melting glaciers, dying oceans, and beyond. The result is a book that is both highly informative and deeply unsettling.
Read this book. If you only read one book this year, let it be this one. It describes some harsh truths that may leave you feeling a paralyzing combination of rage, fear, and despair. If you consider it too much of a downer, you can always follow it up with a more solutions-oriented book or film. But it’s important to know this baseline information about global warming, to feel a completely natural distress response at the prospect of a world rendered less habitable, to push through to the other side of that grief demanding action in response to the crisis.
As the book progresses from chapter to chapter, it becomes increasingly clear that global warming is a very serious global crisis that we must respond to with much more urgency. Even a single degree of warming — which is already guaranteed — has serious consequences. Two degrees of warming — which is virtually guaranteed within the next few decades — has dramatically more serious consequences, including positive feedbacks that will likely spiral out of control into many more degrees of warming. If we continue on this course, the resultant climate disruptions will be catastrophic, and human civilization will be disrupted accordingly.
To be honest, I already had a broad sense of many of the major points that the author discusses. I’ve spent the past decade or so reading countless articles about climate science and global warming, so the severity of our current situation was not entirely a surprise to me. Even so, seeing it all synthesized into a single coherent narrative describing the march through the degrees of warming was a profound experience. I had already seen the big picture in broad strokes, but reading this book made it feel that much more real to me. Consequently, I now feel more inspired to take action.
If you don’t read Six Degrees — and even if you do — I would also recommend the National Geographic documentary that it inspired. Six Degrees Could Change The World is a powerful look at some of the same science and consequences explored in the book. Since it’s a documentary rather than a book, it can’t go into as much detail and has a slightly different atmosphere and tone. However, it’s the same basic information and narrative structure adapted into a compelling documentary format.
Whether you read the book, or watch the documentary, or both, please take the overarching message to heart. Global warming is a very serious crisis with very serious consequences for the future of humanity and life on Earth in general. It’s much more serious than most people realize, and we’re already so far gone that it’s going to be very difficult to change course quickly enough to avert the worst of the consequences. We’re all going to have to work together to make such a rapid transition happen. Talk about the climate crisis with people in your community. Learn and talk about the concept of climate justice. Decide what you will do individually and collectively to respond to this crisis. Tell other people about the book and documentary. Join or start a climate-related group in your community.
Reading a book like this is an important first step. It educates us and inspires us to take action. But if we don’t follow through on that inspiration, the world will rapidly proceed through the increasingly disastrous consequences described in these chapters. Knowing what’s coming — and knowing that you’re not alone in working to stop it — is a powerful motivation to take action. Read this book, discuss it with your friends and neighbors, and take action to reduce our emissions and create more ecologically sustainable communities and societies.