Not-So-Silent Spring: On Greta Thunberg’s “The Climate Book”

By Terry Babcock-LumishApril 18, 2023

Not-So-Silent Spring: On Greta Thunberg’s “The Climate Book”

The Climate Book: The Facts and the Solutions by Greta Thunberg

WHEN I WAS Greta Thunberg’s age, my well-thumbed copy of John Cassidy’s Earthsearch was telling. It was released in 1994, the same year that NASA discovered that the earth’s ozone layer had thinned to 73 Dobson Units—a hole that should have alarmed us all. But while that worn spiral-bound book lit the fire for me, it was decidedly kid stuff, with the subtitle A Kids’ Geography Museum in a Book. It was educational, but not a blueprint for action.

Now the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, barely out of her teens, offers that blueprint. Her new anthology The Climate Book (published last year in the United Kingdom by Allen Lane and now out from Penguin in the United States) is a sweeping romp through science, technology, economics, literature, and psychology. Thunberg offers no guarantees of a safe future for sustainable life on earth. But there is hope if dedicated individuals are willing to act together. Thunberg, without membership in the exclusive club that is the United States Senate or even a university degree, is insisting that powerful interests prioritize the health of the planet. Through the power of steely conviction, she is forcing leaders twice and thrice her age to pay attention.

Structured in five parts, The Climate Book walks its reader through the basic facts essential to understanding the decision we face today and then provides concrete steps for how one might—and must—move beyond dialogue to act. Thunberg begins with the fundamental science about how climate works, including readable primers on carbon dioxide and our evolutionary impact. She then traces how our planet is changing, from excessive heat and methane to oceanic and glacial dynamics, the proliferation of microplastics, the erosion of biodiversity, and more.

Thunberg does not claim to do what she cannot. She is not a geophysicist, an oceanographer, an economist, a historian, a physician, an Indigenous leader, a policymaker, or even a young adult of drinking age in the United States. While she has earned honorary degrees, she has not attended university herself, as she’s been purposefully busy in myriad other ways. The Climate Book is not the least of these endeavors. At 464 pages, the edited volume includes contributions from an impressive list of experts: Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus offers his perspective as the World Health Organization’s director general throughout the pandemic; environmental memoirist Bill McKibben explains our chronic overdependence on fossil fuels; other contributors include Lord Nicholas Stern, who literally wrote the book on the economics of climate change, and Kenyan forestry expert Wanjira Mathai, who learned at the elbow of her pathbreaking mother, the late Wangarĩ Maathai, who was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is wholly appropriate that this volume should simultaneously speak to our sharing a single planet while also reminding us that we are not all in the same boat. That is, we experience climate change differently, depending on our geography and resources. Some bear more responsibility for the circumstances we find ourselves in. Thunberg calls out “people living in rich economies [who] still act as if they rule the world” before she gives voice to authors who share perspectives and challenges from Bangladesh, Jamaica, El Salvador, Chad, Brazil, and more. She is right in doing so, yet it can sometimes feel a bit plodding. Similarly, her survey of all that ails us—droughts, floods, wildfires, melting glaciers, acidification—while important to detail, is reminiscent of an ecology textbook’s treatment.

The real takeaways come in the book’s final section, which does not shy away from the real work at hand. One of the most sobering chapters is from renowned climate journalist David Wallace-Wells, who traces lessons learned from the recent pandemic, delineating the ways in which we shared “an improbable invitation for once unthinkably ambitious action, which the world as a whole then disastrously failed to take.” He implores us not to make these mistakes again as we face climate change. Kate Raworth provides concrete guidance on moving toward 1.5°C lifestyles, writing that “change is often hardest just before you make it. We too easily focus on what we think we are losing, finding it so much harder to imagine what we might gain.”

One of the most inspiring essays comes from George Monbiot and Rebecca Wrigley, who advocate for “rewilding,” both by allowing ecosystems to restore themselves naturally without interference and by getting back to nature ourselves. They insist that “we can replace our silent spring with a raucous summer.” From climate justice on a societal level down to the logical, manageable, evidence-based sacrifices that we each must make, we have a project on our hands.

I could not help but imagine this as a thoughtful gift for anyone keen to better understand the changing climate. While it is encyclopedic in nature, no single essay requires more than five minutes to read. This is not Pollyannaish reading, though. Putting people on the defensive can be ineffective, but clear-eyed, fact-rich articulations of our shared challenges and action-oriented recommendations for how to respond to them do serve to leave us little room for excuses.

A natural concern is that Thunberg is preaching to an established choir. With partisan polarization and toxicity increasing, the naysayers are bound to denigrate Thunberg, and it is unlikely that she will be changing skeptical minds. Just as Thunberg moved young people to get out of their classrooms, so she is putting her lot in with those motivated to improve our world and protect the planet upon which we all rely, regardless of nationality or political ideology.

In 2003, around the time Thunberg was born, I skipped class to hear President Bill Clinton’s two-term interior secretary Bruce Babbitt speak just down the road at the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania. The more I learned at the nexus of ecology, engineering, economics, and public policy, the more disappointed and angrier I grew. If I could see the systemic problems we faced as a planet, then how could more trusted adults not? And worse, if those in positions of authority knew the relevant science, how could they choose to ignore it, leaving the problems to us? After all, we were just kids.

Across the globe today, we are witnessing punishing weather events that continue to set new records. Climate change is being felt by long-skeptical communities that had considered the ailing environment to be a problem for people far off in the future—or at least far away. No longer do any of us have that luxury. If a Scandinavian schoolgirl’s courageous strike could kindle the imagination and courage of millions globally, I take solace in knowing that we now have a book that marshals the evidence and knowledge of over 100 diverse experts. The Climate Book, with its encyclopedic nature and ready accessibility, is a remarkable contribution to climate literature—and an urgent must-read.


Terry Babcock-Lumish serves as the sixth—and first female—executive secretary of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, the living memorial to President Truman and the presidential monument to public service. She is also an honorary research associate at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.

LARB Contributor

Terry Babcock-Lumish serves as the sixth—and first female—executive secretary of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, the living memorial to President Truman and the presidential monument to public service. She is also an honorary research associate at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.


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