Most of us grew up with ominous tales of the unpredictable planet future generations might inherit if we didn't cut back on fossil fuels – but that tomorrow-land of hypothetical superstorms and permanent heat waves is pretty much the world we're now living in.
Rather than merely lamenting the ways in which the Earth is changing due to climate change, a handful of journalists, explorers, and entrepreneurs have been striking out to nearly every corner of the globe to take measure of our new terrain. These explorations yielded some of the best books of 2014. They all grapple with the crisis of global warming; they all find reasons to be hopeful; and they all offer readers vicarious adventures around the world – from Canadian war games in the newly thawed Northwest Passage (McKenzie Funk's Windfall) to night dives along the Great Barrier Reef (Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction) to finding Blockadia, a vast network of roving fossil-fuel protests (Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything).
Funk goes to where the old world is unraveling fastest, launching his investigation into the economic "upside" of global warming – those nations, corporations, and scientists poised to benefit from a warming Earth. He explores the Arctic, where the big melt is unlocking vast potential reserves of mineral wealth, and dines with warlords and hedge-fund managers buying up future farmland in Central Africa in anticipation of food shortages. Funk also visits the dazzling labs of visionary geneticists and engineers who argue that it's time to meddle more, not less, in the natural world – by implementing Bond-villainesque techno-fixes like mutant mosquitoes and artificial volcanoes that will spew a milky haze into the atmosphere to dim the sun.
In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert chronicles how, over the past half-billion years, there have been five major extinctions – and now the sixth great die-off is under way. But this time, "one weedy species" (that's you and me) is to blame for the cataclysm. "Those of us alive today," writes Kolbert, "are not only witnessing one of the rarest events in life's history, we are also causing it." Kolbert travels from Panama to the Amazon and beyond, plunging into the mysteries of this extinction with a keen sense of dread and fascination, reminding us that our most lasting legacy will be which species and ecosystems we choose to preserve, and which to let go.
In This Changes Everything, Klein pins down what climate change means in a market-driven world, examining the ways in which big business overlaps with environmentalism. At the 2011 meeting of the Royal Society, billionaires gather to discuss "technological Plan B" options like giant "carbon sucking" machines and enormous hoses to spray sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to cool the planet. Klein calls for a reordering of the economy with a radical vision shared by all these authors – hope for the rise of a new activism that's less about fighting climate change, and more about the survival of our species in the strange new world of its own making.