The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic,
from Darfur to Napa Valley
New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2009
"The first decade of this century will be remembered as the time when the world opened its eyes to climate change. Hurricane Katrina devoured New Orleans. The Amazon erupted in fire. Polar bears drowned in the melting Arctic. Heat waves swept Europe. Drought struck the American Midwest. Glaciers were melting like never before."1
– Page 1
Stephan Fasir has seen the future, and it is painful to watch through his eyes as he recounts the visions those eyes have brought him. In Darfur, extended drought has triggered a genocidal war. Warming, expanding seas have begun to encroach on the islands of the Florida Keys, while the higher water temperatures are killing the coral in the reefs offshore, thereby killing one incentive for tourists to visit that fading paradise. More frequent storms drive surging waves higher onto those low-lying islands, flooding homes and businesses and driving out many local residents.
In the Mediterranean, changing conditions have doomed the turtle population of Lampedusa while making that small island a beacon for increasing numbers of Muslims from north Africa — to the extreme disapproval of native Italians. Seventy percent of Bangladesh, where a population half the size of ours in the U.S. crams into less area than the U.S. state of Louisiana, lies in a flood plain. It has seen devastating river floods three times in the past decade, most recently in 2007 when eight million were affected. That winter, Cyclone Sidr's twenty-foot waves flattened coastal farms and villages and plunged the capital into darkness.
A growing lack of water is the issue at the other end of the Indian subcontinent. Flows from Himalayan glaciers gradually diminish, placing further strain on relationships among ethnic groups that already contend for land, autonomy, and cultural identity.
Those who warn of the dangers inherent to climate change are even now derided as "alarmists" and "fearmongers." Yet the record shows they have been careful not to overstate the gravity of the picture that science presents — have, in fact, held their pronouncements behind what field work shows is actually happening. The scorn heaped upon the heads of "warmists" cannot reverse the advance of springtimes. None of the hate-filled e-mails directed at scientists will stop glaciers melting, or turn back the rising tide.
Climate change is with us here and now. In this book you will find appalling scenes. It is still possible to argue that the desperate conditions driving those events will never touch America. Life in these United States does remain fairly comfortable, for the most part. Those who choose to ignore the warning signs can therefore continue to disparage work like that Stephan Faris has done, calling his conclusions exaggerated or even completely false. But I have studied this work, and I have a different term for it.
I call it realism.
The expansion of the tropics liberates diseases known and unknown, indigenous or imported: malaria; hantavirus; bubonic plague;2 dengue fever; ebola; Nipah virus; chikungunya; kala-azar. The first may be the most troubling. It already robs Africa of $12 billion per year, according to the World Bank. Strains of the parasite are becoming resistant to standard drugs; one, plasmodium falciparum, doubles its reproductive speed as the temperature climbs from 68 to 77°F. Its host mosquitoes also become more active at the higher temperature.
There are benefits, to be sure. In the formerly chilly British Isles, there are vineyards in Brighton, avocadoes in London, and olive groves in Wales. Germany is now able to produce good red wines to complement Liebfraumilch, Reisling and Gewurtztraminer, its famous whites. Oregon and Washington also produce drinkable reds as their climates warm. But California vintners are being forced to migrate their varietals from zone to zone northward or uphill, and one study found that 81 percent of that state's wine-growing area may become unsuitable for grapes during this century. And the yield of table grapes falls with rising temperature, as it does for avocados, almonds and walnuts.
In the Arctic, the port of Churchill has undergone a renaissance as shipping seasons grow longer. Ice leaving the Arctic Ocean also means more cargo vessels using the Northwest Passage and more exploitation of the oil and gas reserves under that ocean. An ice-free Arctic also means greater tensions over which nations have title to those resources. Norway and Russia are already tussling over the Svalbard Archipelago. Canada and Denmark have begun to contend over Hans Island, a football-field-sized parcel off the west coast of Greenland. Even the U.S. and Canada have been at odds over the use of the Northwest Passage.3 And the confrontations between American and Soviet submarines are legendary.4 Although the Cold War is no more, military activity by Russia and America will only increase in the Arctic, with predictable results.
I normally steer clear of alarmism, finding it counterproductive in general. But recent events have gone some way toward convincing me that the world needs a good scare to wake it up. Here is that scare.
"Climate stresses are piling up, and they will make it harder to address the root causes of global warming. In the midst of drought, conflict, migratory tensions, international crises, and humanitarian disasters, what time will we have for the complicated challenge of cutting carbon? The greenhouse gases we release today shape the world of the future. We don't have the luxury of waiting for devastating disasters to scare us into action.
– Page 222
Much like Elizabeth Kolbert's, Faris's account includes many personal interactions and observations of personal characteristics. This makes for a very readable narrative. Like Kolbert's, it is filled with information but never overwhelms the reader with details. Faris has travelled to many of the world's out-of-the-way places to collect the information he imparts in this book, enduring two bouts of malaria and a chest infection along the way. He provides an extensive set of notes for each chapter, along with a good index. I recommend the book, and expect that any of his journalistic efforts will repay your attention.