The Bad Future

Climate change vs. civilization
Books discussed in this essayField Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change
by Elizabeth Kolbert Bloomsbury
UK, 2006 224 pp., $30

The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth
by Tim Flannery
HarperCollins Canada, 2006 357 pp., $21

The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations
by Eugene Linden
Simon & Schuster, 2006 320 pp., $24

An Inconvenient Truth
by Al Gore
Rodale, 2006 328 pp., $29

Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning
by George Monbiot
Doubleday Canada, 2006 304 pp., $30
The elevated freeways of New Orleans were empty except for a few garbage-strewn encampments of hurricane refugees huddled along the railings. Devoid of traffic, the open belts of asphalt looked wide and graceful. Below the highway the dark floodwaters reflected a bent and oily version of the buildings and brilliant blue posthurricane sky. The police department and local government had evaporated in the storm, and the military was only just arriving.

Driving the wrong way down the empty four-lane freeways I hit speeds of ninety miles per hour, my rental car’s trunk filled with extra water, gasoline, and canned sardines. At the base of a bridge in a dry section of town stands a McDonald’s sign stripped of its yellow and red plastic, reduced to a skeletal M. Nearby a city bus is jackknifed in the street. Moving east through Westwego and Gretna, I meet a rescue crew following the stench of corpses into some rubble.

I had entered not so much a physical place as a new era: the bad future, the long-predicted beginning of the end, the time ruled by cataclysmic climate change. Returning to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast six months after the levees broke, I found the situation even worse. Most of eastern New Orleans — low-lying, poor, and largely African-American — is battered, flooded, looted, and now rotting. Its sodden houses are being mucked out by salvage crews, the rancid mouldering insides — carpets, clothing, drywall, appliances, old family photos — are piled in mangled heaps on the streets and left to fester for months. The federal government’s reconstruction efforts have been half-hearted, incompetent, and riddled with graft. In all these respects, post-hurricane New Orleans may be an accurate harbinger of what global warming and climate change could mean: social breakdown, poverty, corruption, and disease.

There is no longer any real debate: the earth’s climate is warming and will change significantly within most of our lifetimes. Most heavily impacted will be coastal cities, the economic hubs of modern human civilization. They are the cockpits of commerce, trade, research, transportation, and education, the nodes that link the world economy together.

Many civilizations have lived in the shadow of their own end-time narratives and it would be nice to discount the story of climate change as the same old archetypal vision of the apocalypse played out in a secularized form. But this time the story is backed up by sophisticated science, most of which is converging into an unassailable consensus.

The books under review here share substantial overlap, to the point where they are almost variations on the same template. This reflects the fact that scientists with different specialties — the atmosphere, ocean currents, the ancient fossil record, ecosystems — are all independently arriving at similar conclusions. Their outline runs as follows: the basic problem of global warming; the ancient history of climate and the components of the climate system; the gathering crisis of extinction and loss of biodiversity; the mendacious industry driven politics of climate-change skepticism; and finally, discussions of what must be done.

Perhaps the most elegant is New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe. Literary in tone, Kolbert’s book is written in the form of a travelogue. She goes to where the science is being done and meets the people there — Inuit hunters, Princeton Ph.D.s, people who build floating houses in Holland.

The central facts described by Kolbert are deeply troubling. For the last 650,000 years atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) — the main heat trapping gas in the earth’s environment — have hovered at around 250 parts per million. At no point in the pre-industrial era did CO2 concentrations go above 300 parts per million. By 1959 they had reached 316 parts per million. They are now at 378 and are expected to double by mid-century. No one knows what concentration of atmospheric CO2 will push us past the point of no return, the threshold after which we are caught in runaway global warming. Is it 500 parts per million? Is it 600 parts per million, or even 700? No credible scientist thinks it is much higher than that.

In The Weather Makers, Tim Flannery identifies our new climate era using Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen’s concept of the “Anthropocene” — the man-made climate begun 200 years ago with the Industrial Revolution’s use of coal power. Before that came the Holocene, “the 8,000 year long summer,” a period of relative calm, warmth, and stability during which human civilization arose. Flannery describes the Holocene as “without a doubt the crucial event in human history.” One suspects that the Anthropocene might be the next and last crucial event.

Eugene Linden’s superb The Winds of Change is also crystal clear on the science and the natural and social history of climate change. Like Jared Diamond in Collapse, Linden draws on the story of the Norse colonies in Greenland, which prospered for 500 years and then died out. The Greenland Norse survived as an economic outpost of feudal Europe, exporting ivory and hides back to the old world and importing priests, wine, and cloth. Then around 1345, a 500-year-long cooling period settled upon the globe. Average global temperature dropped by 0.5 to 1°C, and the North Atlantic’s fell by as much as 3°. For the isolated Greenland Norse, the climate shift meant they were suddenly cut off from Denmark. Their society proved incapable of adapting. The settlement on the western shore collapsed in 1355; the eastern settlement hung on for roughly another 100 years.

Linden points out that cold weather alone did not kill the Greenlanders; their own political limitations, including racism and a rigid class hierarchy, also contributed. Based on the historical and archaeological record, he suggests that “the Christian Norse likely regarded the shamanistic Inuit as unenlightened and beneath them.” The Inuit, who arrived 100 years after the Norse, were known by the Viking settlers as Skraeling or “wretched people.” Instead of turning to the Inuit for help, the Norse simply perished. The lesson of this history is clear enough: adapt or die.

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