I read this book and Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood back to back, courtesy of the randomness of my public library’s on-hold books availability. (Year of the Flood is reviewed here.) It was a fortunate (and fascinating) happenstance. Hot is a journalist’s account of his up-to-date research on what is very likely to happen over the next 50 years as Earth’s climate grows hotter; Flood is a novelist’s imaginative construction of life on Earth at some undetermined date in the future, as humans live with the consequences of climate change.
First, the facts. Mark Hertsgaard is an award-winning journalist who specializes in environmental issues, and the author of five previous books. In Hot, he begins by explaining his perspective as a new father. The book’s dedication reads: For my daughter, Chiara, who has to live through this. While his previous books looked deeply at environmental issues, with interviews with scientists and researchers, the perspective was cool, detached. In this book he is intensely aware that he is gathering scientists’ best predictions of the kind of climate consequences that will impact his daughter over the course of her life.
With this introduction, Hertsgaard takes the reader on a fast-moving tour of what we can expect over the next fifty years. He takes as a baseline the scientific consensus estimate of an increase of 5 degrees Centigrade over the average temperature of the preindustrial era, by 2100, if present trends continue ( Fourth Assessment Report, IPCC). Many governments are currently endorsing a limit of only 2 degrees C. increase, assuming greenhouse gas emissions can be drastically reduced, starting now.
Hertsgaard points out that a better term for communicating the realities of climate change to the public is “climate chaos.” Climate chaos refers to the reality that, with global warming, there will be greater variability in the globe’s weather, with more droughts and more floods; extremes of both heat and cold; more powerful storms, etc. Different areas will be differentially impacted; plus 2 degrees C. in average temperature rise at the equator will mean plus 6 degrees at the poles; Africa will experience greater temperature rise than Europe and North America. And if the warming of the oceans shifts or even reverses the flow of the Gulf Stream, no one really knows what that will mean.
Climate chaos also helps to communicate the likely reality that some of the changes will be discontinuous. Rather than smooth, regular transition to different kinds of weather, some of the changes are likely to be abrupt, and take place over only a few years. Climate systems can reach tipping points after which change can accelerate and be nonreversible. One of these which is occurring right now is the result of the rapid melting of the Arctic ice cap. White ice reflects most of the sun’s warming energy back into space; dark water absorbs most of the sun’s energy, becoming warmer and warmer. This feedback loop means that the ice-free days of the Arctic Ocean are rapidly increasing, with the likely consequence that polar bears will lose the icy habitats they need to survive. It also means that oceangoing shipping traffic can begin to use a Northwest Passage above North America, saving many days’ sailing between Asia and Europe.
Hot catalogues in frightening detail the likely scenarios following runaway global warming: worldwide ocean sea level rise of 3 to 5 feet (at least) by century’s end. This means that some Pacific nations will vanish under the waves and that Bangladesh will lose a third of its land area, and that all low-lying areas will be either submerged or more at risk for damage from storm surges and flooding. Many of the world’s major cities (New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc.) are only slightly above current sea levels. Many airports are at or near sea level; video footage of the recent 8.9 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan shows the tsunami wave sweeping across the tarmac, completely submerging an airport.
Greatly accelerated species extinctions are likely, as neither animals nor plants are able to move their ranges north nearly fast enough to keep pace with average temperature rises. Warming seas likely will stress coral reefs further(which are already in die-off), with damage to rich fishing grounds that depend upon these reefs as nurseries for their young. Coral reefs also shelter coastlines from the powerful forces of breaking waves.
Rapidly melting glaciers and mountain snowpacks contribute to more flooding now, with reduced water supplies in the future. Much of the American West depends on the annual replenishment of water supplies from snows in the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas. There’s not enough water now for growing population and extensive agricultural acreage, and drought is very likely.
The world’s food supplies will be threatened as climate change changes growing patterns and farmers must shift to different crops. Increasing drought conditions may drastically reduce yields. In South Asia alone, the area suitable for growing wheat will fall by 50 percent by 2050. Africa will be hit hard by declining rainfall. Wildfires are likely to become more destructive, and more numerous.
The World Health Organization estimates that climate change is already killing 150,000 people a year, counting only deaths from malnutrition, malaria and diarrhea from contaminated water. Lancet, the world’s leading medical journal, says that climate change is the number one threat to worldwide public health in this century. Warmer temperatures lead to an increase in pests that damage crops. Disease vectors also will increase as warming intensifies. Mosquitoes that carry a variety of tropical diseases are expanding their ranges, appearing in many areas that are not prepared to deal with them.
Harsher heat waves and more intense storms will lead to greater demands on the electrical grid and more power blackouts when it is most needed. Heat waves kill people, particularly the poor, the elderly, and the very young. Inland areas will experience significantly more temperature rise than the coasts.
In the midst of this sobering exposition, Hertsgaard begins to inject his observations, gathered from interviews with leading scientists around the world, on how to move forward to address the crisis. He says that the inevitable challenges of climate change must be approached along two tracks. First is mitigation – actions that are taken to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. These involve such things as moving away from the use of fossil fuels to generate power and drive internal combustion engines. Second is adaptation – actions taken to reduce our vulnerability to the consequences of climate change. Constructing sea walls for hurricane defense, or planting trees to absorb carbon dioxide and provide shade are examples of adaptation. Both mitigation and adaptation must be undertaken simultaneously. Even if all greenhouse gas emissions stopped today, the planet will continue its warming trend unabated for fifty years or more.
Hot describes a number of small-scale examples of ways in which regions are beginning to take steps both to mitigate and to adapt to climate change. Farmers in the Sahel, the dry grassy area south of the Sahara in Africa, have developed a method of farming that allows small trees to grow between the rows of planted crops. These trees provide shade from the blistering sun, conserve moisture in the soil, and enrich the soil by dropping their leaves in the fall and thus increasing the organic material that is vital to soil health. Simply allowing these “volunteer” trees to remain in their agricultural areas has greatly increased crop yields. So many farmers in the region have adopted this farming practice that the results are visible from space: the green shady fields of Niger stop at the border with Nigeria whose barren land is the result of governmental rules against farmers having trees in their fields.
Holland gets points for being very forward-looking in dealing with the expected rise in ocean levels. Since most of the country is already below sea level this is vital to the nation’s continued existence. The country’s long tradition of democratic institutions working together to craft national water management policy makes it possible for a national approach to emerge that offers a combination of heightened sea defenses, deliberate flooding of extreme lowlying areas, and population shifts away from other hard-to-defend areas.
The cities of Seattle, New York and Chicago are praised for their beginning efforts to factor in climate change in all urban policymaking. At the same time, their efforts are adjudged as still not sufficient to meet the challenges ahead.
This is a sobering book, and required reading for us all. It’s not all doom and gloom, and Hertsgaard does an admirable job of balancing a father’s fears for his daughter’s future in a warmer Earth with hope and optimism that human ingenuity and determination can be enough to meet the daunting challenges which he describes. He does believe that we have the knowledge and the skills to move ahead both with adaptation and mitigation efforts. He suggests that there is no one silver bullet that can solve the whole thing, but that we most likely can come up with “silver buckshot” – many approaches that, together, can make the difference.