Monday, February 16, 2009

FORECAST: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley
By Stephan Faris

Henry Holt

There are plenty of books on the climate crisis, but a readable one is rare enough to fetch a Nobel Peace Prize. Though solutions depend on specific and possibly boring knowledge and actions, political and public support requires general understanding and passionate attention. This book is written not by a committee nor as the result of group findings, but by an individual writer—not a scientist or a politician but an astute and acute journalist. It is that rarity: excellently reported and written, very readable and therefore an important book on the most significant topic of our time.

It’s also a post-Inconvenient Truth treatment that doesn’t analyze or speculate but describes. This isn’t about the far future, but changes already underway that are bound to increase in the next few decades: “impacts that range from the subtle and sometimes benign to the horrific and potentially catastrophic…Yet we don’t have to guess at the consequences of a warming world…The future of our planet can be found now, on the frontiers of climate change.”

Faris reports from on the ground to chronicle drought and the ensuing violence in Darfur, hurricanes and the ensuing chaos on the Gulf Coast, the warming Arctic, refugees in Italy from environmental disasters in Africa (which displace more people than war). He writes about lesser- known effects, like the migration of tropical diseases northward, now including North America. Their relationship to the climate crisis is general: as one scientist says, we can’t say Katrina was caused by it, but we can say that the climate crisis will cause more Katrinas.

That the climate is changing is simply part of the experience of the people he interviews, and the reality hits in small, telling comments, like the first mate of a science vessel in Key West who acknowledges that the coral is dying fast, but adds, “it’s the best you’re ever going to see in your lifetime. So try to enjoy that.” Or the Napa winegrower who observes, “This is a beautiful place. I just hope we can even grow flowers here in twenty years.”

Better wines is just about the only positive effect of warming that Farris found, and though the projection that “lands suitable for producing premium wines could shrink by 81%” in California may bring short-term benefits to North Coast and Pacific Northwest wines, one grower observes that the medium and long-term prospects aren’t so good.

Faris can even breathe live into familiar generalizations with his prose: rising ocean temperatures “mean fiercer winds and crueler rains,” bringing “the beginnings of unprecedented meteorological violence.” His final chapter of conclusions is direct and devastating. Every breath we take contains more C02 than any human before us. If we simply allow things to get slowly worse, Faris warns, we will be overwhelmed.

So let me utter the cliche because I mean it: if you read but one book on the climate crisis this year, this book should be that one. It brings the problems alive and that's vital, because these are problems that threaten life for generations to come.

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