by Mark Hertsgaard
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011
In 2005 environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard began hearing some deeply unsettling news, primarily from scientists in Europe: climate disruption was no longer something that might happen in the future. It was already happening, and it would continue getting worse for at least the next 25 years, even if carbon emissions were suddenly slashed to nothing. (In the book, Hertsgaard dates this insight to an October 2005 meeting with David King, science adviser to the British government. But he's heard similar analysis before, and wrote about it in the San Francisco Chronicle that February--an essay which affected me deeply at the time, and led me on my own researches.)
Of course, if emissions of greenhouse gases aren’t stopped, the future beyond 2020 gets even worse. But in 2005 American activists didn’t want to talk about dealing with the effects that were surely going to happen, even if they accepted this science. Al Gore and others thought this would distract from the efforts to control emissions so ultimate catastrophe could be avoided.
In the last few years, when it became apparent that climate change was happening with unexpected speed, American activists (including Gore) began to accept that the world would need to deal with the effects (floods, storms, heatwaves, drought, disease, sea-level rise, etc.) now and in the near future, and they would need to simultaneously address the causes of global heating (emissions), to save the farther future.
Unfortunately, they adopted the confusing technocratic terms of “adaptation” (dealing with effects) and “mitigation” (the causes.) Hertsgaard had (to my mind) done a better job in that 2005 essay referring to "protection" and "prevention," but in this book he's deferred to the now conventional nomenclature of adaptation and mitigation. He does pass on what is apparently a practical mantra for those involved in planning along both tracks: "Avoid the unmanageable, manage the unavoidable."
Hertsgaard’s book distinguishes itself partly by dealing with what’s needed and what’s being done along both tracks. A lot is being done at the city, state and regional levels in the U.S, including in California. He reports on Seattle, Chicago (where the city government has a climate plan and an office of climate change) and New York, as well as internationally in China, Africa, Bangladesh and elsewhere.
He finds public officials both talking the talk and walking the walk, like Kings County Washington county executive Ron Sims, who convened a conference in 2005 called "The Future Ain't What It Used to Be: Planning for Climate Disruption." Sims combines vision, perseverance, practicality, humor and straight talk, always asking "the climate question" for any county plan.
Though a pioneer, Sims was not the only such official Hertsgaard found. New York climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer described the various possibilities for Manhattan and how to respond, while believing that "we have a duty to the future" and to the past. New York's efforts to anticipate their needs in dealing with flooding effects are especially eerie, after Hurricane Sandy enacted some of their fears. (The book's research seemed to have been completed in 2010.)
For all that's being done, the tasks along both tracks are still immense. Looking at what's required in dealing with both causes and effects simultaneously, Hertsgaard writes a sentence that I've written myself: "...I have come to see the climate crisis as a major evolutionary test for our civilization and perhaps our species."
The other distinguishing element of this book's approach is a very practical and personal framework: Hertsgaard is trying to figure out what the world is going to be like for his very young daughter back in San Francisco. That’s also part of the impact of understanding that the climate change future has begun. It was his first thought in 2005, he writes: “Chiara will have to live through this.”
Hertsgaard travels, reports and describes, compares and evaluates with informed objectivity, but Chiara is never far from his thoughts. He realizes that stories—from myths and fairytales to comic book heroes—can tell her important things in addition to what science says. Just for its comprehensive and clear information and how it is presented, this is the book I'd recommend as a starting point on the subject.
Because of the reporting on what is being done it's also more heartening than many, at least for the near future. Not everyone is in as much denial as the oppositional and the popular media suggest. That only makes the final chapters more powerful, when he shows how little time there is to save the farther future. Yet even there he finds practical possibilities.
Even with a book as solid as this one, reading about the climate future is not easy. It requires emotional work just to allow into consciousness this onrushing future dominated by climate change. But of course it's necessary to confront it anyway, especially now. Hertsgaard ends with a letter for his daughter to read in 2020, when much more will be known about the farther future, depending on what gets done in the next seven years. Chiara will be fifteen.