The future of our planet can be found now, on the frontiers of climate change.” That’s how freelance journalist Stephan Faris frames his new book Forecast: The Surprising – and Immediate – Consequences of Climate Change. He visits and talks with people in regions already experiencing some of the early effects of a changing climate and looks to what might lie ahead for them as the change gathers momentum.
It’s a varied picture. The fearful upheaval in Darfur has many strands, but until the rains began to fail nomadic herders and settled farmers lived without conflict. Faris acknowledges that the contribution of human causes to the long drought is debatable, but more severe droughts are part of the climate change agenda and at very least Darfur is a foretaste of the climatically driven political chaos that can result. Especially is this so when the conditions of life are already fragile, as in Haiti, his next port of call, where severe deforestation has left the country wide open to the likely impacts of climate change.
Across to the southern Florida coast and a less intense but nonetheless troubling feature of climate change. It’s the very sharp rise in insurance premiums and in refusals to offer insurance coverage. One company says bluntly “We believe what the scientists are telling us…We believe it would be bad business to continue to add to our risk.” Faris describes the physical conditions in Florida and in New Orleans and how people have had to try and cope with them. While the world has not yet put a formal price on carbon, the cost of global warming is beginning to be monetized in higher insurance prices.
Disturbing in a different way is Faris’s description of his interviews with political figures in Italy and the UK who are bent on making political capital out of the influx of refugees likely to be increased by climate change. Fear and empathy are the two polar emotions which coexist in the public mind, and some far right politicians are working on the fear. The British National Party spokesperson Faris spent time with was happy to incorporate environmentalism into their platform. “We consider ourselves the only logical green party in Britain.” The logic? Turning people into Westerners turns their tiny climate footprint into a massive one.
In Brazil Faris explores the spread of malaria increased by the clearing of forest. Not perhaps the first consideration that occurs to most of us when thinking of deforestation, but so serious for the populations concerned that at least one economist is arguing that it is a large enough cost to the economy on its own to provide reason to cease deforestation. Faris’s discusion of vector-borne disease and its relationship to climate change ranges into other countries as well.
On a gentler note is a description of the challenges and opportunities facing wine-growers. Faris’s visits provides a fascinating glimpse into the impact of small climatic differences on the wine product. It also raises the prospect of some wine-growing regions having to stop production altogether. From sunny California he jumps to the icy port of Churchill on he Hudson Bay coast. Enjoying three more weeks ice-free than it did ten years ago, the port is getting increased business. It offers shorter voyages for cargo from northern Europe. Yes, agreed the manager of the port, global warming has the potential to be good for Churchill. Does this mean the port wants to see global warming? “No. Of course not. Nobody does.”
Finally to South Asia. On the border of North East India and Bangladesh Faris talks with locals about Bangladeshi immigrants and the likelihood that there will be many more of them as global warming pummels Bangladesh with rising seas in the south and increasingly unpredictable rivers from the north. A terrible massacre of more than two thousand Bengali Muslims took place in 1983. Faris spoke with a village elder on whose land the massacres happened. He runs a non-profit group dedicated to development and reconciliation between his people and the Bengali-speaking Muslims. But if emigration from Bangladesh accelerates he thinks there could be violence. “The scenario has to remain what it is now.”
Across in Kashmir Faris considers the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers and what that will mean for the rivers suppplying water to Pakistan. Reservoirs along the rivers are an obvious way to improve the outlook, but they would need to be constructed in territory controlled by India, which means co-operation with an enemy. Or the grim possibility of escalating conflict.
For each of the places Faris has visited he furnishes a lively narrative of conversations and excursions, sometimes ranging briefly to other places and related topics. The accounts embrace a considerable variety of people and observations and are highly readable. Underlying his report is a clear understanding of what climate change involves and a deep concern at its implications for human society, though for the most part he lets the record speak for itself. It is in conclusion that he points out that if we wait for drought, conflict, migratory tensions, international crises, and humanitarian disasters to pile up we may find ourselves with little time for the complicated challenge of cutting carbon. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for devastating disasters to scare us into action. Now’s the time.
The book is a valuable addition to the record of what is happening to our world, and deserves many readers. Journalists who go to places, talk to people, and then pull us into the detail of what they have seen and heard perform a much-needed function amid the heedlessness which still marks much of our public discourse.
If you don’t have time to read the book but can spare half an hour or so to listen to an interview, there’s one here on Writers Voice in which the author draws out some of the book’s main points in a sharply informative way.
Last night, after finishing Faris’s book I watched a BBC news programme on the alarming spread of dengue fever in Jakarta as a result of climate change. Increased precipitation is extending the opportunities for the mosquito which spreads the disease. Vigorous measures are being taken to counter the greatly increased occurrence of the fever, but the programme made clear how serious the climate change-related spread of vector-borne diseases is likely to prove. The medical people involved in the programme were absolute that this is climate change-related. The BBC journalists did the same as Faris aims to do – took us to the spot and showed us what is happening.