“Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth”

My title for this piece is the subtitle of the book I’ll be discussing here: HOT, by Mark Hertsgaard, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2011 and now available in paperback.

Throughout my work on this piece and in all the time wasted along the way, I’ve been nagged by a feeling that climate change, with all its consequences, is a topic too big for me.  Among my readers, who cares what I think on this subject?  But like it or not, I’m in the grip of what Yeats called ‘the fascination of what’s difficult.’

Does the subject bear thinking about?  What is to be done?  I can’t dismiss these questions and move on; I know that lots of other people are at least as uneasy as I am about our future.  In spite of the efforts of climate-change deniers, news reports and commentary confirming the reality of its effects are unavoidable these days, even in the mainstream press.

It’s neither healthy nor practical to run away from real problems, whether they are out in the world or deep in our moody minds.  Efforts to understand and adapt to the consequences of global warming can strengthen our resolve to build a resilient community and accomplish the near-term goals of our sustainability agenda.

In Hot, Mark Hertsgaard confronts his troubling subject honestly and constructively.  His one-word title identifies the most fundamental feature of the climate and weather that’s in store for us.  The book itself is not simple and sensational, though.  The author’s voice is emotionally engaged with his subject, but he has a great deal of information to convey, and he does so in a carefully constructed narrative, based on travels to many parts of the world and conversations with both scientists and policy-makers.

Hertsgaard describes some of the impacts of global warming already evident throughout the systems that shape the world’s weather.  Then he adds that, given the long-term effects of the greenhouse gases already loaded into the atmosphere, “climate change [is] guaranteed to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it [gets] better.”

In other words: even if we could, in the near future, slow and then stop the overloading of our atmosphere with carbon dioxide and methane, we will have to adapt to at least twenty-five years of a continued warming trend that will produce extreme weather events (heat waves, storms, droughts, flooding), habitat destruction, impacts on agriculture, and rising sea levels.

Sea-Level Rise: As you may have heard, the National Academy of Sciences just released a report on rising sea levels along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.  Here’s a passage from the summary of its findings: “Tide gages show that global sea level has risen about 7 inches during the 20th century, and recent satellite data shows that the rate of sea-level rise is accelerating. . . . Sea-level rise poses enormous risks to the valuable infrastructure, development, and wetlands that line much of the 1,600 mile shoreline of California, Oregon, and Washington”  (http://dels.nas.edu/Report/Level-Rise-Coasts/13389).

We will have to adapt: Hertsgaard didn’t travel around the world just to talk to prophets of doom or tour disaster sites.  He wanted to learn from scientists, engineers, and people in government what can be done to prepare for likely developments in the not-too-distant future.  In many places, contingency plans are complete or under way; in relatively few, pro-active policies are in place and expensive public works have been undertaken.  There’s much to be learned from the spectrum of actions and reasons for inaction described in Hot.

Throughout the book, Hertsgaard refers to his daughter Chiara, who was an infant when he began his travels in 2005.  He imagines with a mixture of dread and hope the world she will face as an adult.  From the book’s dedication to its ‘Epilogue: Chiara in the Year 2020,’ these references provide a vital thread and a focal point for any reader’s imagination.  All of us have personal reasons to care about the lives, and the quality of life, of individuals in the generations beyond our own.

The reader also encounters reiterated principles and advisory maxims.  The most important and insistent maxim is “Avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable.”  This is the basis for programs that are already in place in Europe.

Hertsgaard cites Madelene Helmer, a Dutch environmentalist, who explains that avoiding the unmanageable does not mean steering clear of the big problems – letting someone else deal with them.  Helmer and many others are concerned that at some point global warming will become unmanageable.  “To keep from crossing that threshold, if we haven’t crossed it already, we must cut emissions dramatically.”

Efforts to manage the unavoidable involve a strategy of adaptation, and Hertsgaard is most cheerful when he’s describing exemplary adaptive strategies.  In Chapter 4, “Ask the Climate Question,” he praises the steps taken by Ron Sims, during his years as King County chief executive, and Greg Nickels, as Seattle’s mayor.  In the years before our economy tanked, Sims and Nickels took some giant steps in recognition of the current and future effects of climate change.

One of the legacies of those years is a manual, Preparing for Climate Change, written with scientists at the UW, offering guidance to citizen activists, business owners, planners, engineers, and elected officials anywhere.  (It’s available at http://www.icleiusa.org.)

Hertsgaard’s chapter devoted to the Netherlands contains many lessons applicable to our circumstances.  The Dutch are way ahead of us, of course.  Given their history and geography, they have to be: storms and sea level rise have threatened them for centuries.  Their current planning looks two hundred years into the future.  At the local and national levels, their government is efficient, and progressive policies are supported by business interests.  And they recognize, Hertsgaard says, “that adaptation is fundamentally a local activity. National and regional involvement is helpful, but real progress comes from ‘mobilizing local constituencies’.”  (He quotes the leading Dutch climate scientist, Pier Vellinga.)

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Frances Beinecke (president of the Natural Resources Defense Council) and Trip Van Noppen (president of Earthjustice), also stress the importance of local constituencies.  They had attended the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where the representatives of governments from around the world produced “a document that ended up being watered down almost to the point of worthlessness.”

Meanwhile, independent of the government negotiators, many forward-looking commitments were made by countries, communities, and companies around the globe, and many passionate young people spoke out “— sometimes through tears and with cracking voices – about the fears they have for the world we’re leaving for them.”

We live here on Bainbridge with various concerns and uncertainties, but we are far more fortunate than most people.  I expect that in many respects, things will get worse before they get better, yet we will still be blessed.  Let’s also be wise, or at least prudent, living within our means and preparing, “with all deliberate speed,” for the problems we’ll face in the future.


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