“KerPlunk! And Planet Earth”
This book’s lesson is easy to state and is worth making explicit up front. As we make decisions about how to respond to climate change, we must not lose sight of the very real possibility that it will have a cataclysmic impact on the way we live. I do not mean that there will be serious economic effects or that there will be modest numbers of additional deaths—these impacts are already happening. I mean that we should be worried that climate change may kill tens of millions or hundreds of millions and severely disrupt the lives of perhaps billions.
This all sounds alarmist, and I suppose it is. But that is because we should be alarmed. Nobody knows with certainty (or with great confidence, for that matter) exactly what the impact of climate change will be, and I am no exception. We do know some things, however, and they are not comforting. We know that the expected changes in our climate are significant, and the projections seem to grow more dire with each passing year. We know that the oceans are rising and will continue to do so for at least the next century, causing deadly flooding in many parts of the world. We know that agriculture will be disrupted as temperature and precipitation patterns change and as mountain glaciers melt. We know that the stresses generated by climate change will increase tensions in many parts of the world and are likely to trigger violent conflict. We know that rising temperatures will increase the incidence of disease and illness around the world. We know that even if the changes turn out to be on the mild end of existing projections, there will be great suffering—and that is if we are lucky. If fate is unkind and climate change is on the severe end of our best predictions, then we are all in deep, deep trouble.
Whether or not we are lucky, the consequences of climate change will be felt by billions of people around the world. This is obvious, but it is also often ignored in our public debates. We talk about environmental changes, scientific evidence, ice sheets, ocean levels, and droughts, but we do not always get around to talking about people. In writing this book, I have tried hard not to fall into this familiar trap. I have written it with the human impact of climate change in mind. The book is about how people will be affected by climate change, rather than how science and climate interact.
A focus on the human cost of climate change is critical, because that is what will persuade people to act. Scientific debates are important, but acknowledging the science is not, by itself, enough to get our political systems to react. Discussing possible policy responses to climate is important, but these responses will happen only if people are persuaded that something must be done. I am convinced that the most important barrier to a sensible and determined response to climate change is a lack of public understanding about the ways in which our lives and the lives of our children will be affected. Hearing that global average temperatures will increase by a couple of degrees is not enough for most people to support aggressive government action in response. Recognizing that this change in climate will lead to tens of millions or hundreds of millions of deaths and that it will harm billions of people, on the other hand, may motivate people to demand action from their political leaders.
There is no way to avoid a discussion about science entirely, but I have tried to keep that material to a minimum. I ask that you bear with me for a few pages in this introduction as I address the predictions of scientists just enough to get the ball rolling. Chapter 2 then explains the basic science of climate change, because some understanding of the science is necessary to appreciate the con- sequences for humans. The remainder of the book, however, is focused on how human beings, our communities, and our social structures face a threat unlike any we have ever seen before.