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Intelligent Readers and the Climate Crisis


Just in time for Halloween comes one of the scariest and thought-provoking reads ever, and it’s not about zombies, vampires, Ebola or ISIS—it’s about climate change.

John Berger, author of Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis takes the reader on a tour of all of the dangers facing the planet if nothing—or not enough—is done to address the impacts of climate change. This is a stark, necessary, heartbreaking and in the end, cautionary and hopeful book.

In succinct and accessible language, this short but powerful book pulls no punches: Climate change is the most critical threat to the planet today, and also the most complicated global issue. And, “like any critical threat it requires an emergency response.”

Life may seem normal now but rapid climate change “is already altering the world in ways that are truly alarming,” writes Berger, who has a PhD in Ecology and has advised the National Research Council. “But long before 2100 AD, it will profoundly affect our health, our homes, our businesses, and our farms, as well as our water, power, and transportation systems. Calling attention to the real dangers now is both a moral obligation and an essential part of the struggle to avert these consequences.”

Current climate change trends reveal that the world is almost certainly going to surpass an average warming of 3.6°F (2°C), probably in about 40 years or so, on its way to much higher temperatures, he says. “While at first 3.6°F may not sound like much, it is nonetheless about two and a half times the warming that the Earth has already experienced since preindustrial times.”

Berger calls what has happened to date a “colossal global policy failure.” Meanwhile, over the past decade of failed negotiations, “astonishing and alarming global climate changes have already begun in response to only 1.4°F of average global surface temperature warming. Thus, 3.6°F of warming—rather than a safety threshold—is a nebulous transition zone between highly dangerous and extremely dangerous climate change…we have created a new world atmosphere.”

The impacts of climate change are not limited to easily recognizable extreme weather events, such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, or droughts, Berger notes. The impacts “also include other dire consequences,” such as:

  • Heat waves

  • Dying forests

  • Abnormally large wildfires

  • Habitat destruction

  • Accelerating rates of extinction

  • Altered seasons and disruption of normal seasonal ecological relationships

  • Invasive species encroaching deeper into once-intact ecosystems

  • Lethal diseases fanning out from the tropics

  • Island nations about to be obliterated

  • Disappearing sea ice and glaciers

  • Rising seas

  • Acidifying oceans

  • Declining ocean plankton

  • Melting permafrost and Arctic wetlands

“These phenomena are undeniable, although their causes are still disputed by climate science deniers,” Berger says.

In Chapter 1 he takes the reader on a trip to the future that fleshes out in some detail the impact of those “dire consequences” in 2100.

For example, the world's average temperature has risen more than 10°F by that year, but that’s an average. In the Arctic the temperature rise might be 14-20°F. So, by 2100 the Arctic Ocean is virtually ice free. This amplifies global warming because the reflective ice is replaced by darker water which absorbs more heat. With the disappearance of the Arctic sea ice, the Arctic ecosystem collapses. The seemingly boundless fisheries are a “distant memory.” Arctic commercial fishing has ended.

The Great Melting
Then there’s the great the Greenland ice melt: In 2000, Greenland was losing about 180 billion tons of ice a year. The melting was adding nearly three hundredths of an inch a year to sea level by 2013. Over the next 87 years, however, the loss accelerates greatly. Thousands of billions of tons of Greenland ice melt and cascade into the ocean. Along with contributions from the West Antarctic Peninsula, average sea level rises four feet by 2100. Sea-level rise is not uniform everywhere. The overall resulting net average rise in sea level by 2100 has a catastrophic impact on coastal and near-coastal areas around the world:

  • Tremendous changes have occurred along the coastlines of Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and Rhode Island. Many less important populated areas have simply been abandoned to the ocean and are now under water.

  • Superstorm Sandy in 2012 proves to be a foretaste of the large hurricanes that come with increasing frequency in the decades that follow. With average sea level elevated by more than three feet, 3 percent of Boston is below sea level along with 7 percent of both New York City and Jacksonville, Florida. Nine percent of Norfolk, VA is under water. In Florida, 15 percent of Tampa and 18 percent of Miami are submerged. The tip of Florida is entirely submerged; more than 90 percent of New Orleans is below sea level.

  • In the Pacific Ocean, the nations of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands disappear into the sea. The same thing happens to other “stepping stones” across the Pacific. Some of the larger Solomon Islands survive, but are now smaller and partially evacuated. Most of the world’s tropical coral has died or is dying by 2100.
    • Between 2070 and 2095, several million people were displaced by sea-level rise and flooding in coastal areas of Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
The Great Parching
Roughly 30 percent of the world’s land area is afflicted with some degree of drought at any given time in 2100. In the United States, droughts are more frequent in the Midwest, Southwest, and heavily populated parts of the East. Heat waves are also more frequent, prolonged, and ferociously hot. Farms are failing and food prices skyrocket. Miles of once-productive farmland in California’s Imperial and Coachella Valleys lay hot, dry, and fallow. Parched by decades of drought, the Colorado River basin is no longer able to provide the one million acre-feet of water it used to send to California’s Metropolitan Water District. In hotter areas of California, temperatures approach 120°F in severe heat waves.

Economic Failure, Disease, Political Turmoil Mass Extinctions

  • The national debt jumps to unprecedented levels as the United States reels from climate-related disasters and the ensuing fiscal strain. Simultaneously, the U.S. is at last belatedly spending heavily on new energy and transportation infrastructure while also trying to extend economic aid to climate-battered developing nations.

  • Across the Pacific, the rapid climate change of the past century has spread disease in many areas. Malaria now threatens 60 percent of the world’s residents, many of whom live in Asia. More Asian people are falling victim to bonebreak fever, river blindness, encephalitis, cholera, yellow fever, and waterborne intestinal illnesses.

  • Global strife, hunger, instability, and worsening ecological collapse increase. It’s an overpopulated planet where billions depend on—and struggle for—a shrinking natural resource base.

  • If the current emissions trajectory continues, “a quarter of all land plant and animal species will likely be gone within just 50 years—far less than a human life span. Then by 2100, half of all the species on Earth would likely disappear—a catastrophe unprecedented in human history.”

Frightening stuff indeed. “We currently have no quick, affordable way to scrub vast amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere,” Berger writes. Thus, if we do not radically slash our heat-trapping gas emissions, “We are destined not just to exceed, but to greatly exceed a 3.6°F average global heating…The world will therefore be exposed to a very large risk of crossing a climate threshold from which the Earth will not recover for thousands of years.”

On a somewhat hopeful note, he says, "The technology to constrain emissions is definitely here, and the world definitely has the resources to tackle the challenge.” Berger’s next book, Climate Solutions: Turning Climate Crisis Into Jobs, Prosperity, and a Sustainable Future will provide “an overview of the technologies available for mitigating climate change and the strategies plus tactics required to ensure that essential climate policies are implemented, despite even the most formidable obstacles.”

On a personal note, if all goes well, my grandson Wyatt Russell, born Sept. 3 this year, will be an old man in 2100, having lived through a continuing catastrophe and probably damning us for turning our backs on him and his children when we had the chance to do something to at least mitigate the climate change crisis, rather than electing clueless, feckless leaders who do the bidding of fossil fuel companies.

So yes, climate change is global and personal, not business as usual or something for further debate and study, and it should be personal for everyone.

Image: Climate Peril cover

Bill DiBenedetto headshotBill DiBenedetto

Writer, editor, reader and generally good (okay mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by.

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