December 27, 2010

Book Review: Forecast

This has been a strange year for natural disasters. On December 19, 2010, The Washington Post published a report that captured the events of the last year, from quakes, floods to blizzards. “The term ‘100-year event’ really lost its meaning this year,” Craig Fugate, administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told the Post. But you don’t need to tell me. I have been spending the holidays in California where experts suggested that we experienced what some say is a 10-year rain storm, others a 100-year storm, that dropped more than fourteen inches of rain and snow in parts of California. With all this strangeness that’s been going on, what better time than to share some thoughts from one of my reads, Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley.  

Forecast is not your typical climate change book. Many climate change-related books I read take the reader on a tour of the science and provide detailed scientific analysis on the physical impacts that the world is experiencing as a result of climate change. Forecast is much different. What author Stephan Faris does instead is translate the scientific impacts of climate change into the sociological consequences that people experience in these affected areas. And he does it, quite poignantly, through his on the ground reporting and telling of individual stories of those experiencing climate change already. As Faris explains to the reader, “This book is about these types of impacts, the rolling series of events that reach beyond the environment and the weather to shape the way we live.”

What makes Faris’s work distinct is that he tells stories the reader may not be as familiar with: the impact of climate change on developed countries. If you are reading Forecast, you are probably familiar – at least to some degree – of the projected impacts of climate change on developing countries; that many states are already experiencing resource scarcity that is likely to become more acute as a result of climate change; that many states already beset by natural disasters – from severe coastal flooding and typhoons along the Bengali coast in India, to crippling drought in the Sahel – may see an increase in the intensity and frequency of these types of events. And indeed, Faris includes developing countries as part of his narrative, capturing through his reporting the consequences of water scarcity in the Darfur region of Sudan and of deforestation and forest degradation in Brazil that has resulted in not only increased greenhouse gas emissions, but spawned new disease patterns in the recently cleared forest lands. What may be less familiar to the reader are the potential impacts climate change could have on the way of life in developed countries, from dramatic changes to the tourism and insurance industries in America, to increasing migration of Africans to southern Europe and the resulting political backlash.

Many of these changes are already occurring, according to Faris’s reporting. Reef diving tourism in the Florida Keys has taken a hit as the coral reefs lose their vibrant and attention-gathering colors as the waters in the mid-Atlantic continue to warm and bleach the coral white. Increasingly more frequent and intense storms that have ravaged parts of southern Florida and the islands in the Keys have also resulted in skyrocketing insurance premiums that have forced out many and made some parts of this tropical paradise out of reach for average Americans, reserved instead for only the wealthiest who can afford the insurance premiums associated with having a summer getaway in southern Florida or on a nearby island.

On the other side of country, viticulturists and estate owners in California’s world-renowned wine country Napa Valley are preparing for climate change.  According to Faris, climate change has, to date, been rather good to Californian viticulturists, producing wines that yield a higher alcohol content, which sets the wines apart from other world varieties. But the good resulting from climate change could reach a threshold, and soon. Already, some vineyard owners are planting grapes on hillsides that today do not capture enough warmth to produce grapes needed for wine, but that could be prime real estate with just a minor increase in the average temperature for the region. What is more, some estate owners are also buying lands closer to the coast, where it’s too cold today to produce wine-wielding grapes, but could be perfect for growing grapes in the not-too-distant future. That could also mean that some signature wines that are produced using grapes that are near or already at their heat threshold could become a thing of the past as the average temperature in the region continues to climb. The reader might at this point be wondering why impacts on the wine industry may be so important. Well, besides it being a clear example of the impact of climate change on a particular way of life, it could be indicative of a larger trend: how climate change could affect agricultural production, which is a major industry in California as well as in many other parts of the world.

Faris closes his reporting by posing some of the questions we have explored in our work here in the Natural Security program: how could climate change affect U.S. national security, and how will America respond? “Are the armed forces prepared to deploy in a way that doesn’t compromise their safety or their other responsibilities?” wonders Faris.  “Nor will the threats from climate change be confined to the humanitarian,” he writes, alluding to the potential geopolitical implications of resource scarcity and other potential exacerbators of intra- and interstate conflict.

Nevertheless, Forecast is far from an alarmist’s book about climate change. If anything, it serves as a reminder that nothing is inevitable; that we can change the future. While we might already be experiencing climate change as a result of our emitted greenhouse gas emissions, we can still turn the tide. Faris reminds the reader that the potentially resulting climate change we are experiencing today is a result of the greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere during the Kennedy administration. “The greenhouse gas emissions we release today shape the world of the future,” writes Faris. But he closes with several words of caution: “We don’t have the luxury of waiting for devastating disasters to scare us into action.”