When snow was on the ground in 49 states last winter, it seemed to many that global warming was, indeed, a ridiculous scare tactic intended to make us all buy hybrid cars. The trouble is that the more appropriate terms – climate change, or perhaps global warning—are not bandied about despite their accuracy. Peter D. Ward’s explanation of what is really happening and why we should care clears up the misunderstanding and does so in a way that any reasonably intelligent reader can understand.
There’s no longer any doubt that temperatures around the globe are getting warmer. Yes, this has happened many times throughout history and the planet has survived the associated climate changes. This time around, however, human beings are settled in every corner of the world, and as rising temperatures cause glacial ice to melt at an unprecedented rate, the sea level will rise. It’s inevitable that much of the land areas now home to cities will be flooded. Simply moving inland won’t solve our problems because the shift in sea level will have a calamitous effect on agriculture, leading to massive food shortages worldwide.
In fact, the rising temperatures and resultant flooding are the first dominoes in a cascade of culture-changing events. Ward opens each chapter with a graphic future scenario, showing us how even minor changes in carbon dioxide levels can disrupt civilization. Basing his future world on what the scientific models demonstrate, Ward shows us the Miami of a few decades from today. Cut off from the mainland by flood waters, its airport a lake, Miami is abandoned by a government fighting other, more winnable battles: “Miami had joined New Orleans and Galveston as cities given over to the rapidly rising sea and to the mobs that burgeoned in the resulting chaos.”
We humans are notoriously lacking in foresight; it is only when our individual worlds are threatened that we take action. Since rising CO2 levels don’t immediately affect our ability to get to the mall, we toddle along, blissfully ignorant of the part we play in our imminent troubles. Ward’s chapter on rising carbon dioxide levels is an eye-opener, full of historical and current records that track greenhouse gases and irrefutable NASA models that boldly connect carbon emissions from industry to the rising sea. “In 1957,” Ward reveals, “climatologists Roger Revelle and Hans Seuss demonstrated that the oceans could not absorb CO2 as rapidly as humanity was releasing it, presciently noting that ‘human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment.’”
Even as our carbon-spewing societies impact climate, our population grows, requiring more and more cars, factories and polluting technologies to keep pace. “Every new human mouth to feed or transport, or simply to keep alive, warms the planet, which melts the ice, which causes the sea to rise.”
In chapter after chapter of The Flooded Earth, Ward shows us how our seemingly small and inconsequential actions coalesce, becoming the thumb-flick that sets off the falling domino chain. After dispelling all doubt about the reality of global warming, The Flooded Earth considers possible outcomes – we do something significant immediately to prepare for the coming flood or we perish. Author Ward suggests actions we can take to forestall climate change, such as curtailing CO2 emissions, drastic geo-engineering and technological fixes, but all of this depends upon a coordinated worldwide recognition of the situation and willingness to act.
A professor of biology and Earth and space science, Peter D. Ward has not only a firm grasp on the reality of climate change but also the rare ability to explain its details in language even I can understand. The Flooded Earth did not leave me feeling particularly hopeful; this threat is real and imminent, with no easy solution. On the other hand, this is a book that puts into perspective our role in the problems and shows us with terrifying clarity where we stand and how we can best prepare for the little black blocks that are rushing toward us with a vengeance.