Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change is less about the science of climate change and more about the likely impacts. Andrew Guzman, author of How International Law Works and International Trade Law, explores the probable consequences of the Earth warming by 2°C, which scientists believe is the maximum increase compatible with civilization as we know it.
Even this modest increase will have dire consequences. As the temperature increases, the glaciers and icecaps will melt, causing flooding. A large percentage of that water will end up in the oceans, causing them to rise. Scientists expect the seas to rise by between 0.8 meters and 2.0 meters by 2100. (A meter is roughly 39 inches.) This is disastrous news for small islands like the Maldives, most of which is 1.5 meters or less above sea level. If the oceans rise by the expected amount, the Maldives, which is home to 386,000 people, will be obliterated. Other island countries will also be wiped out.
Larger countries will also suffer if the sea levels rise. Bangladesh is a low-lying country that is already vulnerable to flooding. It is also poor and home to 150 million people, making it the eighth most populous country in the world. A sea-level rise of just one meter will submerge about 17.5% of the country. That would be comparable to the United States losing the whole East Coast to flooding. Half of Bangladesh’s arable land would be destroyed and at least 20 million people would be left homeless.
The Sundarbans would also be destroyed. These are large mangrove swamps that act as a natural barrier protecting the rest of Bangladesh from storms and flooding. Rising seas would additionally cause salt intrusion, as the sea water brings salt into both soil and aquifers, contaminating them both.
Ironically, climate change also causes drought. Many regions depend on water that comes from glaciers and ice caps, which act as massive water-storage devices. During a dry season, melted water from the glacier can keep drought at bay. If the glaciers are gone–and they are shrinking– that loss will either cause or exacerbate a drought. Some countries, like many in the Middle East, are already plagued by water shortages, and climate change would make such shortages worse. The entire Middle East currently has access to only about 1.1% of the world’s renewable water sources.
Wealthy countries like the United State would also feel the effects of climate change. California, for example, is vulnerable to droughts. It is also currently a major agricultural center. Droughts, will, of course, reduce food production in California, leading to higher food prices.
After describing the physical consequences of climate change, like floods and droughts, Guzman then moves on to the resultant societal upheavals. Some of these, like the refugees fleeing the devastated Maldives or Bangladesh would be a direct consequence of climate change. Others would be the result of climate change exacerbating other existing problems. Guzman believes, for instance, that war would fall into this category. The Middle East has a long history of ethnic and political tensions, and it is vulnerable to drought. Sufficiently severe water shortages could lead to disputes over the water supply in the area, and quite likely to a full-blown war.
Climate change will also have a deleterious impact on people’s health. People fleeing floods or other disasters could conceivably end up in refugee camps, which are notoriously unsanitary and thus havens for disease. Wars can also help spread disease, as happened during WWI, which saw the spread of the lethal Spanish Flu. Droughts can cause or exacerbate famines.
The scariest thing about Overheated may be that parts of it are already slightly out of date. It was published this year and had apparently been sent to the publisher before Hurricane Sandy occurred as Guzman does not mention that storm at all. Towards the end, he says that the current concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 387 parts per million (ppm). As of this month, it’s 400 ppm.
Guzman is not a scientist and he admits that. He’s a professor of law at the Berkley Law School of the University of California. In the second chapter, he stresses that 97% of climate scientists believe that human activity was causing climate change. That figure comes from a 2010 study in which researchers examined the peer-reviewed works of 1372 climatologists– and found only 3% disputed the existence of anthropogenic climate change. Guzman firmly believes that we should listen to the 97% who say climate change is happening and that humans are causing it. In his extensive bibliography, he cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), plus researchers like James Hansen. It’s Guzman’s hope that by emphasizing impacts that climate change will have on people, as opposed to the planet or charismatic animals like polar bears, his book can spur people into taking action.