Books: a father’s climate fears

In Hot, Mark Hertsgaard approaches global warming through the prism of a parent concerned about the world his little girl will inhabit by 2050. A disappointed Melody Wilson hoped to read more solid advice.

Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth
Mark Hertsgaard
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

In 2005, American author and journalist Mark Hertsgaard met with David King, then the British government’s top climate adviser, who told him that anthropogenic climate change (that caused by human activity) had already arrived — 100 years ahead of schedule. Hertsgaard, a new father at the time, realised the implications: even if we were to halt greenhouse-gas emissions immediately, the planet was already locked into at least 25 more years of rising temperatures, making the world his newborn daughter would inhabit a very different place.

By situating Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth in the context of fatherhood, Hertsgaard attempts to stress the urgency and immediacy of a climate-change crisis that many see as a far-off — and therefore unimaginable — threat.

The author focuses on challenges facing the state of California in particular and the United States as a whole, though he also looks to international examples of climate-change policies (or the lack thereof). While his conversational tone and explanations of rather elementary concepts make this account very accessible to the average American reader, an international audience might find his uneven focus frustrating.

Hertsgaard concentrates in particular on water, partly because, as he says, “By roughly 2025, the number of people living in water-stressed countries will increase from 800 million to three billion — an amount equal to nearly half of the current global population.”

According to a study commissioned by his home state, “Sea levels along the California coast are expected to rise between three and 4.5 feet [roughly one to 1.4 metres] by 2100.” California isn’t the only American state worried about disappearing coastlines, though; Hertsgaard also devotes considerable attention to the effects of climate change on the shores of Florida and Louisiana – particularly the city of New Orleans.

Bangladesh faces similar difficulties: “A rise of three feet [about one metre] would put 20% of Bangladesh underwater and create 30 million refugees,” Hertsgaard observes. At least the Bangladeshi government is attempting to make changes, poorly funded as it is; the author sharply criticises the inadequate crisis-management policies of Chinese cities such as Shanghai. 

The country that faces the greatest threat from sea-level rise, the Netherlands, has also provided the best example of how to prepare for such large-scale changes. The Dutch, with their long history with floods and their willingness to sacrifice the comfort of a few for the good of all, have begun planning 200 years ahead. They have to. Hertsgaard quotes Dutch crown prince Willem-Alexander as having said, “Seventy percent of the Dutch GNP is earned below sea level, which is also the place where most of our people live.”

Hertsgaard also stresses the importance of reforming agricultural practices. He writes: “The agricultural sector, including forestry, is responsible for roughly 31% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, more than any human activity except for the constructing, heating and cooling of buildings.”

In China, “basic food supplies will become insufficient around 2030”, Hertsgaard says,  if global greenhouse-gas emissions remain high, and the future of the country’s water supplies looks equally grim. “Scientists have estimated that the aquifers beneath the North China Plain–which is home to more than 200 million people and produces 60% of the country’s wheat — will dry up entirely in 30 years.”

Farmers looking for ways to adapt to higher temperatures and more fickle water supplies could learn from an unlikely source: Africa. Such nations as Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Chad will face particularly heightened temperatures, and farmers have begun reverting to more traditional agricultural practices, including using manure rather than chemical fertiliser; intercropping; relying on natural predators rather than pesticides; and allowing trees to sprout in the fields.

One of the greatest advantages to these methods is that the “Africans themselves own the technology,” Hertsgaard says, rather than depending on governmental or foreign assistance. 

At times, Hertsgaard seems out of touch with his audience. “I feel lucky that Chiara gets to eat such healthful, local food,” he writes of his daughter. “Other parents may find it hard to believe, but Chiara truly enjoys most vegetables and fruits. (Of course, like most little kids, she also loves pasta.) It doesn’t hurt that her mother is an excellent cook, or that we grow quite a few of our own vegetables. Our garden is right outside my writer’s studio, and we make sure to include Chiara in the planting, harvesting and other chores.”

Such statements serve only to contrast his daughter’s privileged lifestyle with that of countless children whose parents cannot afford to plant and maintain gardens or even to purchase fresh produce on a regular basis.

Social inequity does not escape Hertsgaard’s notice, however. “Poverty may be the single most important example of how social context shapes one’s capacity for climate-change adaptation,” he acknowledges. Those who are accustomed to living in poverty actually have an advantage, he suggests: they easily adapt to sudden, unexpected changes in their environment.

As Saleemul Huq, a senior climate-change fellow at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), comments: “In Bangladesh, people have been dealing with floods and other disasters for centuries, so they have a greater capacity than rich people who are not used to facing catastrophe. People in Bangladesh have great resilience, and given half a chance, they can manage.”

While Hertsgaard supports some alternative-energy sources, such as wind power, he denigrates others, including nuclear. “Nuclear power is often cited as one of the technologies that must be expanded to combat climate change,” he comments, “but the superior speed and economics of energy efficiency leave nuclear hopelessly behind.” Hertsgaard touts energy efficiency, but efficiency is only part of the equation; it can’t provide the energy services that we need.

 On the agricultural front, he suggests that we halt deforestation, restore vegetation in degraded areas and incorporate carbon-sequestration methods, including biochar and no-till farming

On this last point, I disagree with the author; he contends that “no-till farming could capture carbon-dioxide equivalent to roughly 25% of annual global agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions” and that “if no-till was used on all 3.5 billion acres [nearly 1.5 billion hectares] of the earth’s tillable land, it would sequester half of humanity’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions.” I don’t doubt his math, but I do doubt the long-term potential of no-till farming. You can’t sequester carbon in soil for more than 20 years or so, and not all areas are suitable for no-till crops.

Controlling population growth and consumerism are the “two great unmentionables” in climate-change discussions. Hertsgaard skirts the question of population-growth control neatly by insisting that it is far more important to reduce the environmental footprint of the affluent than to lower population-growth rates in poor countries. 

However, Hertsgaard places much of the responsibility to avert climate change with government: “Only a government can oversee and operate evacuation plans. Only a government can organise, fund, build and maintain levees and seawalls to keep unwanted water out and dams and pipelines to bring fresh water in. Only a government can implement the myriad decisions about public health, land use, species protection and other issues that climate change will force all societies to confront.”

This book is unique because of Hertsgaard’s angle as a father, not because he is an expert with breaking news. He attempts to show the inevitability and seriousness of the challenges his little girl will have to face, but sometimes his focus on her is a little too unctuous and it is hard to take him seriously.

I would have liked to have seen a stronger focus on the intersection of global health and climate change. While the author observes that the medical journal The Lancet has called climate change “the number-one threat to global public health in the twenty-first century,” he does not go much deeper into the issues. 

“Even a 1° C rise in temperatures — highly likely over the next 50 years — could bring back the infamous bubonic plague, the disease responsible for the Black Death of the Middle Ages that claimed an estimated 20 million lives,” he postulates briefly.

Such a provocative and interesting statement begs to be better supported.

Though climate change is an inarguably important topic, I do not think this book adds much to the current discussion. I often found myself disagreeing with his grim projections and glib solutions. 

Hertsgaard closes with a quote from the anti-globalisation activist Kevin Danaher, co-founder of Global Exchange: “We must learn to be good ancestors.” I can’t argue with that, but I had hoped that Hertsgaard might propose more solid advice.

Melody Wilson is a book reviewer based in the Washington DC area.