This is a book review I wrote for the UK Times Higher Education Supplement, for the book “The Flooded Earth” by Peter D. Ward. You can read my original THE piece here. Click on the cover image of the book for details of the title.
A chilling look at our possible destiny indicates the limits of human adaptability, says Barry Brook
Although some people may prefer to ignore the issue, climate change continues to make the headlines: in recent months, record flooding in Pakistan and an unprecedented heatwave in Russia. These impacts, which kill people directly and cause economic misery and severe environmental damage, are entirely consistent with the effects predicted by climate science.
While it is impossible to attribute any extreme event solely to human-caused warming, it has been said that “weather throws the punches but climate trains the boxer”. It is disturbing to consider that some of climate change’s heavyweight contenders may not yet have even entered the ring. According to Peter D. Ward, rapidly rising sea levels caused by melting polar ice caps could be about to step up and claim the 21st-century title.
Ward, a prolific populariser of natural science and University of Washington earth scientist, puts sea-level rise at the top of the list of dangerous climate-change effects we face. Billions of people live along narrow strips of land abutting the world’s coastlines. This includes great cities such as London, Mumbai, New York and Shanghai, as well as highly productive agricultural land and unique environmentally sensitive biomes that provide essential ecosystem services to humanity. Much of this human and natural capital is at clear risk of being swept away under a rising tide.
As Ward points out, when exploring climate change in deep time, sea levels are prone to change rapidly and with great magnitude. At the end of the last Ice Age, for instance, oceans rose 420ft over a few millennia, including one period when the process topped 15ft per century. Back then, 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors kept pace with the encroaching shorelines by simply moving camp and abandoning coastal rock shelters. Still, it must have been quite a sight for ancient people to have beheld, with the beaches and foraging areas of their childhood permanently inundated by the time they were adults.