In the Face of Catastrophe: A Surprise

Displaced people preparing food outdoors after the San Francisco earthquake, 1906

I am writing this review from the city of Malé, the capital of the Maldives. The highest point of land on this entire archipelago of 1,190 islands is maybe twenty feet above sea level, and that is the trash dump in the center of town; most of the nation is only a meter or two above the sea. Earlier this year its president announced that the Maldives would be setting aside a portion of its tourist income each year so that in the future, as sea level rose, it could buy a new homeland somewhere else.

It is, I think, a very safe bet that the number and variety of disasters will rise dramatically in the years to come, as the planet warms. Indeed, a large number of well-informed people are making those bets already. They work for insurance companies and they are increasingly dumping coastal policyholders as bad risks, or raising their premiums sky high. The number of both devastating droughts and floods increases steadily and ominously. And that’s with barely a degree Celsius of global warming; the computer models make it clear that we can expect at least two or three more degrees unless we get to work right away.

There is nothing new about such forecasts, of course, except that their specificity rises with each new study, each new data point. If you want to read the latest, and one of the most streamlined yet comprehensive accounts of our predicament, I’d recommend Down to the Wire by David Orr,* an Oberlin College professor who has long been one of the country’s leading environmental thinkers. He lays out the dangers, and he lays out the plans that would be needed to counteract those dangers; it’s all there in simple and unavoidable prose.

If you’d prefer watching the story, then keep an eye open for The Age of Stupid, which had its worldwide premiere in late September. A documentary framed inside a feature film, it casts the admirable actor Pete Postlethwaite as a latter-day prophet—a character called the Archivist, who in 2055 puts together an archive showing how indifference to climate change in our time hastened the catastrophes he now documents from his arctic bunker. The film manages to be both accurate and watch- able, even funny, and only once tips over into mild unfairness, when it makes one of its villains an Indian businessman starting a budget airline. (In view of the relative blame for global warming, a film, to be fair, should indict several dozen Americans before going after an Indian.) This is necessary work; the warnings have not been heeded, and so they must be given again, ever plainer, ever louder. It is time to call us stupid; maybe it will rouse some shame.

But it’s also time to ask another…

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