Josh Robinson reviews Jim Motavalli, ed., Feeling the Heat: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Climate Change (New York and London: Routledge, 2004)
This selection of essays reprinted from E/The Environmental Magazine demonstrates three things beyond any reasonable doubt. The first is that climate change is taking place right now. The second, that industrial and domestic burning of fossil fuels has environmental consequences that go beyond the effects of greenhouse gases. The third, that continued climate change is likely to have wide-ranging and devastating effects, on a huge but unpredictable scale.
What it doesn’t prove, despite claims to the contrary, is that climate-change is caused by carbon-emissions. However, it is universally accepted among the scientific community that human-produced and other gases are a factor. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), open to all members of the UN and of WMO, notes that atmospheric levels of CO2 have increased by 31% since 1750, and that the combustion of fossil fuels is the prime cause of this increase.
The book covers the rising sea-level in the Caribbean, migration of coastal marine life on the coast of California, increases in the severity of flooding in Europe, the shrinking of glaciers and movement of ice-sheets at both poles, threats to sea-defences in New York. In each case, the effects are not limited to an observable climatic change, or even to the consequent changes in ecosystem as plant and animal life adapts and moves. Flooding in coastal cities or increases in the frequency of hurricanes in Antigua and Barbuda have devastating social and economic consequences.
The factories and mass transport of industrialised economies (domestic heating in China is a notable exception) cause most carbon emissions but those who suffer are the poorest communities. The mining of sand in order to build international hotels in Antigua destroys the island’s natural defences to storm surge: and while the multinationals can rebuild and even relocate when necessary, Antiguans earning an average annual wage of US $10-12000 are much less well placed to deal with the after-effects of a hurricane. The residents of the slums of Mumbai are disproportionately exposed to the effects of the sulphurous smog that hangs over the city.
The problem with Feeling the Heat is that it is low on solutions. This is partly because we simply do not know to what extent we will have to reduce carbon emissions in order to limit climate change. But its main limitation is its refusal to question the system in which we live. For example, in his chapter on China, Mark Hertsgaard argues that the introduction of more efficient light bulbs, insulation, and electric motors in factories “would not only decrease its dreadful air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but also provide much-needed jobs for workers and profits for companies in both China and the West.” This would indeed make sure that the capitalist system in which we live would destroy us that bit more slowly: but would this be a world worth be fighting for?