“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”, the famous Danish physicist Niels Bohr once quipped, only half in jest.
Scientists, as we know, are a dry lot, preferring to leave the purple prose to the scribes while they pore over their beakers and field samples, tut tutting all the while at the misrepresentation and distortions in much of what passes for coverage of science generally (and the benighted and ideologue-infested sub-field of ‘climate economics’ in particular).
Dr James Powell is an exception. He has identified (correctly, in my view) that societies communicate more in storytelling and myths than in the recital of cold data, assessments and reports. Simply setting out the facts, as the IPCC and countless other worthy organisations have found to their cost, gets you nowhere, especially when your message flies in the face of a powerful prevailing socio-cultural narrative. The technical language of the UN panel obscures critical realities that, to be truly internalised, must first be felt – viscerally and deeply – like an almighty kick in the groin.
From this insight was born ‘2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming’. Described as a novella, it is written in the form of an account penned by our narrator, a 72-year old (born in 2012) whose health is failing, but who has recognised that he “may be one of the last historians to have the chance to capture the effects of the first truly global disaster in human history”. The date is a nod to Orwell’s dystopian 20th century classic.
Our fictional narrator has spent several years making contact with survivors scattered around the world, each recalling the circumstances that befell them and their communities. Our eyewitnesses are drawn from New York city, Miami, Bangladesh, Tuvalu, Rotterdam, Phoenix, Arizona, Switzerland, India, Pakistan and Canada. Borrowing a line from Thomas Hobbes, human existence has once again become “poor, nasty, brutish and short” – and not just for some.
Looking back at 2012, the year of his birth, our narrator can see that the scientific projections were clear, yet societies chose not to act. Scientists were partly to blame. Being largely rational creatures, they “assumed that reason would prevail and that nations would agree voluntarily to reduce CO2 emissions”. This allowed them to create plausible scenarios in which global average temperature rises were pegged below the 2C tipping point.
They were wrong. They were wrong too about just how sensitive climate feedbacks would prove. IPCC modelling on the sensitivity of the world’s glaciers and the Greenland ice cap to relentless warming proved hopelessly optimistic. Mean sea level increases had hit the one-metre mark by 2083, with centuries more in store as the global cryosphere entered its unstoppable melt-spiral.
New York, so often the subject of attack by fictitious phantoms, from Godzilla to King Kong, finally succumbed to a combination of rising sea levels and intense storm surges by mid-century. After a major storm in 2042, Manhattan was effectively abandoned, with so much of its infrastructure destroyed, despite massive efforts to build sea barriers to protect from the worst of the storm surges.
Further south, Miami by 2035 was hotter than Bangkok had been in 2000. Rising temperatures and regular inundation had led to major depopulation by the time the Big One – a Category 4 storm –slammed into Miami in August 2056, sending a 10-metre storm surge deep inland. Miami’s port facilities were among the major casualties. By the early 2080s, large pockets of south Florida were waterlogged; most people had simply abandoned the state. Best estimates were that within another century, much of Florida would be underwater.
“Geography is destiny” is a phrase with particular resonance in Bangladesh. The half-metre global sea level rise by 2050 had led to the inundation and abandonment of fields as far as 40km from what was the coastline in 2011. With 50 million climate refugees trying to escape, the international aid agencies had long abandoned the country, and its neighbour India built a steel fence to try to keep them out. From a peak population of 170 million in 2025, this had plummeted to around 75 million by 2084. Disease, famine and premature death swept away countless millions.
The Pacific island of Tuvalu gained its independence in 1978. Freedom was to be short-lived. By mid-century the island people had given up their hopeless battle with coastal inundation and negotiated en masse to re-settle in New Zealand. Other islands, including Tonga, American Samoa, Kiribati, Tokelau and the exquisite Maldives were all abandoned to the rising tides by 2050.
The Netherlands has fought a long historical battle against the North Sea. In January 1953 a sea surge led to 2,000 fatalities and hundreds of thousands of farm animals drowned. This disaster led to a 50-year programme to strengthen their defences against future severe storms. Rotterdam, the jewel of Holland, was protected behind the massive Maesland sea barrier, one of the great engineering feats of the age.
It held for another turbulent half century, until a 20-metre storm surge in January 2052 overwhelmed it, drowning Rotterdam in a lethal inundation of 5.5 metres of water, which killed around a quarter of a million inhabitants. Many had not even attempted to flee, such was their confidence in their engineers. This disaster shattered centuries of Dutch belief in its power to master the elements, and the psychological effects were far-reaching. By the 2080s, half of today’s land area of Holland has been abandoned and the beleaguered Dutch government was making overtures to both Germany and France for a merger.
Nemesis for the US mid-west came sooner. Water rationing was introduced in Phoenix, Arizona in 2027. For a society brought up to believe in a world without limits, this came as a profound shock. Conservation measures, in a desert, were never going to work for long. As water levels in Lake Mead plummeted, electrical output from the Hoover Dam fell sharply. Without air conditioning, it quickly became intolerable for months at a time. By the early 2030s, anyone who could afford to sell up was heading north, and the desert was quickly reclaiming the state.
Closer to home, the Swiss Alps had lost their last snow caps by the 2040s, and the Alps were coming to resemble the Atlas Mountains. Famous ski resorts, such as Davos, have long been boarded up. The situation in Spain is much graver. Today’s Gold Coast is a graveyard of abandoned condos and dry swimming pools, with daytime temperatures of over 50C. The monoculture of olive trees have long since dried out and burned. The tomato and lettuce fields of Murcia are dustbowls, as are the hundreds of long-abandoned golf courses.
In the first decade of the century, it took an estimated 11,400 litres of pumped fresh water just to allow one golfer to play a single round. That madness is beyond imagining in the parched Spain of the 2050s, which is now simply an extension of the North African desert.
Paris in July 2084 is 46C in the shade. The famous sidewalk cafés are gone. People stay indoors. Even at night, the heat is stifling. “Eighty years ago, southern Europeans feared that hordes of North African immigrants would overrun them. It did not occur to them that not only would the people of North Africa come, they would bring the climate too”, writes Powell.
Scientists in the first decade of the century projected that the Amazon basin would warm by 5-8C and that rainfall would decline by 20% by 2100. They too were wrong. By 2030, 60% has burned, rising to 80% by 2050 and 95% by 2084. In its prime, the Amazon system evaporated a mind-boggling 8 trillion metric tonnes of water each year, as well as producing much of the oxygen we breathe. As it burned, a carbon sink became a massive pump, with an additional 140 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted, the equivalent to 15 years of total annual global CO2 output back in 2000.
The UN warned that the 21st century’s great wars would be fought over water, and in 2028, Israel and Egypt once again went to war over control of water from the Jordan river. Syria, Jordon, Lebanon and nuclear-armed Iran joined the escalating conflict and only an uneasy peace prevented a full nuclear exchange in the region.
Pakistan and India, both bristling with nuclear warheads and mutual antipathy, were less fortunate. Declining flows from disappearing glaciers led to massive tension over access to fresh water, and in May 2048, the conflict ignited a short but deadly nuclear exchange that led to a military victory of sorts for India and an estimated 150 million deaths.
Meanwhile, as temperatures made wheat growing impractical across much of the US’s corn belt, its eyes turned north, to the vast rolling plains of Canada, with which it shares a border over 5,000 miles long. Illegal Americans had been flooding north, and conflict flared into full-scale hostilities in 2046, when the US, claiming to defend its citizens from attack, crossed the borders in force and quickly disabled Canadian military capability. Fighting was brief and casualties light. By 2050, Canada had been merged into an extended United States.
Some time earlier, in 2032, a new and overtly fascist party, America First, had taken the White House and control of Congress. Its crackdown on Mexican ‘illegals’ quickly spread to racial profiling and harassment of Hispanics generally. Instead of boosting the faltering US economy, America Firsts’ policies merely accelerated the decline, especially in the already heat-stressed mid-west.
‘2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming’ concludes with chapters relating the impacts of the ‘century of death’ on health and food production – both of which went into freefall as access to energy dwindled and the wheels fell off the once-mighty chariot of globalisation.
Strange though it may seem, Powell’s novella errs on the overall side of optimism, after a fashion. “At the turn of the century, some forecast that global warming would lead to the end of modern civilisation, even to the extinction of our species”, states one of his characters, a professor of ‘survival studies’ from the University of Winnipeg.
“It is true that, in what people used to call the first world countries, living conditions today are roughly the same as those of the mid-1800s. Instead of losing civilisation, we have lost nearly two and a half centuries of human progress”. This assessment, though grim, errs on the cup-half-full end of the spectrum of probabilities in a +6C world.
It improbably assumes, for instance, that the billions of tonnes of methane clathrates locked on the ocean floor and in deep permafrost have somehow remained undisturbed during this tumult of heating. Should this prove not to be the case, Powell’s novella would have been distinctly lacking in 2080s mammalian eye-witnesses of any kind, and certainly none any bigger than a mouse or rat.
The Permian-Triassic extinction event and the tens of million years it took Earth to regain biological diversity remains in the fossil record as a permanent reminder of the fickleness of existence and the grand folly of tinkering with systems we don’t control and can’t possibly fix.
‘2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming’ is mercifully light on faux optimism and sage take-home lessons, but it does sneak one in the final paragraphs: “In the first two decades of this century, people and their political leaders, prodded by the quisling scientists, acted as though they could enjoy the benefits of modern science while rejecting any scientific findings that they found inconvenient to their ideology or their pocketbook. For their folly, we paid a terrible price.”