IF YOU HAVE children underfoot and climate change on your mind, journalist Mark Hertsgaard has written a book that will scare the breath out of you while still offering some hope for surviving the coming heat.
The book’s dedication page sums it up: “For my daughter, Chiara, who has to live through this.” I’m the father of a thirteen-year-old Boy Scout, baseball catcher, and curb-jumping skater dude, so I was hooked from word one of Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years.
Hertsgaard, who writes frequently about global warming for the likes of Vanity Fair and The Nation, wonders how so many parents can pack healthy school lunches for their kids and hold their hands through traffic but not act on the immediate threat of climate change. As a fact-chasing reporter and a dedicated dad, he goes on to tackle the big questions. How will Chiara, five, feed herself in a world of looming agricultural disruption? Where will she live as the oceans rise? He then visits several nations around the world, all of them vulnerable to warming, many of them poor like Bangladesh, and asks similar questions for children there.
“I look at Chiara, at her cheerful countenance, her mischievous eyes, her blond locks, and there is a disconnect,” Hertsgaard writes. “Despite all the research I’ve done on climate change, I still can’t fully take in that this innocent creature, and millions more like her around the world, will have to suffer because grownups insisted on making foolish choices.”
He explains how megastorms, fueled by global warming, could make his family’s current life impossible along California’s northern coast. Even the state capital, Sacramento, could suffer Katrina-like flooding from overtopped river levees. Still, California is lucky compared to many of the poor nations Hertsgaard visits as part of this book. He interviews coastal farmers in Bangladesh already suffering from saltwater intrusion. One fifth of the entire country will disappear with three feet of ocean rise.
What to do? Hertsgaard calls for an international “Green Apollo” initiative to rapidly deploy clean-energy technology. California provides concrete hope here, having essentially midwifed the modern wind-power industry worldwide with pioneering state policies in the 1970s.
But no matter what we do, the world of Chiara’s future will also include significant adaptation to the warming scientists say is already locked into the atmosphere. Projects to desalinate water and build new coastal levees will certainly — and expensively — be part of that adaptation. But so will simple changes. West African farmers, planting trees and using “green” fertilizers, are already increasing moisture in their fields even as drought and heat waves increase, Hertsgaard writes. And hats off to the author for repeatedly highlighting the need for America to transition away from a diet dominated by energy-intensive meat and dairy products.
In the end, Hertsgaard is at his best when he writes about his worries and dreams as a father. The book’s straight-ahead reporting is great, but several chapters sag from too many facts on the latest scientific study or clean-car design. Personal stories and emotions are what really inspire people to action. Hertsgaard delivers too little of this, leaving the reader wanting more straight from the father’s heart.