Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth

A parent looks ahead to understand what life on a warmer planet Earth will be like for his daughter.

Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth By Mark Hertsgaard Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 339 pp.

There’s nothing like becoming a parent to concentrate one’s attention on the future. What will the world be like for that little one decades from now?

That’s the driving force behind Mark Hertsgaard’s Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

When his daughter Chiara (now 5 years old) came along, it became clear to him that global warming – something he’d written about in books and leading magazines for 20 years – was not just an abstract scientific and political issue whose full effects wouldn’t be seen in his lifetime.

Becoming a dad not only changed Hertsgaard’s point of view but it also added urgency to his subject. He vowed to find out “what had to happen for my daughter and her generation to live through the storm of climate change.”

To be honest, I was not looking forward to this book. Having tracked climate change journalistically for nearly 20 years myself, I felt burned out on the subject. It seemed as intractable as “the Middle East peace process” or “campaign finance reform” – issues more battered than helped by politics.

But I came away thinking and feeling differently – not only renewedly interested in what humankind is doing to Earth’s climate, but also actually somewhat more hopeful. (Perhaps becoming a grandfather recently had changed my outlook, too.)

Here’s why I like and recommend “Hot”: Hertsgaard’s rhetorical device – considering global warming with a regard for the future of children – is good without being too smarmy.

He covers the ground on the science and politics of climate change clearly and with an amount of detail that is sufficient without being overwhelming – for example, explaining without confusing the reader the relative importance of mitigation and adaptation. (In other words, doing things to reduce the greenhouse gases that result in climate change, and then getting ready for the global warming that’s already inevitable.)

Hertsgaard travels all over the world – Africa, Europe, China, South Asia, the United States – for descriptive on-the-ground reporting and many in-depth interviews with the world’s leading experts. Also, he details the important things some communities (like the Seattle area) and nations (like the Netherlands) are doing to prepare, so it’s not all a downer.

Hertsgaard’s travels led him to parts of the world – some of them surprising – where people are taking important steps to deal with the inevitable. In other areas (New Orleans, Florida, and Shanghai) the attitude is mostly business as usual.
So while things aren’t hopeless, the situation is serious.

Because of the increase in greenhouse gases that began with the Industrial Revolution and accelerated in the 20th century with industrial agriculture, motor vehicles, and worldwide population increase, Hertsgaard writes, “Over the next fifty years, climate change will transform our world in ways we have only begun to imagine.”

Most scientists (minus a handful of skeptics and outright deniers) are warning of stronger storms, deeper droughts, shifting seasons, and sea-level rise, Hertsgaard points out. It’s not a matter of whether these things are likely to happen but of degree.

“Humans have changed the weather on this planet, and that will change everything,” he predicts, “from how we grow food and obtain water to how we construct buildings and fight disease; from how we organize economies and control borders to how we manage transportation systems and deploy armies; from how we write insurance and produce wine to how we talk with our children and plan for the future.”

It’s a challenge that’s already begun, fraught with potential dangers, including (as US military leaders have pointed out) regional conflict born of forced migration.

With his daughter and other children of the world in mind, Hertsgaard has illuminated the challenge while pointing the ways toward resolution.

Brad Knickerbocker is a Monitor staff writer.

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8 noteworthy biographies of early 2011

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