The dedication of Andrew Guzman’s book makes obvious what he hopes to convey in the couple of hundred pages to follow. “To Nicholas and Daniel,” he writes, referring to his sons, “Whose Generation Will Face The Consequences.”
Many authors have written about how global warming will damage some of the world’s most treasured landscapes and beloved species. This book aims to lay out exactly how bad it will be for human beings. Guzman, a law professor and associate dean at the University of California at Berkeley, is neither a scientist nor a trained environmental activist; he is an academic well-versed in international treaties and legal niceties. This background gives him an interesting perspective on the shifts that are sure to come as climate change rearranges the world’s traditional social and economic order and as different factions jockey for advantage.
The wisest choice Guzman has made in outlining this scenario concerns the warming estimate on which he bases his projections: an increase of 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels by 2100. This is the threshold political leaders have pledged to keep within to have a chance of averting dangerous consequences, but every indication is that the world will warm much more by the end of the century. By adopting what Guzman himself calls “a conservative prediction,” he bolsters his case for action. After all, if things fall apart under a 2-degree scenario, how much worse would it be if the rise reached 4 degrees, which is what might very well happen given the current rate of global carbon emissions?
His answer is harsh: Plenty of disasters will unfold. The book ticks off the obvious losers in a world of rising seas, hotter temperatures and less predictable precipitation patterns: tiny Pacific island nations such as the Maldives, but also larger jurisdictions, including Bangladesh and, closer to home, California, where more than half of the state’s water supply could be disrupted if the levees in its delta region fail as a result of such effects as rising sea levels and more intense storms. Water scarcity in many regions, including the Middle East and Africa, could not only harm individuals but destabilize nations.
With lines like “The changing climate will create a world of people dying of thirst and hunger,” “Overheated” can be a hard book to read. But its strength lies in its clear-eyed assessment of the costs involved in various policy responses to the issue. “There should be no mistaking the fact that this will involve some economic sacrifice,” he writes. “Our lives are easier because energy is plentiful and inexpensive, but we can no longer ignore the impact of our energy use on the climate.” Unless we impose a higher price on carbon, he warns, “we will trigger human tragedy on a scale the world has never seen.”
The Human Cost of Climate Change
By Andrew Guzman
Oxford Univ. 260 pp. $29.95