Stephan Faris is the author of Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley, a new book that takes a look at the way that climate change is already affecting our world. Jonathan Mok’s review follows his interview with the author.
Stephan Faris: I first started thinking about climate change after visiting refugee camps just outside of Darfur, where I was covering the beginning of the conflict for Time Magazine. Though it was clear to me even then that the fighting had environmental origins, it was only later that I came across the idea that those origins were rooted in the emissions from our cars, power plants and factories.
So this book basically began as an attempt to see how strong a case could be made for the links between climate change and the conflict in Darfur. And as you see in the book, I think the case is pretty strong. And its implications on other parts of the world are pretty serious.
I then became interested in exploring how climate change was affecting our lives in other ways. If it can have that strong an impact in a place like Darfur, how is it being felt in other areas? So I went to look at the American Gulf Coast, where the fear of more violent storms has driven up insurance rates and consequently threatens to drive people from their homes. I visited Europe, where climate change is raising immigration pressures, and the Arctic, where the melting ice is redrawing geopolitical boundaries. I also looked into the potential of climate change to cause outbreaks of disease, to change the taste of wine, and to spark catastrophe in places like South Asia.
Jonathan: You talk about how the neo-fascist British National Party has tried to embrace environmentalism in its call for restricting immigration, while green activists have become divided about advocating the call for controlling immigration and population. You mention that the marriage between environmentalism and the left has rather been a recent phenomenon. Can you talk about that more?
Stephan: In Europe in particular—but also in America—the environmental movement has recently generally been tied to the left. The Germans even have a word for it, The Watermelon Coalition: green on the outside, red on the inside. But it wasn’t always this way. The earliest conservationists often blurred purity of the environment with what they saw as purity of the races. The Nazis themselves had a strong green wing, trying to preserve and in some cases reforest many areas of their country.
What I explore in the book is how immigration pressures caused by climate change may be starting to drive those two schools of thoughts – conventionally right wing political attitudes with ostensibly left wing environmental attitudes – together again. To begin with, you have an environmentalist movement that is grappling with the idea of population control. There’s a British Group, called the Optimum Population Trust, whose supporters include Jane Goodall and Paul Ehrlich, whose main thrust is controlling population. Globally that means all sorts of things. In a country like England, however, it means to a large extent tightening up on immigration.
Meanwhile, the European far-right, which is growing as immigration becomes a bigger and bigger issue, is trying to sell its ideas in ways that don’t scare off the majority of voters. One way they’re trying to do that is to cloak their anti-immigration arguments in the language of the environment. Rather than rail against the newcomers, they argue against the stress they’ll put on the land. This phenomenon is still in the early stages. But we could one day see a new political alliance, The Camouflage Coalition: green on the outside, brown on the inside.
Jonathan: You don’t mention the Middle East much in the book. How has the climate change already affected the region? Would problems there be even more difficult to solve, considering the tension between Israel and Arab states and environmental impact from the Iraq war?
Stephan: One of the reasons I didn’t focus very much on the Middle East is because I didn’t have very much to say about it. The problems there are so intense, so seemingly intractable and so swollen that it would be difficult to see how climate change – which is after all still in its very early stages – will play a role. However, I did interview General Anthony Zinni, now retired but once the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, whose zone of responsibility includes the Middle East, and he was very concerned about the effect climate change might have on the region’s water supplies.
Jonatham: Is the world growing more aware of climate change? On the surface, it looks that some of the problems in the book, such as the impacts on wine production, have hardly previously been discussed!
Stephan: There’s no question that the world is really waking up to what’s happening. But what I think still hasn’t really penetrated is what it will mean for us. Part of the reason is the uncertainty of just what exactly is going to happen, and by that I mean both the confusion sown by the debate over the causes of climate change and also the ambiguities in a lot of the computer models of climate change—which is where we get a lot of our information.
After all, we’re still in the earliest stages of climate change, where in most cases the effects from our greenhouse gases can barely be differentiated from the natural variations in the Earth’s climate. That will change, but we’re not there yet.
So while people do know we’re headed into a crisis, they don’t have much of an idea what it might mean for them. When I was in California and Oregon, looking at wine production, for instance, I found that most growers really weren’t thinking of climate change at all. And most of those who were thinking about these issues were good-hearted environmentalists, who were trying to reduce their contributions to climate change.
Very few were thinking about what it would mean for their grapes, for the producers of wine and for its drinkers. What I’ve tried to do in the book is answer that question: What kind of impacts is climate change having, and going to have, on our lives?
Jonathan: Finally, can you just give our readers some idea as to the actions that should be taken to help reduce the harm of climate change?
Stephan: First of all, I think it’s important to note that most of the impacts I describe in my book are pretty much going to come about no matter what we do. Most of the proposals for dealing with climate change currently on the table aim to stop the warming of the earth at about 2 degrees Celsius. In comparison, during the last ice age when the Great Lakes were under massive glaciers, the temperature was about 6 degrees cooler. Since the dawn of human civilization, we haven’t seen a sustained shift in the average global temperature of much more than 0.6 degrees Celsius. Even if we realize our most ambitious goals, we’re still going to see a lot of disruption from climate change.
On the other hand if we’re going to avoid even greater harm, we’re going to have to find some way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. Whether the best way forward is a carbon tax or caps on carbon emissions or some other solution is part of what I’ll be looking into in the future.
Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley is published by Henry Holt and Company, New York. The following is Jonathan Mok’s Review:
Ever wondered as to what the relationship between the Darfur Crisis and climate change is? I bet that most of us have not. But Stephan Faris has surprising thoughts on the subject, and other ways in which climate change is already affecting us, in his debut.
Faris, a freelance journalist living in Rome, provides the reader with vivid details of the impact of climate change in different parts of the world. He offers a different perspective on conflict hotspots such Darfur and Kashmir.
The loss of fertile land and constant drought, which means that peasants and fishermen are losing their means of survival, are greater causes for war than any difference in ideology and religion, Faris argues. He provides such examples as the case of the Second World War – economic depression giving rise to the Nazi Party, the party exploiting high unemployment in order to push the idea of Aryan superiority, etc. With the coming of climate change, economic survival may very well become an even bigger issue still.
The book is deeply thought-provoking. I felt scandalized, reading about how Jane Goodall, the globally-known and beloved primatologist, now champions the restriction of immigration and the implementation of a “two-child policy.” I did feel, however, that while Faris talked about the hypocrisy of some on the so-called Environmental Left, the book could have benefited from more detailed discussion on how it was that the Left and the Environmentalists have come to be aligned in the first place.
I would have liked to see more analysis from Faris in general, particularly when he speaks of another troubled nation – Haiti, and contrasts it with neighbors such as the Dominican Republic.
The overall impact of the book is startling and discomforting. Some would dismiss the narrative as unscientific, but Faris does not pretend to be a scientist – he is a journalist with a keen eye trained on the underlying causes of the world’s conflicts.