Book review: Overheated, by Andrew Guzman

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 4:30pm

Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change
by Andrew Guzman
Oxford University Press

The Sydney Morning Herald satirist Mike Carlton once branded global warming deniers "bogan nongs" (crass fools). Carlton was right, judging by environmental activist Andrew Guzman.

Deniers must be stupid. The evidence for human-based global warming that Guzman presents in his new book, Overheated, which shows the problem in political terms, is overwhelming: 97 per cent of scientists judge it real. Worse, even if the earth heats up slightly, it will still spell disaster, according to Guzman, who has reached this realisation slowly.

"Over time, I found myself putting together a story about how a seemingly modest increase in temperature of a couple of degrees is enough to make the seas rise, food production collapse, nations go to war, and disease spread virtually unchecked. It was becoming clear, in a way that I felt was not widely appreciated, that the consequences of these changes will be measured in the hundreds of millions of lives, if we are lucky. If we are unlucky, perhaps billions."

Yes, billions. Guzman anchors his doom-laden case in statistics. The 10 warmest years since 1880 have all happened since 1998, he says, and cites an estimate that the annual global death toll already sparked by climate change is 300,000.

The stealthy fatal force pans out most dramatically as glacier meltdown that pumps up the seas and swamps island nations such as Tuvalu and the Maldives. Global warming, too, is the cause of the flooding of Bangladesh, which has resulted in devastating water-borne diseases such as dysentery and diarrhoea.

Meanwhile, shrinking glaciers in the Himalayas and the Andes will desiccate rivers, robbing millions of people of fresh water, threatening key cities and undermining strained food production. The result of the bedlam may be that millions will be forced to migrate into cities or "climate-refugee camps", Guzman forecasts. Another possible knock-on effect is war. Already, drawn-out droughts in Africa's Sahel region have fuelled mass violence in Darfur, Guzman writes.

If the planet's predicament sounds horrendous, he says, it is. But he has a solution: cut carbon emissions by raising fossil fuel's cost.

We all know how higher petrol prices shape our behaviour, making us take public transport, walk more, even buy more fuel-efficient cars, he writes. Those same hiked prices give businesses an incentive to use energy more efficiently, he adds, but voices doubt that the measure he champions will come into force soon. Throughout Overheated, Guzman is brutally realistic.

One possible peeve is that he lashes climate deniers for lacking expertise when he himself is a Berkeley, California, legal scholar. An unkind critic might say that is rich, even hypocritical. Another niggle is that, despite his commitment to realism, Guzman largely ignores the fact that overpopulation - nudging 7 billion people - is the root of the carbon explosion.

Still, with luck, this book will put him in the big league of global warming critics, among the likes of Bill McKibben and George Monbiot - if he sticks with the subject, which has more grunt than the topic of his previous books: international law.

His ecological broadside underlines that it is high time the media stops pretending there are two sides to the threat he addresses.

He writes: "When you see climate reports on the news, pay attention to the people who speak on each side." On one side, you may find a climate scientist from a prestigious university defending the view that climate change is real and grave. On the other, the would-be refuter is often no scientist but an ignoramus politician, pundit or interest group mouthpiece spinning a story.

Global warming is real and looks set to translate into famine, war and disease.