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When Six Degrees was published, climate refugees in America were languishing far from their homes on the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast. In the Arctic sea ice had shrunk to its lowest ebb in recorded history. The year was 2007 and climate change seemed fated to loom over the lives of all in the new century. The book, written by environmental campaigner Mark Lynas, collected the best guesses of scientists to project a degree-by-degree vision of our warming world, detailing the consequences for humans and nature as the mercury climbed. In 2007 the carbon in our atmosphere hovered around 385 parts per million, but today it is well over 400. Since then global temperatures have also crossed the fateful threshold of 1 degrees Celsius outlined in the book. Each chapter deals with a degree Celsius increment, climaxing as the title would suggest with a climate six degrees warmer than that which has prevailed for most of human existence. So, how closely does our world today follow the trajectory plotted a decade earlier? Reading the first chapter now, and counting the things which have since become ordinary, is startling.
A notable example is the author’s visit to Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef in chapter one, in which he uncovers a comparative haven for corals. While poorer reef management elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific had allowed seaweed to encroach and conquer, Australia’s greatest natural wonder seemed more resilient. All the same, the passage ends with a dire prediction: severe bleaching is due on most of the world’s reefs every 3-5 years by the 2030s, and every 2 years by the 2050s. The last couple of years suggest this may even be wishful thinking, as both 2015 and 2016 saw two distinct bleaching events wrack the Great Barrier Reef, affecting two thirds of the entire system.
Rereading Six Degrees is a persistent source of pessimism – of grim guesses having been proven true, and often sooner than originally imagined. It can even serve to pour cold water on seemingly good news, like the recent end to California’s historic 5-year drought. Even as Californians celebrate the return of rain, Six Degrees reminds us we have been here before. The last 5 years may resemble the descent into a state which had persisted in the western US during the Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures did not stray far from today’s average. Perennial droughts back then denuded most of the hillsides and the ensuing flash floods stripped away the last of the topsoil, leaving a barren desert where today’s most productive farm land is. If we are headed back there, the book warns it would mean the “driving out [of] human inhabitants on a scale far larger than the 1930s calamity” of the Dust Bowl.
All of this isn’t to say that Six Degrees is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Lynas always hoped it wouldn’t be. Earth’s climate is complex and indifferent to even the most confident of human assertions. Take for instance the snowy caps of Mount Kilimanjaro, once believed to be an early casualty in the climb to 1 Degrees of warming. The clearer victim today is nuance, as the persistence of ice on the peaks has been used by those unwilling to confront climate change as evidence that scientists are wrong about the whole thing. The iconic image of a snow-covered mountain above the Serengeti inspired a rallying cry in the environmental movement around the dawn of the Millennium. Six Degrees picked up the story with aerial photographs that seemed to suggest a dwindling ice pack compared to a century earlier. But it was Al Gore’s ill-fated intervention on the matter, proclaiming in 2006 that “within a decade, there will be no more snows of Kilimanjaro” that gifted an unfortunate soundbite to skeptics who seized it like a life raft in the roiling seas of more damning evidence.
It’s an important reminder for audiences in a 1 Degree age about just how difficult communicating the threat of climate change can be. When warnings prove premature the science is unfairly discredited, when they are vindicated then it is already too late. We were warned of the consequences of our failure to act, and we are now by and large living with them. Will we wait around to see how much more of the story comes true?
It’s a question that Mark Lynas answers with some optimism, speaking on the day in which the UK ran without coal power for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.
“We’re pretty much on the path predicted back then, but there is a slow global decarbonisation going on. Today is a symbolic milestone and while it may not solve climate change on its own we are not necessarily going in the wrong direction.”
While much of the book ruminates on the natural world’s fate under climate change, Six Degrees also offered a prescient observation about the consequences for human societies. “Climate change is the canvas on which the history of the Twenty First Century will be painted” one passage reads, perhaps predicting the ways in which climate change might ultimately leach into the cracks of civilisation itself, expanding their weaknesses in some of the world’s most volatile places. There is some speculation that the Arab Spring, the ensuing instability and the mass exodus of refugees from the Middle East all have common roots in a region-wide drought. But just as every hurricane cannot be wholly attributed to a warmer atmosphere, the fingerprints of climate change are elusive in our increasingly unpredictable geopolitics. Despite its role as a “background aggravator”, it has in some regards fallen entirely from the political agenda in recent years.
“There’s a diminishing degree of consensus on whether it even exists at all,” says Mark. “It’s a polarising force, fundamentally a part of America’s great culture wars alongside gun ownership and abortion. It’s gotten much worse since 2007.”
There may be ten years separating them but the administrations of George W. Bush and Donald Trump differ little on climate change. The dearth of political leadership on the issue would be hopeless if it were not for the initiative people are taking on other fronts. Citing the emergence of movements calling for the divestment of public assets from fossil fuel companies and the recent marches for science, Lynas is hopeful that the following decade may be better than the last.
“Science is a universal public good that shouldn’t be batted around like a tennis ball. It must transcend ideology by its very nature and only once the truth has been established can the case for action be made. That’s why the science march is a great idea and it represents a truly global event. Divestment is another good idea that has proven successful. It's all about challenging the moral and social license fossil fuel companies need to operate. We all use [fossil fuels], we're all hypocrites, but it's essential we bring morality to the fore of the debate.”