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 ON THE SHELF

REVIEWED BY ROBIN TATU

ON THE SHELF: OUR PLANET AT RISKOUR PLANET AT RISK

This collective effort explores steps that may help avoid climate catastrophe.


State of the World 2009:
Into a Warming World
by Worldwatch Institute, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009, 262 pages

In 1984, the Worldwatch Institute produced the first of its State of the World reports aimed at measuring the planet’s vital signs and the progress – or failure – in achieving global sustainability. Since then, this independent Washington, D.C.-based organization has continued its research and advocacy on environmental questions, producing a new report each year.

While recent issues of the publication have offered informative, if sobering, analyses of global consumerism, security, and urbanism, State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World communicates a heightened sense of urgency. Not only is the topic global warming, with its myriad and escalating problems; the timing of this report is also key. With the Kyoto Protocol’s 1997 Climate Agreement slated to expire in 2012, the 2009 United Nations Convention on Climate Change will be crucial to establishing new and more rigorous limitations to greenhouse gas emissions. Many hope that at the December meeting in Copenhagen, the new American administration will assume a leadership role, persuading other nations to join the agreement and then winning Senate ratification.

Thus, the more than 40 authors of Into a Warming World – environmentalists, economists, scientists, activists, and researchers – join together to build an impassioned argument for taking action. As R.K. Pauchari, chairman of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, declares in his foreword, “The costs and feasibility of mitigation of [greenhouse gases] are well within our reach and carry a wealth of substantial benefits. . . . [It] is essential for the world to look beyond business as usual and stave off the crisis that faces us if we fail to act.”

Prism’s readers will find this volume to be a helpful resource, with in-depth examinations of the various problems of climate change. Chapter 2, for example, grapples with the question of just what constitutes dangerously high levels of carbon emissions. Author W. L. Hare, a scientist for the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and adviser to Greenpeace International, discusses the predicted rise of up to 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the Earth’s temperature by the end of the century, the impacts and risks of such warming, and reductions that must be adopted worldwide to reverse the trend. Chapter 3 examines shifts that would support low- and no-carbon emissions in land use, forestry, and food production; Chapter 4 explores promising renewable energy technologies; and Chapter 5 addresses how communities can “build resilience” against climate change. Shifts in mean temperatures and sea levels will affect food production and water availability while increasing malnutrition and disease. “Adaptation and resilience not only can reduce the risks from the climate change, they can also improve living conditions and meet broader development objectives around the world,” write London-based authors David Dodman, Jessica Ayers, and Saleemul Huq.

Robert Engelman, vice president for projects at Worldwatch, concludes the book with an impassioned call for joint international action, pointing out that to reduce emissions and protect ecosystems will require “a diplomatic feat unlike any in history.” While he acknowledges the enormity of the task and the limitations of international political action – the Kyoto Protocol is binding, but penalties for failure to achieve reductions have been almost impossible to enforce – Engelman remains optimistic. “If we act soon, shrewdly, and with a commitment to fairness for all,” he writes, “there may still be time to keep nature and ourselves intact and thriving, despite the changes we will see.”

In addition to the core chapters, Into a Warming World contains “Climate Connections,” a series of short essays on specific topics that provide vivid illustration of the more theoretical discussions in this volume. For example, “The Security Dimensions of Climate Change” considers how global warming will most likely increase instability in regions like Darfur and Bangladesh, while “Building Resistance to Drought and Climate Change in Sudan” highlights successful NGO efforts to help communities adapt to change. Two essays discuss the particular vulnerability of small island states — the Caribbean nations, the Maldives, Fiji — as well as measures that range from relocation to other islands, increased social services, and heightened advocacy in the international arena. Other essays debate the benefits and disadvantages of proposed approaches, such as geo-engineering, carbon sequestration, the cap-and-trade market, and electrical car manufacture.

Particularly helpful are the several graphs, charts, and tables used throughout the book to support the essays. Bookending the chapters at the beginning and end are an illustrated timeline of the “State of the World: A Year in Review” and a climate change reference guide and glossary. The latter contains several graph visualizations of top CO2-emitting nations, for example, the composition of carbons, and the global warming potential of particular greenhouse gasses.

Contributors to Into the Warming World were asked to move beyond short-term thinking about climate change and to “explore more deeply its implications for humanity and the planet.” With hope, this collection will prompt its readers to do the same.

Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.

 

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