What is unique about Forecast and what does Forecast contribute to the current dialogue concerning the environment?
What I tried to do in Forecast is show how traditionally environmental concerns, in this case climate change, are really about much more than "the environment." As I show in the book, climate change will change (and is changing) the way we live. While proving direct causation is always tricky, there’s a strong case to be made that climate change has contributed to fighting in Darfur and demographic changes along the coasts of the U.S. It’s altered the distribution of diseases, the taste of wine and the geopolitics of the north pole. It also has the potential to spark catastrophe.
In Forecast, you write about the present-day impact of global warming and how climate shifts have impacted the globe in the past. You essentially use the past and present climatic and social response to global warming to predict problems the world is likely to encounter in the future. If humans were to change their damaging behavior, do you think your predictions for the future could be reversed? Or have we reached the point of no return?
We’ve already contributed enough greenhouse gases to lock in much of what I describe in Forecast. Our climate has been knocked off balance and it’s going to take us some time to readjust. That being said, further global warming has the potential to be even more devastating. So it’s not too late to change course.
How did you come to the understanding that environmental degradation contributes to conflicts that, on the surface, appear unrelated to global warming? For example, the conflict in Darfur and rising levels of poverty in Haiti.
I first started thinking about this when I was in Darfur, covering the beginning of the conflict for Time magazine. It was clear even then that the fighting had environmental roots. It was only during the research for Forecast that I came to realize that environmental problems not only have the power to spark violence, they can also make conflict harder to resolve.
Most people will probably be surprised to find a chapter on how global warming is affecting the wine industry, as you are a journalist known for writing about the developing world. What made you decide to research how the various wine regions around the world are handling global warming?
Wine grapes are fascinating because they can be thought of as indicator crops. Since the quality and taste of a vintage is so heavily dependent on the weather in which the grapes were grown, you can think of wine as one of the first places we’ll see the effects of climate change. I was also intrigued by how climate change was impacting what is essentially a luxury good.
In order to write Forecast, you traveled all over the world to better understand the environmental situations in various countries from the perspective of the people who live there. What was your most surprising discovery?
This is a hard question, because I learned a lot during the research for this book. If I had to choose one thing, however, it might be the extent to which climate change has made itself felt along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Everybody knows we’ve been hit by hurricanes, but it’s surprising how far the impact has spread (all the way up to Long Island, for instance), simply through changes in insurance coverage and pricing.
Attempts by Europe’s far right to couch their anti-immigrant arguments in the language of the environment is another thing that surprised me.
Through all of your travels to research Forecast, where did you notice the most aggressive changes taking place in terms of caring for the environment? Which regions were making the biggest changes to adapt to present or future global warming?
I was most surprised by how little we’re doing to adapt. In most cases and most industries I studied, I found people were just starting to study the impact. They were far from doing anything about it. The most active people were those trying to retool their businesses or lives to mitigate their contribution to climate change. But as I think my book shows, it’s going to take both: mitigation and adaptation.
President-elect Barack Obama stated that he favors policies that will protect the environment. What do you think Barack Obama’s priorities for environmental legislation should be?
Obama has made it clear he plans to tackle climate change head on, spending some $15 billion a year on energy efficiency and renewable energy and taking the lead internationally on climate change negotiations. If I were to advise him on anything it would be to take adaptation into account. People all over the world are already experiencing the impact of climate change, and we need to think about that as well.
Forecast is undoubtedly a surprising and illuminating account of some of the most pressing issues facing our planet. Were even you surprised by your findings?
Absolutely. It was a continuous learning experience. I’ve tried to convey that as much as possible in the book, to provide the reader with the same sense of discovery.
Ultimately, is the message of Forecast one of hope or is it a warning of certain devastation?
Forecast is a warning of things to come, but for the most part the events I describe will damage, not devastate, our way of living. We have the ability to adapt to them. So while we’re in for some uncomfortable times, there’s still a chance to head of the worst. It’s too early to give up on hope.