An earlier version of this essay appeared on another site.
Schoolbooks tell us that the Second Industrial Revolution occurred around the advent of the steam engine, about one hundred fifty years ago. What these books often fail to mention is the human and ecological cost of such advancements. Now we live in a world of plastics and mass production, of artificial heat and ventilation, of power, locomotion and wireless computers – all of which makes for a much easier existence than that of our forebears. And as in any pact with uncontrollable and unknown forces who offer us success, we will one day be asked to pay our debts. Consequently, for those of us who use the otherwise innocuous Celsius scale, this film may come as a surprise.
It is a docu-dramatization of the work of a British scientist whose publications have gained him both notoriety and what he really wants, more attention to the warming of our planet. That the globe is but 0.8 degrees C (1.44 F) hotter than it once was would not appear to be an alarming change; much more violent fluctuations in worldwide temperature have been theorized as far back in time as scientists can delve. What is alarming, however, is the rate at which these changes have been occurring. It used to be that a degree or two of climatic vacillation would take place over thousands or millions of years, thus dissipating its potential effects on the environment (even the mighty ice ages were creeping, almost imperceptible affairs); now calculations are in decades or even calendar years. So if I were to claim that since the middle of the nineteenth century we have spurned the earth's riches in favor of synthetic, industrial greed I would not only be expressing my political opinion, I would be announcing a crisis.
The crisis in question can be measured, as it were, by degrees. According to Lynas, one degree Celsius of change, a figure we are steadily approaching owing to anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, would continue to bring milder winters to places like England, now a burgeoning vineyard. Such changes have occurred before in the world's history and have allowed unlikely countries to grow unusual crops, but these lands have then in time reverted to more homeostatic temperatures. At two degrees about a fifth of the world's trees (especially in wetter places such as rainforests) are predicted to perish along with most of the coral reefs that regulate life beneath and around much of our increasingly acidic ocean waters. At two degrees Greenland's glaciers, whose size has fluctuated gradually every 150,000 years or so, would melt to such an extent as to raise tides around the world and endanger seafront property. Up to two degrees Lynas suggests that we can handle the changes, however radical they may be at times, and slowly reduce the temperature through conservation of emissions. But in life as in art, significance first comes at three.
At three degrees the climatic changes we would regularly witness might revive our memories of the terrible heat wave that spread across Europe in the summer of 2003, an event that killed thousands in a matter of weeks. It is forgotten because few people feel bad for Europeans (or, for that matter, Americans) when they are stricken by natural disaster, a much more commonplace occurrence in less temperate climates. This tidbit is hardly a coincidence: there lurks a strange collation between hotter weather and greater financial deprivation. With Europe's GDP on average being three times that of the world's average and its continent almost completely bereft of extreme winters or summers, hurricanes, earthquakes or tornadoes, what would happen at four degrees more? "A Scandinavian beach would become the next Saint-Tropez." This may sound like a great plot for an ecological thriller – a Swedish energy mogul using the highest of technologies to augment the greenhouse effect and become the richest man in the world – except that it could very well happen without such diabolism.
At five and six degrees we are not expected to be able to survive. That is to say, we may physically exist, but our planet will more closely resemble the dystopian deserts so common in science fiction, worlds without water, without rules and without hope. Every disaster movie in which you have seen the world implode, every scenario you wished would never occur – all this is the future of ecological abuse. Awarded a gallery of trophies in his native England and abroad, Lynas’s book contains research that supports the work of advocates such as Senator Al Gore and other high-profile altruists who should not have to warn us twice. And Six Degrees Could Change the World plays out exactly like a disaster movie, down to the computer-generated effects, except that this is no longer the bailiwick of fiction writers but of actual science. Nevertheless, our warnings come still in time. In the last twenty years we have made progress, and recycling and conservation in many parts of the world is prolific and protected by legislation. How ironic that life has come to resemble the art that once offered it escape and imaginary doomsday scenarios that would end as soon as the lights came on in the theater. A couple of hours of apocalyptic mayhem, but then the open, fresh air and carefree life – such was the world once upon a time. Let us hope that future generations do not have to escape to the movies to experience it.