SUCCESSIVE reports by the IPCC and other bodies paint an appalling picture of coastal flooding, unprecedented super-storms, droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires, and all on a scale scarcely imaginable in terms of past human experience. Within the United States, a megadrought that has blighted south-western regions since the start of the century is the second-driest such period since the year 800. Predictions for the middle- and long-term are grim.
Within a decade or two, we could imagine the Arctic Ocean ice-free in summers. By mid-century, higher temperatures could mean rising sea levels and spreading deserts, as well as falling supplies of food and drinkable water. The worst effects would strike the global South, across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
By some predictions, perhaps half a billion people live in coastal areas that would potentially become uninhabitable, and they would need to be relocated. As the seas rise, freshwater becomes salinated, and ever larger areas of the world become subject to water stress. Both in seas and in lakes, fishing industries will be severely affected. Even projecting a temperature increase of one-and-a-half degrees Celsius would probably double the frequency of extreme El Niños.
Changes in rainy seasons compound the effects of higher temperatures on agricultural productivity, which would be further threatened by extreme and unpredictable weather patterns. Facing the loss of fertile lands, we become wearily accustomed to the technical language of aridisation, and its most extreme form, desertification.
Perhaps 40 per cent of the land on which Africans currently grow maize could be lost. If the harm to humans is not enough, animals would suffer horribly from the loss of habitats, and mass extinctions would be certain.
ALL those visions are of course projections of possible futures, and the realities may well fall short of current scenarios, but they are at least firmly rooted in testable evidence. More speculative, but well within the bounds of possibility, are massive collapses in ice sheets in Greenland or the Antarctic, which would cause even higher rises in sea level.
Also controversial are apparent changes in the “great conveyor” currents in the Atlantic, which keep northern lands such as the British Isles relatively warm, far more so than other territories on the same latitude, such as Labrador. According to some theories, current climate changes might weaken that current, causing incalculable damage to those coastal lands. In that case, global warming might result in drastic cooling in particular regions.
At some points, even words like “cataclysm” become inadequate to describe consequences. Originating in Britain, a militant and disruptive group that campaigns vigorously against climate change has adopted the evocative title Extinction Rebellion. The stakes are indeed very high. Such analyses commonly invoke the four apocalyptic horsemen: famine, plague, death, and war.
A Western world that had long assumed that plagues and pestilences were extinct on their own territories received a ghastly shock in 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic, and the prospects for similar events in the future remain high. Past precedent suggests that changes in the habitats of wild creatures would also result in the movement of pests and parasites, resulting in the outbreak of new diseases that would assail animal herds as well as human populations — panzootics as well as pandemics.
Many experts fear the emergence of new zoonotic ailments, which spread from animals to humans. All those trends would mean intensified conflict and war and forced mass migrations. As David Wallace-Wells notes, “The vision is a bleak one, often pieced together from perennial eschatological imagery inherited from existing apocalyptic texts like the Book of Revelation, the inescapable source book for Western anxiety about the end of the world.” That ancient script is so deeply entrenched in our culture and consciousness.
EVEN if the worst visions came to pass, apocalyptic changes would not come overnight, and the effects would be very mixed. Some regions would actively benefit — for instance, from the expansion of navigable sea routes into the Arctic, or the extension of growing seasons in northern lands such as Canada and Siberia. Also, human populations are by no means passive victims of global assaults, and societies cope as best they can, depending on the means they have at their disposal at particular times.
The best-situated nations are what are sometimes termed the “WEIRD” societies: Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic. Such nations in Europe and North America have long experience in preventing floods through sea walls.
When we look at the modern Netherlands, we are seeing a landscape that was largely won from the sea, defended from the sea’s return, and used to form the basis of immensely successful agriculture and commerce. A quarter of the Netherlands already lies below sea level as it exists presently.
Many adaptations are possible, and urban infrastructures can be radically reimagined. Ever since the first cities in ancient Mesopotamia, civilisations have depended on applying human ingenuity to exploit the environment and to fend off its worst assaults.
Human beings are good at dealing with disasters; if they were not, their civilisations would not have lasted as long as they have. As Germaine Greer observed, “Perhaps catastrophe is the natural human environment, and even though we spend a good deal of energy trying to get away from it, we are programmed for survival amid catastrophe.”
iStockAn Australian farmer contemplates a year of drought
Even apart from emissions control, it is also possible to imagine near-future societies deploying new technologies to limit or reverse global trends. As the menace of carbon products has become starker, the suggested means of combating them have proliferated, to include various forms of carbon capture, sequestration, or storage. Once a power plant produces carbon dioxide, for instance, it can be pumped deep underground in a process of sequestration.
Ironically, much of the technological expertise developed by the fracking industry over the past quarter-century can usefully be applied to such pumping. Some scientists place their hopes in titanic schemes of geoengineering, using tiny reflecting particles to reflect sunlight back into space before it hits the planet and warms it. We could even imagine a kind of giant sunshade in a stable orbit between the Earth and the Moon.
ALL these speculative ideas are controversial (to say the least), and conceivably some or all could have side effects quite as bad as the harms they were designed to fight. But the proposals reinforce the point that humans will not respond to the warming issue with simple resignation. Adaptations are possible.
But not all societies have the luxury of this kind of wealth, and others are much more at the mercy of climate change. The societies least able to cope or adapt are in precisely the tropical or global South regions facing sudden and severe temperature increases. In terms of the direct effects on human populations, warming would have its most extensive impact on the tropics: that is, those areas between the latitudes of roughly 23 degrees north of the Equator and 23 degrees south (the Equator itself is 0 degrees, of course).
That region includes most of Africa and Southeast Asia, and large portions of India and Latin America. Within a few decades, between one and three billion people would find themselves in conditions too warm for comfortable survival, outside the ecological niche in which most humans have survived for the past few millennia. By a cruel irony, the countries most likely to face existential dangers are precisely those that have contributed least to emissions and done least to create the larger problem.
The word “tropical” is not presently used much in political analysis, because it has become associated with semi-joking visions of exotic tourism: clothing, hats, and drinks are all sold as tropical. But used according to strict geographical criteria, the word is valuable, and it may be ready for a renaissance, demarcating the harshest effects of the incipient climate crisis.
WHEN policymakers forecast the future prospects of particular nations in any context whatever, they need to begin with a basic geographical question: what is its latitude? They need to distinguish carefully between the temperate zones — those areas between the tropics and the polar circles — and the truly tropical.
Temperate countries are by no means immune from disasters, especially as such a large proportion of their populations live in coastal regions and port cities. But they still are nothing like as endangered as the tropical nations. Nigeria, for instance, is roughly located between five and 14 degrees north of the Equator. Uganda lies between the Equator and five degrees north; the Philippines are between five and 20 degrees north; Brazil stretches from the Equator to 30 degrees south. Latitude will also be a critical factor in shaping the future of all the world’s religions.
The direct effects of climate change are bad enough in their own right, but to fully understand the likely impact of warming, we have to consider other trends that have no obvious or direct connection with climate. Demography is critical, in vastly increasing the proportion of the world’s population living within those imperilled tropical zones. That context affects the likelihood of conflict, and specifically conflict framed in religious terms.
Africans made up ten per cent of the world’s people in 1960, as against 17 per cent today, and a likely 25 per cent by 2050. If we frame this trend in broader terms of planetary geography, then the world’s most explosive population growth is heavily concentrated in the tropics, those regions facing the deadliest assaults from warming.
This is an edited extract from Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How changes in climate drive religious upheaval by Philip Jenkins, published by Oxford University Press at £22.99 (CT Bookshop £20.70), and reviewed here.
Philip Jenkins is currently Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.