Archive for November 2nd, 2012

Europe and the Fate of the Earth – Part 4 of 7

November 2, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)


[This is an extended version of my keynote address for the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Imagining Europe’ event, which was held in Amsterdam between October 4 and 7 this year. The address was delivered on October 4 at the opening event. It will be posted here without footnotes, as a 7 part series. A fully annotated version will be posted later in the ‘Essays’ section of this site.]


We have all, to some greater or lesser degree, been confronted with the effects of climate change in our everyday lives: we have seen them in freakish floods, unaccustomed heat waves, ‘monster’ storms and most of all, in the drought that has blighted much of the world this year. The facts and realities are so familiar to all of us that I need not go to the trouble of compiling a comprehensive list. But here are a few examples of what is happening: glaciers are shrinking, around the world; permafrost is thawing, greatly accelerating the release of methane into the atmosphere; the oceans are warming and their waters are becoming more acidic; aminals and plants are migrating, as are human beings. According to the United Nations, 300 million people are now affected by climate change every year; in 2007 all of the UN’s appeals for humanitarian aid were linked to climate change, except for one; experts estimate that by 2050 there will be as many as 700 million climate change refugees across the world.

We know also that the changes in our climate could be significantly slowed, and possibly even reversed, if the world, as a whole, were to act in concert. Yet, we seem to be powerless to move in that direction: the rate of change, far from slowing down, is actually accelerating. Nor is there even a widespread recognition of the crisis in the world’s most powerful country, the United States: what we see instead is the emergence of an industry of climate-change denial, funded and supported by corporate interests who have made their fortunes from environmentally damaging industries.

That very significant environmental change lies ahead is now a certainty. When the impacts accumulate no part of the world will be as badly affected by it as my own. Bengal – by which I mean the Indian state of West Bengal as well as the country of Bangladesh – is a flat, low-lying floodplain. It is also one of the most densely populated areas of the world, with two hundred and forty one million people living on it – as many as in all of Germany, France, Spain, Holland and Italy combined. In Bangladesh alone 100 million people are estimated to live within a few metres of sea level. In the event of even a small rise in sea-levels, millions will be adversely affected. Actually the process has already begun. In the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans (which are the setting of my novel The Hungry Tide), several islands have been submerged in the last few years, leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

These facts stare us in the face. We know also that at a certain point cumulative change will lead to catastrophic change; that is to say, beyond a certain tipping point the climate will ‘flip’, bringing about a series of cascading changes that will doom hundreds of millions of people around the world. Scientists and environmental activists have been shouting themselves hoarse for many years, trying to wake us to this threat. Their warnings have become apocalyptic to the point where one of them has actually said that it’s ‘game over for the planet’.




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