Overheated: A weak narrative undercuts the urgency of climate change

Overheated cover
Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change

Climate change is one of the most difficult subjects to tackle, and I admire any writer who attempts it. Though the reality of climate change is not in doubt—repeat, NOT in doubt—so much of its impact is speculative. Scientists can predict the rise of sea levels, the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice, more powerful hurricanes, and so on, but no one can say with certainty how these will affect humanity in any detail.

In Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, Andrew Guzman takes his best shot. The University of California, Berkeley law professor tries to show how global warming will change the lives of practically everyone on the planet. Clearly worried about the power of denialists, led by President Donald Trump (though the book was written before his election), he answers each of the counter-arguments with unassailable rigor. If this were an argument before a judge and jury, he’d win going away.

Unfortunately, that’s the problem with this 2013 book, and many books like it. With a couple of notable exceptions, he offers few anecdotes or detailed speculations on climate change effects you and I might experience. The best story concerns the Chacaltaya Glacier, which disappeared from a Bolivian mountain in 2009. He also offers an alarming scenario involving disputes over water between two nuclear powers: India and Pakistan. Beyond these, however, much of the future impact of warming is theoretical. Writing about the potential for water wars, he says, “[C]limate change threatens to magnify existing risks, perhaps making the difference between an uncomfortable peace and a shooting war.” It’s hard for average folks to get excited about these unseen margins.

The truth isn’t powerful enough to overcome a blatantly false assertion.

Guzman is following his training as a lawyer: Rely on evidence and logic to make your case. For climate change, however, arguing the science hasn’t worked. Too many people believe President Trump’s lie that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. At least, they set it aside and voted for him anyway. The truth isn’t powerful enough to overcome a blatantly false assertion.

Overheated reinforces my belief that fiction is a better way to reach the hearts of people who don’t understand climate change, distrust science and scientists, or prefer to worry about the impacts later. To challenge these mistakes, I want to answer the question, what will life be like when climate change really takes hold in ten, fifty, or a hundred years? Further, I want to explore the impacts on human relationships and values, something climate science is ill-equipped to discuss. Overheated and similar non-fiction books can list the facts of climate change, but right now, only fiction can speculate on the emotional and social consequences.

Do you think fiction is a way to persuade people that climate change is real?

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