Indian monsoon flooded street ARINDAM DEY/AFP/Getty Images

For Whom the Climate Bell Tolls

Those living large in temperate zones across the Global North might like to think that a warming planet is an inconvenient, costly, but ultimately manageable problem that need not affect their current standard of living. Yet, to believe that, one must be prepared to write off the rest of humanity.

BERKELEY – Scarcely had I begun my first lecture of the fall semester here at the University of California, Berkeley, when I realized that I was too hot. I desperately wanted to take off my professorial tweed jacket.

A tweed jacket is a wonderful but peculiar costume. If all you have for raw material is a sheep, it is the closest thing you can get to Gore-Tex. Not only is it perfect for a cloudy, drizzly climate, it is also surprisingly warm – wet or dry – for its weight. In the world before central heating, the wool fabrics now most commonly associated with male formal and semi-formal attire were both effective and comfortable, regardless of whether one lived in Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, London, Bristol, or Norwich.

But tweed jackets and the like also spread around the globe – a mixed blessing for which one can thank (or blame) the British Empire. For those living closer to the equator and away from the drizzle and fog of the British Isles, such garments have long been anathema. After the advent of central heating, wool attire became less practical even in temperate zones.

Nevertheless, tweed jackets remained a comfortable sartorial option in some places around the world, including Scotland and parts of England (where it was long considered gauche actually to use one’s central heating), the Northeastern United States, and the San Francisco Bay area. As it happens, Berkeley’s climate is one small reason why I decided to relocate here after three years in Washington, DC, where one learns just how much sweat a wool suit can absorb during the daily commute.

But over the past 20 years, professorial garb has become increasingly uncomfortable, even here on the east side of the Bay. The climate now feels more like that of Santa Barbara, 300 miles to the south. And so, more and more of us now lecture in short-sleeve button-down shirts like those worn a half-century ago by the denizens of CalTech (even farther south, in Pasadena).

Still, for those of us in the United States – and the Global North generally – warming temperatures probably won’t be that big a problem over the next century. Essentially, the climate will creep north about three miles each year. There are possible disaster scenarios stemming from the disappearance of snow packs, rapid desertification, and so forth. But those problems will be inconvenient and costly, not insurmountable.

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Even so, the problems associated with climate change will be neither mere inconveniences, nor as far off as we would like to think. There are currently two billion near-subsistence farmers living in the six great river valleys of Asia, from the Yellow all the way around to the Indus. These farmers have limited means and few non-agricultural skills. It would not be easy for them to pick up and relocate, let alone earn their livelihood doing something else.

Asia’s six great river valleys have supported most of human civilization for the past 5,000 years. During that time, the snow melt from the region’s high plateaus has always arrived at precisely the right moment, and in precisely the right volume, to support the crops upon which the region’s people rely.

Similarly, another billion people depend on the monsoon arriving at the right time, and in the right place, each year. And yet, as the planet heats up and sea levels rise, the pattern of cyclones in the Bay of Bengal and elsewhere will change. If they grow stronger and start roaring north toward the 250 million people living at or near sea level in the greater Ganges Delta, the world will face a long train of catastrophe.

The international community is in no way prepared for such a scenario. Indeed, the US, the wealthiest country in the world, wasn’t even ready for Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Hurricane Sandy in New York, Hurricane Harvey in Houston, or Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, which is now estimated to have taken 2,975 lives.

These four hurricanes have been among the most damaging in US history, and they have all occurred in just the past 15 years. The severity of their impact was not merely a product of administrative incompetence or the increased density of coastal residential and commercial development. Rather, it was the predictable result of a changing climate. Even worse, as natural disasters go, these were small pinpricks compared to what the future holds in store if current trends continue.

As the seventeenth-century poet John Donne would remind us, “No man” – nor nation, region, or country – “is an island entire of itself. … And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”