The climate has changed. We haven’t.
But can we change? Can civilization mount an adequate response to human-caused global warming and climate change? Do we still have time?
These questions sometimes lurk in the background and sometimes hit us in the face in “Climate Changed,” a groundbreaking feat of environmental journalism by French artist Philippe Squarzoni. You might not like his answers, but you owe it to yourself and future generations to take a few hours, dive into this book and learn about climate change from a new perspective.
This personal, investigative, academic, political, 480-page comic book (brilliantly translated from the original French by Ivanka Hahnenberger) may be just what the climate change awareness movement needs. Squarzoni’s evocative and occasionally surreal black-and-white drawings and his wide-open narrative approach made this book much more compelling to me than “An Inconvenient Truth” or any other comprehensive look at climate change I’ve seen or read.
Interspersed throughout the book are snippets of interviews with nine French scientists and climate experts, including three members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC’s latest report, issued just three weeks ago, reinforces the scientific observations in “Climate Changed.”
Squarzoni concisely describes the scientific credentials of the IPCC, the evidence of climate change they have found and their predictions for the future.
Even when he’s directly quoting experts on technical matters, he makes the data come alive by showing us the experts as they are interviewed, along with abstract or realistic depictions of what they’re talking about.
As just one potent example, he discusses impacts based on conservative estimates of rising sea levels from climate change. “More than half the world’s population lives near a coast… Numerous densely populated coastal regions such as the Ganges and Nile deltas could be flooded. Millions of people will be driven out, and agricultural production will be severely affected. Twenty percent of Bangladesh could be flooded, 12 percent of Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.”
But knowing that people probably won’t take climate change seriously unless it becomes personal, Squarzoni includes his own journey of awareness. Many brief scenes show home life with his wife Camille. When he ponders turning down a short artist’s residency in Laos because of the huge carbon footprint of flying, Camille asks him, “Does this mean you won’t fly anymore? That we’ll never travel together anymore?”
He replies, “I don’t know. I feel like I’m cornered. Caught in a series of contradictions that are impossible to resolve. Because I really want to go on this trip, to take this residency. I’ll be 40 soon, and there are still plenty of countries around the world that I want to visit. I want to go to Africa, New York. I’ve never been to Asia. And I want to make these trips with you. I’m just like everyone else. I don’t want to live like a poor person in some underdeveloped country.”
He does not take the trip to Laos, but he eventually, guiltily, decides to take a maximum of one air trip a year, and only if it’s with Camille. You could dismiss this as a “rich person’s problem,” but it cuts to the heart of the challenge of reducing climate change. It will require sacrifice, and no one wants to be first in line.
Venturing where American writers typically fear to tread, Squarzoni calls out climate change as a social justice issue. Rich countries, corporations and individuals have caused climate change and benefited from it with their consumption, and poor people around the world pay the price.
As an example of how society might react to future climatic upheavals, Squarzoni summarizes the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans in a disturbing and eye-opening 12-page section, using stark graphic images and much harsher words than most American media have used.
“The wealthier residents flee to neighboring states by car. The poorer ones, the ones who don’t have cars or can’t afford hotels, have no choice but to stay and wait for Katrina.” Then we see bodies in the water, forced evacuations and the plight of the refugees, many of whom are unable to reclaim their homes. Meanwhile, the rich benefit again in New Orleans. “Halliburton, Bechtel, KBR — companies with lucrative contracts in Iraq — are now awarded more than $3.4 billion in federal reconstruction contracts without any bidding process.”
The sooner we begin a meaningful response to climate change, such as comprehensive energy conservation, Squarzoni writes, “the better prepared we’ll be for the shocks to come. But if we wait too long before we react, the restrictions will seem brutal. And they’ll be imposed instead of chosen. They’ll be imposed through shortages and widening social inequality.”
Does Squarzoni leave us with any hope as he concludes this personal tale of a changed climate? You’ll have to read the book to find out. But it’s not giving anything away to say that the ending will always be up to us.