No one can escape the hundreds of articles and reports into global climate change: it is one of the most important issues on the political landscape in countries across the world. For this month’s Very Short Introduction column, I put a few questions to Bill McGuire, author of Global Catastrophe: A Very Short Introduction. McGuire is Director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre and has authored or edited over 400 books, papers and articles focusing on volcano instability and monitoring, volcanic hazards, natural hazards and environmental change, climate change and global geophysical events. He has worked on or visited volcanoes all over the world, including Mount Etna, Pinatubo and Ta’al in the Philippines, and Soufriere Hills in Montserrat.
OUP: Over the last few years we have seen an alarming increase in natural disasters, such as the Asian tsunami and subsequent earthquakes in the region. Can this rise be put down simply to climate change, or are there other possible explanations?
BILL McGUIRE: We have indeed been seeing a rise in the numbers of natural disasters, especially since 1990. This does not necessarily mean, however, that there have been more natural hazards. Climate change is already driving up the numbers of extreme weather events, such as storms and floods, and this is clearly having an impact. So far, however, we are not seeing any increase in the number and scale of geological hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. The main reason for more natural disasters in recent years is that there are ever more people living in vulnerable regions, particularly in the coastal zone.
OUP: At the same time as being faced with more and more reports about global warming, and the melting polar ice caps, we also hear about a possible new ice age. How can we have an ice age when the earth is getting warmer?
McGUIRE: Current global warming is happening and is unequivocally due to human activities. There is no new ice age on the horizon, and in fact the next one – which would normally be expected within 10,000 years or so – may be postponed by our warming activities for up to half a million years.
If the gulf stream and associated Atlantic currents shut down in the next few decades, we could see a temporary cooling of the UK, Europe and the eastern US, but this would be far from an ice age, and warming would soon take over once more.
OUP: You say in your book that the human race “came within a hair’s breath of extinction” after a massive volcanic eruption 74,000 years ago. How do we know this, and what saved us then? Could the same thing happen now?
McGUIRE: Studies of mitochondrial DNA reveal evidence of a human population crash around about the time of the Toba super-eruption. This is known because we are so genetically similar that everyone alive today must be descended from a limited gene pool at about this time. It may be that just a few thousand humans survived the effects of the blast on the climate, possibly in tropical regions where the succeeding volcanic winter may have been less intense. This remains, however, highly speculative.
OUP: You suggest that the human race can try to preserve itself by moving into space, therefore potentially outliving Earth. Is the move into space really a realistic proposition?
McGUIRE: The only things hindering the colonisation of space are political will and money. Given time, I expect both obstacles to be overcome, leading to our race eventually reaching the stars. The big question is whether this would be good thing – bearing in mind how we have treated our own planet and those species we share it with? It may also be that the economic and social collapse that dangerous climate change looks increasingly likely to bring will set us back for generations.
OUP: Once people have read Global Catastrophes: A Very Short Introduction, which five books would you point them to next?
McGUIRE: Surviving Armageddon: Solutions for a Threatened Planet (also by me) suggests possible solutions to some of the potential catastrophes addressed in ‘global catastrophes’.
To find out how close we are to the oil running out, with consequent economic mayhem, I recommend The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man by David Strahan
Finally, I would (naturally) recommend my new climate change book Seven Years to Save the Planet due to be published in July (in the UK) by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.