1 Living Through the Storm
The first thing that struck me . . . was the magnitude of the risks and the potentially devastating effects on the lives of people across the world. We were gambling the planet.
—SIR NICHOLAS STERN, British economist, House of Lords
CHAIRA AND I BEGAN reading fairy tales together long before she could understand the words or even focus her eyes on the pages. She was a week old, just released from her ordeal in intensive care, and normal things felt almost magical. It was bliss to sit in a rocking chair, cradle her tiny body against mine, and lull her to sleep with The Three Billy-Goats Gruff, The Adventures of Peter Pan, or The Hobbit. And so began our ritual. Chiara and I would read books together every night before bed and again the first thing the next morning, when we slipped downstairs early to give her mother some much-needed extra rest. We read fairy tales, nursery rhymes, picture books, Italian books, even adult nonfiction (the words didn’t matter to Chiara at that point; it was enough for her to hear my voice). As the days became weeks and months, Chiara grew to adore books and the stories they contained. And her father came to understand that fairy tales offer valuable lessons to children and adults alike in the face of global -warming.
Found in almost every culture, fairy tales are some of the oldest, best-loved stories on earth. They are passed down through generations not only because they amuse children (and help parents get them to sleep) but because they offer comfort and inspiration. In The Uses of Enchantment, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim argued that fairy tales enable children to make sense of the world around them and to face the fact that “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence.” But, Bettelheim continues, “if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.”
The first fairy tale Chiara fell in love with was The Nutcracker. She was about eighteen months old when she developed an obsession (and believe me, obsession is the word) with Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Christmas tale. Though she had only just begun to talk in full sentences, she insisted on hearing the story and music again and again. The plot is simple: At a Christmas party, Clara is given a nutcracker by her godfather, an inventor with a hint of magic about him. Clara falls asleep under the Christmas tree, clutching the toy. She awakens at midnight to see that the nutcracker, now grown as large as she, has come under attack from an army of giant mice, led by a king with seven heads. Just as the king is about to slay the nutcracker, Clara leaps into the fray and kills the mouse with a well-aimed hurl of her shoe. Her gesture transforms the nutcracker into a handsome prince, who shows his gratitude by inviting her to his kingdom, the Land of Sweets, where they live happily ever after.
After seeing The Nutcracker ballet onstage, Chiara began acting out the story at home. She invariably cast herself as Clara; her mother or I was assigned to play the godfather, the prince, or both. One day, after she and I had played the game for about the three hundredth time, I got distracted. To my half-listening ears, the music seemed to indicate the start of the battle scene, so as the prince I began to brandish my sword. A puzzled look appeared on Chiara’s face. It took her a moment to realize that her father was confused. She looked up and carefully explained, “No, Daddy. It is still the party. The danger is not here yet.”
The party, so long and pleasurable, that gave rise to global warming is indeed still under way. Despite years of warnings about overheating the atmosphere, we humans are still merrily riding in cars and airplanes, building pipelines and power plants, gobbling meat, clearing forests, expanding our houses and suburbs, and doing a thousand other things that emit the greenhouse gases that cause the problem. There has been a lot of talk about going green, but the economies of most nations are still based on burning oil, coal, and other carbon-based fuels, so emissions continue to increase. Meanwhile, the party gets more crowded and raucous by the day, as global population swells, the wealthy pursue ever more luxurious lifestyles, and the poor yearn for their own taste of the comforts fossil fuels can provide.
If most of us nevertheless seem in no hurry for the party to stop, the second half of Chiara’s statement suggests why: the danger is not here yet, at least for most of us. The majority of the world’s people have not been hit by climate change yet; it has not cost us a house, a livelihood, or a loved one. Sure, we may feel nervous about the recent erratic weather, we may feel disturbed by news reports of distant tragedies, but our daily lives continue pretty much as before. And so the party continues.
For millions of less fortunate people, however, indifference to climate change has become an unaffordable luxury. For them, the danger is now.
While visiting Bangladesh for this book, I met a little girl who was almost exactly Chiara’s age. Her name was Sadia, and her father was the unofficial mayor of a village that was literally disappearing beneath his feet. The village, Antarpara, used to straddle the mighty Brahmaputra River. Like most of the rivers that course through Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra originates in the snowpack of the Himalayan mountains. But rising temperatures were now melting the snow faster and, along with stronger monsoon rains, boosting the river’s volume. No one could say for sure that the excessive flooding was caused by global warming—after all, Bangladesh has a long history of flooding. But the flooding of Antarpara was certainly consistent with what scientists projected as global warming unfolded: faster glacial melting and more volatile monsoon rains.
“You cannot definitively attribute any single extreme event to climate change, but the overall pattern is clear,” said Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi biologist who directed the climate change program at the Institute for International Economics and Development in London and who had invited me to his native country. “In Bangladesh, we know very well what a 1-in-20-years-size flood looks like. We’ve had them for centuries. But in the last twenty years, we’ve had four floods of that magnitude: in 1987, 1988, 1995, and 2005. This suggests we have entered a new pattern where we get a 1-in-20-years event about every 10 years. This is something we have to worry about now, not in the future.”
Anisur Rahman, the mayor of Antarpara, was a broad-shouldered man who wore a dirty blue shirt and tattered rubber sandals. As we stood by the bank of the Brahmaputra, gazing out at the sluggish, silver-white current, he told me, “This river comes from India. For some reason, the water in India is increasing, so the floods here are bigger. They are sweeping away our houses, even the land beneath them. There were 239 families in this village before. Now we are 38 families.”
Clustered around the mayor as we talked were dozens of villagers, mainly women in cheap bright saris—lime green, sky blue, scarlet—with skinny children clinging to their necks. “I have had to move my house seven times in the last twenty-eight years,” said Charna, a haggard mother of two. “I used to live over there,” she said, gesturing toward the middle of the river, “but floods washed the land away and I had to move here.”
Later, when I bade the mayor goodbye, he was holding his daughter in his arms. Sadia was a...