It’s 150 years since the Irish polymath John Tyndall discovered something unusual about the invisible gas we routinely breathe out: in the right light, carbon dioxide is opaque. Infrared light, the invisible waves in which heat travels, bounces off carbon dioxide like it’s hitting a wall.
Roll on the years and the greenhouse effect of belching industrial amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere is now so severe that it is believed a tipping point will be reached in two decades, beyond which catastrophic climate change will be inevitable. Even if all the governments including the US and China dramatically reduced CO2 emissions, the gas’s persistence in the atmosphere and the time lag between its build-up and the effects on climate mean that the changes that are already underway would continue for some time. The scale of the problem is something that Tyndall couldn’t possibly have predicted, even though he was a polymath (with a fine beard).
In October 2008, I quit my job (at the science journal Nature) to go on a journey. I am visiting the people, animals, plants and places that will be most affected by the impacts of climate change. Some are already feeling the effects, including the Inupiat Eskimos of Alaska. Some may perish altogether - goodbye to the nursery frog of northern Queensland, Australia – or survive but with loss of home, land or culture, such as the population of Tuvalu. Others may do well from the change, experiencing better crop production for example. I live in London, a place that is expected to see milder winters and a pleasant Mediterranean climate (so long as the Gulf stream doesn’t fail).
The people who will be most affected are the poorest, and it is the developing world where I am spending most of my time. I am flying as little as possible and wherever I can I stay in environmentally sustainable and locally run establishments.
This is a uniquely critical time in our planet’s history, in which climate change, globalisation, communications technology and increasing human population are changing our world as never before. The developing world is experiencing these impacts more obviously and sooner than the rich West – they are already feeling the effects of biodiversity loss, erratic weather patterns, glacial melt and forced migrations, for example – and I am documenting these impacts, talking to ordinary people, scientists and heads of state as I travel in the Anthropocene.
I never saw the dinosaurs, I missed the Mayan civilization – now is a uniquely fascinating time for all sorts of life on Earth and this is a chance to see it. It might be the last chance.
Join me and my travelling companion Nick on a journey around the changing world.