Non-Fiction Reviews

Climate Refugees

(2010) Collectif Argos, MIT Press, £22.95, pbk, 349 pp, ISBN 978-0-262-51439


This book is actually the English-translated edition of the 2007 French original from Infolio Éditions. The Collectif Argos is actually a team of 10 journalists and photographers, and here is a clue as to what this book is all about. It is a collection of journalists' snapshots as to what it means to be living on a planet experiencing sudden climate change.

Those of us in the life sciences studying climate change tend to focus on things like phenology, dendrochronology, geological strata for a variety of isotopes and the fossil record be it for plant and animal identification or leaf area and margin analysis. Yet we know, (though seemingly all too often almost take for granted) that current anthropogenic climate change actually has a very real and often catastrophic impact on the lives of actual people, their families and communities. In the process, folk are dislocated from their homes, or can see that in the future that they will have to move and their way of life change if not with their traditional livelihoods lost. These people are climate refugees.

What the Collectif Argos team have done is bring together a number of essays vividly illustrated with photographs of communities in areas where climate change is altering lives. These range from: the Kigiqtaamiut in Alaska where permafrost thaw is literally undermining homes; the Blarigui on the shifting shores of the shrinking Lake Chad; those in the Maldives being threatened by sea level rise; to the German communities on the low-lying Halligen in North Sea that are subject to storm surges; and the Nepalese in the Himalayas where communities are seeing unprecedented glacial melt and, in the course of this, the threat of flash floods.

These then are the human faces of climate change impact, the all too often overlooked lives, and indeed these are the pioneers of climate change impact, for they are among the first to experience this new form of global change.

True, there is little science in this worthy work, but then that is not this book's purpose. Its function is surely to alert us all – and, if we already know, to ram home the message – that Homo sapiens sapiens is one of the species that will be profoundly affected by the current climate episode that is only just beginning. Furthermore, that these impacts are all too real and personal. What it does is make the academic study of climate change relevant to real life and so all the more meaningful. Quite incidentally, and unintentional though it may be, it certainly puts uncaring climate change deniers in their place.

Jonathan Cowie

A version of this review has appeared in the journal Biologist.

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