The 2084 Report: A History of Global Warming from the Future

James Lawrence Powell

Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99

Review by Neil Mackay

MOMENTS of terror are elegantly constructed in The 2084 Report: A History of Global Warming from the Future. Not long into the book – we’ll debate whether it’s a novel, non-fiction, or polemic shortly – there’s a chapter called Miami Blues, where a survivor living more than six decades from now recounts the drowning of Florida as temperatures and sea levels rose in the 2040s and 50s.

In this imaginary world, a writer in the year 2084 gathers such testimony from experts and survivors about the climate change catastrophe that hit humanity in the mid-21st century.

We hear that “in 2056, south Florida had its Big One” – a giant storm which destroyed swathes of Miami. As global warming worsens, we’re told that much of the land along the Atlantic coast “is underwater. Miami Beach is gone. Cities like Fort Lauderdale ... have lost more than half their land”.

The chapter is constructed around an interview with a Florida historian, the survivor Harold R Wanless IV. Wanless tells the interviewer that his great-grandfather was a distinguished geologist who in the early 21st century chaired the task force investigating the risk of Florida’s rising sea levels. The task force told the government of the threat to life but the warning wasn’t heeded.

The scientific detail is so rich and precise, a strange whim prompted me to google the name of this imaginary historian from the future. I discovered this fictional creation had very real roots. Right now, there’s a real Harold R Wanless, alive and well and working as a professor of geology at Miami University – the great-grandfather our fictional historian mentioned.

This very real Harold R Wanless currently chairs the Miami Climate Change Task Force – which has indeed issued much unheeded advice about the threat to Florida if temperatures keep rising. Our warning from the future, then, comes from this real scientist's imaginary great-grandson. It’s all very clever and meta.

This is the structural and narrative core of this remarkable work by James Lawrence Powell – himself a professor of geochemistry and distinguished scientist. What Powell does is take history, fact and the reality of today – the news, the science – and use it as his literary foundation. Everything that happens in the book up until the beginning of 2020 is real – the warnings, the denials, the change in climate, the political negligence. After 2020, Powell imagines what will happen to the world in decades to come – although his fantasy is based rigorously on existing science.

When we get to the chapter on the eradication of the Amazon rain forest in the late 21st century, speculation is firmly underpinned by current events. As the horror of 2084 is presented to us – the smoking wasteland, dead tribes, lost species, the catastrophic effect on the planet of its lost rainforest lungs – we’re reminded that “between May 2000 and August 2006, Brazil lost nearly 58,000 square miles of forest, an area larger than Greece”.

With real science, and real events, as the book’s bedrock, its dire predictions take on a truly terrifying sense of prophecy. Fittingly, with its title indebted to Orwell, it paints coming environmental dystopia. Planet Earth is burning. Civilisation crumbles. People starve and thirst. In a nod to popular apocalyptic fiction, we learn a “giant wave toppled” the Statue of Liberty – à la Planet of the Apes. Manhattan is abandoned; the Lincoln Tunnel floods, “drowning hundreds in their cars”. Then comes looting, social collapse. “This, of course,” we’re told, “was just the beginning.”

As the book unfolds we learn of a century of coming horrors – and it’s not just rising sea levels, dried up rivers and reservoirs, Europe becoming a desert, the loss of ice caps. Where Powell really comes into his own is in his extrapolation of where the climate disaster may take humanity politically and socially.

There are chapters on nuclear war between India and Pakistan triggered over water, Pacific islands disappearing, anarchy in the Middle East, tens of millions of climate refugees, murderous persecutions, mass suicide, and the rise of fascism around the world. In a wonderfully “what’s-the-very-worse-case-scenario-I-can-think-of” section, we learn of America invading Canada over resources. It’s a vision of the end of the world in slow motion.

What’s most unsettling about the book, though, isn’t these flights of fancy, but the repetition of very real and unheeded warnings, of time running out. The book’s imaginary readers, living in the year 2084, are told again and again that scientists warned governments endlessly in the first two decades of the century that “2020 was the tipping point”. Once that year passed – our present – then it was too late to act.

When the brakes come off, which will be soon, we’re done for – that’s the book’s message. There’s a passage on rising temperatures thawing Siberian permafrost, which in turn releases huge amounts of planet-warming methane. “There’s your feedback,” we’re told. It chilled my blood last week when I saw real pictures of Siberia thawing, and scientists warning of the devastating consequences to the climate.

This book owes much to Studs Terkel’s Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. It’s also got one eye fixed on the commercial success of Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

The 2084 Report is probably the most important literary work ever on climate change – simply because by dressing such a necessary message in “disaster movie” clothes, Powell ensures a wider audience than a conventional scientific work.

However, the book has flaws. Firstly, what is it? The passages detailing science up to 2020, place us firmly in the world of non-fiction. But sections speculating about life after 2020, sit purely in the realm of the novel. Then the codas to each chapter – featuring righteous denunciations of today’s criminally feckless politicians and climate deniers – place us in a political polemic. The reader is constantly pulled in and out of fact and fiction, style and tone. It makes for a jarring read.

The bigger problem is this, though: for such a frightening book, it can be quite flat. If Powell wants to use the power of fiction to get his factual and vital message across, then he should have done a better job. The science is unimpeachable, but the narrator/interviewer – who gives readers their point of view throughout the book – has, like most characters we meet, no personality.

There’s no real story, just a catalogue of disasters. There’s no narrative arc. Self-evidently, all the jeopardy has happened before the reader arrives at the work. Some tweaking and this would have been a world-class adventure story, which could have been used as a delivery system for the most important message humanity has ever had to heed.

The 2084 Report: A History of Global Warming from the Future by James Lawrence Powell is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99