books climate change globalisation

Book review: The Great Melt, by Alister Doyle

Rising sea levels are a well known consequence of climate change, but they’re not necessarily well understood. The exact processes of why it happens, how it happens – and who it happens to – are quite complex. And there’s no better guide to those vital questions that Alister Doyle’s book on the subject, The Great Melt: Accounts from the Frontline of Climate Change.

Alister Doyle is an experienced climate journalist, having served as Reuters’ first ever environment correspondent for 15 years. He has reported from over 50 countries and six continents, and so the book is an eyewitness account of change.

Each chapter in The Great Melt is from a different location, and it switches back and forth between the places that are melting, and the places most affected by rising seas. The book opens in Antarctica, as the author joins scientists on a flying visit to the disentegrating Wilkins ice shelf. The visit introduces the broader topic of Antarctic melt, why ice shelves are so important and where we are now.

This establishes a pattern, with each location grounding the discussion in real places. Lessons are learned, for example, from the successful relocation of a village in Fiji, the first of many around the world as coastal communities are forced off their land. Who pays for this? How best to consult everyone? What does it feel like to move from somewhere you have lived your whole life? To abandon your home, your school, the graveyard where your forebears are buried, to the waves and the sand?

In dealing with these sorts of questions, Doyle has the wisdom to step aside and let people speak for themselves. There is just enough travel writing to create a sense of place, and then it is local characters who show us around the Peruvian mountains, Icelandic glaciers, the ‘sand motor‘ on the Netherlands coast, or the tiny overpopulated island of Gardi Sugdub off the coast of Panama.

Along the way, the book addresses a number of different questions and potential objections, because ice melt and sea level rise is not a linear process: “A melt of Greenland, for instance, will have the greatest impact on raising sea levels in the South Pacific.” Reporting from places that demonstrate the point, Doyle shows how some parts of the world are rising, in what is known as post-glacial rebound. Or how islands shift, with new land emerging from the sea to the cherry-picking delight of the climate denial brigade, but bringing no comfort to those who have lost their homes.

The book focuses on glaciers and islands, which makes it a good companion read to Jeff Goodell’s The Water will Come, which spends more time in cities threatened by sea level rise.

Most importantly, The Great Melt draws our attention to the people and places where the climate crisis is a real and present danger. Here in the temperate north, it can feel abstract and far away sometimes, leading some to ask ‘what’s the emergency?’ That’s climate privilege for you. As Prime Minister Baninamarana of Fiji tells the author, “the effects of climate change are clear to most Fijians.”

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