Review | Drought, Flood, Fire: How Climate Change Contributes to Catastrophes

G.T. Dempsey


     There are timely books, their message of the very moment.  And, then, there are books whose message is urgency itself.  This is such a book:  ‘Every year, droughts, floods, and fires impact hundreds of millions of people and cause massive economic losses.  Climate change is making these catastrophes more dangerous.  Now.  Not in the future:  NOW.’

     The author is the director of the Climate Hazards Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his recognition of the need for this book grew out of ‘dozens of conversations with volunteer firefighters in California and humanitarian relief workers focused on Africa’ (particularly his colleagues at the Center and at the Famine Early Warning Systems Network).  As he puts it, ‘Day in and out, we were helping inform real-world responses to real-world catastrophes, yet struggling to keep up as climate change contributed to more extreme hazards.’  Hence, this book, in essence a how-to manual:  a guide, that is, not just to how climate change is exacerbating climate extremes but, perhaps even more vitally, why climate change is, right now, happening so rapidly.  Though thoroughly sourced in the scientific literature, with seemingly every factual assertion foot-noted, this is a book aimed at educating those non-specialists amongst us who still need educating to the real-world effects of climate change. 

Cover of the book, "Drought, Flood, Fire:  How Climate Change Contributes to Catastrophes."

     Funk’s method is that of telling stories.  These, typically, build off a catastrophe which we all have read about or seen on the television news and provide not just context but bring home the human results.  He begins in Turkana in arid northwestern Kenya.  A prolonged drought, going on towards two years, has produced extreme poverty:  ‘The semi-nomadic pastoralists of Turkana evolved a way of life that, in normal times, is well suited to their barren surroundings.  They raise herds of livestock that can capitalize on sporadic episodes of rain, turning precious moisture into milk and meat.’  Surpluses can be stored against the bad years.  But, now, what had always been at most ‘a one-in-five-year drought’ comes every third year or so, with even warmer air temperatures in a region already very hot.  This desiccated climate can wipe out whole herds; their owners, and their families, slowly starve to death.  Funk’s account of the devastation suffered by one family in Turkana conveys, ‘in ways that numbers, charts, and maps cannot, the human cost of climate extremes.’  Sadly, there is no shortage of such human stories:  ‘Over the past few years (2015-2020), extreme heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfires have exacted a terrible toll on developed and developing countries alike.  These extremes have impacted millions of people and resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars in losses, all across the globe.  Fire-afflicted movie stars in California; conflagration-ravaged farmers in Australia; drought-stricken South Africans; poor flooded fisher-folk in Bangladesh; Houston’s middle-class families riven by floods….’

     This book proceeds by examining selected extreme events from this recent five-year period, assessing their severity, and explaining how climate change may have contributed to their intensity or magnitude.  The first four chapters (out of a total of fourteen) are introductory to climate science, explaining how our planet and solar system actually work (beginning with the Big Bang).  We live on a planet where ‘a cascade of energetic balances create excellent conditions for the evolution and sustenance of life.  But this life support system depends on a very thin atmosphere and the maintenance of temperatures within a narrow range in which water can take on liquid, frozen, and gaseous states.’  The succeeding chapters examine either a specific form of extreme weather (such as chapter 5 on temperature extremes or chapter 7 on hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons) or specific instances of extreme weather (such as chapter 10 on the 2015-2016 El Niño or chapter 12 on Australia’s ‘Black Summer’ of 2019 when 21% of Australia’s forested area burned, including half of that continent’s Kangaroo Island, killing more than 17,000 koalas).  Most usefully, a three-page table tabulates the contents of each chapter.

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     Such tables, graphs, photographs, diagrams, and other illustrations abound.  Almost to the point of seeming intimidating to a general reader who might pick up the book and thumb through it.  Make no mistake.  This is a learned book.  But, throughout, the presentation informs and convinces; Funk never loses sight of his intended audience.  One example (his explanation of why climate change exacerbates droughts):  ‘Think of the atmosphere as a sponge that grows bigger as the atmosphere warms.  When the atmosphere warms, the individual molecules bounce around more, moving farther apart.  This produces more room for gaseous water vapor molecules to squeeze in between.  This makes it easier for water molecules to move from plant leaves into the atmosphere – a process called transpiration.  It also makes it easier for water to evaporate from bare soil.  So when conditions are dry and the atmosphere warms, this bigger atmospheric sponge can draw more water from the land.  This increases the intensity of droughts.’  This is truly a book by a scientist who understands how to meaningfully inform his non-scientist readers.  

     In lieu of a traditional Bibliography, the book concludes with a user-friendly Appendix providing for each chapter a narrative guide to the pertinent scientific literature, particularly geared to the non-specialist.  We are given, for instance, for chapter 2 on the origins of the cosmos, not just the titles of books such as Origins of Existence but also citations of Scientific American articles (‘How Black Holes Shape the Galaxies, Stars, and Planets around Them’), NASA’s blog-posts, and other online sources.  

Chris Funk Drought, Flood, Fire:  How Climate Change Contributes to Catastrophes (Cambridge University Press, 2021), pp. viii, 325  ISBN: 9781108839877


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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.