Most of us will never get the chance to witness environmental catastrophe in action. Whether it’s logging in the Amazon or soot deposits in the Arctic; most of these tragedies occur in far-flung corners of the globe and only come to our attention via the medium of televised reports. This lack of interaction with these issues has created real problems. Not being forced to face havoc wrought by environmental damage head on makes people less inclined to take it seriously, which is why it takes a special journalist to bring green issues vividly to life.
Nobody has done more to draw attention to the horrors of climate change and pollution than David Shukman, the BBC’s Environment and Science Editor. His book, An Iceberg as Big as Manhattan, takes the form of an extended series of anecdotes, with subject matter ranging from glacial separation in the Arctic to the plight of Tuvalu - the small island nation under threat from rising sea levels. Shukman is not a life-long green advocate and nor does he have an academic background in environmental sciences. Instead, he was once the BBC's Defence Correspondent and admits that when he took up his current role, he was sceptical of the green movement - to the point of doubting whether human involvement really was behind global warming.
Yet as a result of his work, Shukman’s beliefs have changed and this conversion is the pivot on which his tome is written around. Along with piling up the evidence, based on conversations with scientists across the world, Shukman consistently makes the point that it is this data and scientific research that need to be given as much exposure as possible, rather than the theatrical protest and exaggerated predictions which he sees as having become a feature of the green movement in recent years. Shukman’s book in itself is a good introduction to the science supporting the idea that humans are contributing to global warming. What’s more, despite the turgid and convoluted form that much of this evidence takes, Shukman has managed to turn it into something accessible and even enjoyable; a journalistic sleight of hand that more scientific writers could benefit from. Nonetheless, he doesn’t get carried away by his newspaperman’s instinct; rather than concentrating purely on the headline grabbing stuff, he manages to strike a balance between controversy and environmental research.
Even though much of the book is centred on the topic of climate change, Shukman argues that if we get too bogged down in this area we risk ignoring the fact that much of the damage we do to the environment is even more direct and prescient. Some of the book’s most powerful passages come when he describes the reports he filed on some of those depredations. One such is his account of his visit to Midway Atoll - a former U.S. military base now populated mainly by birds and a small research community. Ocean currents bring huge swathes of rubbish dumped into the ocean - on both sides of the Pacific - to this tiny, isolated island. Most of this floating city of waste is made up of plastic, a material that threatens the environment due to the very characteristic that made it popular: its durability. The problem is so serious that the captain of one ship told Shukman that he had once sailed through nothing but plastic for an entire day on his approach to Midway.
In another part of the book, Shukman writes about his visit to Punta Arenas, a town in Southern Argentina with extraordinarily high rates of skin cancer. Punta Arenas stands beneath the hole in the ozone layer that stretches over the Antarctic. Although concerns about this issue peaked in the 1980s and 90s, the problem has not gone away, as the statistics for Punta Arena prove. The town has three times the average incidence of malignant melanoma found anywhere else – largely as a result of the extra UV rays filtering down through the hole.
As well as discussion of the world’s big environmental problems, An Iceberg as Big as Manhattan also looks at the process of how these problems become ‘news’. Shukman remembers the time when, prompted by the release of a new scientific report, he decided to push for a piece on polar ice cap melting, only to be told by his producers that ‘you’ve done too much ice recently’. The dubious methods of selection and presentation of environmental news stories makes such a candid book all the more valuable.
An Iceberg as Big as Manhattan by David Shukman (£8.99, Profile Books) is available from Amazon
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