McGuire is a “geophysical hazard specialist,” meaning he studies the history of killer waves and earthquakes. His conclusion—that rising human carbon emissions will expose us to more and worse natural disasters—is not novel, but his scientific detective work is impressive. The book is designed more to edify than persuade, although McGuire also does his best to make ancient geology exciting—we encounter a “feisty” volcano, an “incarcerating” landslide, a “slow dance” of tectonic plates and the “trespass” of rising tides. Nor is he above making geological threats to those who shrug at climate change.
The connection between tsunamis, earthquakes and landslides, and the carbon that slithers out of our cars is complicated, but not impenetrable. As the Earth warms, ice melts and tides rise. The new distribution of water shifts weight off one place on to another. Newly unburdened areas “bounce back.” The Earth shifts, magma escapes, mayhem ensues. When most of us look down, we see the ground. McGuire sees a delicate crust encasing an unruly giant. Still, he dismisses any human causation of recent disasters like the 2011 Japanese tsunami as “unlikely in the extreme.” Sea levels haven’t changed that much yet. But when they do, and they will, McGuire expects more consequences from our environmental fiddling, as indicated by the results during a comparable period of geological upheaval between 5,000 to 20,000 years ago.
Two pages before the book’s end, the author delivers his assessment: “In the course of drawing together and evaluating all the evidence, I have been persuaded that it would be remarkable if unmitigated [man-made] climate change failed to elicit a conspicuous and salient response from the surface and interior of our planet.” A polemicist, McGuire is not. This will come as a relief to those who are bored of hearing hyperventilated claims of impending doom. We have a while yet—there is still plenty of time to whistle past graveyards.