For me the most memorable photos of the 2004 Asian tsunami were taken by two Canadian holidaymakers, John and Jackie Knill, on the beach at Khao Lak in Thailand. Their first picture shows the receded tide: the sea is eerily far away, and big rocks that would normally be underwater are exposed to the air. People don’t look too bothered – in the first and second images, beach-goers are wandering around in their swimsuits, and one or two are even splashing about in the pools between the rocks. Despite everyone’s lack of concern, the third image already shows the horror that is about to unfold: a gigantic wave looms on the horizon, towering up to unbelievable heights and showering spray high into the air. The seventh image shows even more clearly what is about to happen. The wave has now broken, and a huge brown surge wall takes up the bottom half of the picture. Boats and a single tiny figure in front provide scale, testament to its immensity and power. The eighth image – the last – shows the wall of water just metres away from the photographer.
With the power of hindsight, it is difficult to understand why the Knills stood on the beach taking photos when they should have been heading for safety in the other direction. Both were killed, and their photos were recovered from the digital camera’s memory card, which was discovered later amongst the wreckage. As one of their three sons told journalists later: “I don’t know why they didn’t run. Either they knew they couldn’t, or they didn’t know the power of the wave.” I think the second explanation is the most likely: the Knills had never experienced a tsunami before, and had no way of making sense of the disaster they were witnessing. They simply didn’t understand what was going on.
In the same way, I believe future generations will look back on us – again with the power of hindsight – and feel similarly baffled as to why we didn’t act sooner to curb the looming disaster of global warming. Like the Knills standing on the beach, we can see what is coming: scientific predictions about disappearing ice caps, rising sea levels, spreading deserts and stronger storms have been on the newspaper front pages for years. But somehow we comfort ourselves with the idea that it’ll all come right in the end. Humans have weathered changes in climate before, haven’t they? ‘Hey,’ people say, ‘there was once an ice age. We can get through this too, whatever happens – and who cares about a few degrees of warming? Sounds good to me! Scientists may predict up to six degrees of warming by 2100 – but it often gets six degrees warmer or cooler from one day to the next. What’s the big deal?’
Bad mistake. Such reasoning is akin to standing on the beach at Khao Lak, at 8.31am in the morning of 26 December 2004, and saying: ‘it’s just a wave. Waves break on the beach all the time. What’s the big deal?’ We don’t understand the sheer magnitude of this warming – it’ll catapult the planetary climate into a warmer state than it has been for tens of millions of years, long before humans appeared.
There’s a difference, of course. No power on Earth could have stopped the tsunami rolling in that dreadful day. But nothing about global warming is inevitable. It all depends on the choices we make about how we live our lives, and who we choose to make decisions for us on a national and an international basis. If greenhouse gas emissions are cut dramatically over the next decade or two, we can save the glaciers of the Himalayas, the tropical coral reefs, the hundreds of millions who would be driven from their homes by drought and rising seas. Yet by continuing as before, we doom them just as surely as the shifting tectonic plates doomed the people of Sri Lanka, Thailand and Banda Aceh. The choice is ours. This awesome power is in our hands.