Guide to a Sizzling Planet
Not everyone is a pessimist when it comes to predicting the impact of climate change. Too bad the optimists aren’t nearly as convincing.
I'M WRITING THIS a few blocks from Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, where business owners are still cleaning up after the catastrophic floods of Hurricane Sandy in October. Walking down Van Brunt Street a few weekends ago, I stepped over mildewed Sheetrock and around piles of corroded electrical equipment: the tangible results of flooding—flooding made more likely by higher ocean temperatures. Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed that New York needs to prepare for climate-change-related catastrophes with the same intensity the city has applied to combating terrorism. In contrast, over the past two years lawmakers and state officials in North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia have attempted to forbid mention of future sea-level rises along their coastlines, forestalling planning. Washington DC sits neatly between these two poles of disaster and denial, awaiting the next summer derecho. It’s really only a matter of time before we accept the reality of climate change: we are, after all, soaking in it.
But once we concede that carbon emissions are changing the climate, we enter into a ghastly game of chance. Our future becomes a series of probabilities, actuarial tables where “lucky” is fewer than 100 million deaths as opposed to a billion. As Andrew T. Guzman writes in Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, “Uncertainty is just about the only hopeful part of the story.”
I suspect that this is one reason public opinion is so heavily invested in denial and inaction. When one believes in religion, the power vested in the Supreme Court, or alien abductions, one is rewarded with extra certainty about the future. Americans have shown that they’re willing to accept the reality of teen bullying if they can also believe that “it gets better.” The problem with believing in climate change is that it is not going to get better: it will get worse, and we don’t know by how much. To use Guzman’s analogy, accepting today’s climate-change models is like taking your car to a garage and hearing that repairs will cost between $250 and $10,000.
Overheated describes the unprecedented, horrific human crisis that will be precipitated by a mere two-degree rise in temperatures. A second book, A Newer World: Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis, by William F. Hewitt, adheres to a different American mold by endeavoring to show that, despite our failure to impose a cost on carbon, we are doing quite well with green energy and state-level climate plans.
Together, the two volumes suggest that we Americans have elevated our need for optimism to the level of a policy dilemma. We must underestimate the negative, ac-cen-tu-ate the positive, and never, ever, mess around with Mr. In-Between. That became more difficult in November, when the deeply conservative World Bank released a report forecasting a four-degree rise in temperature by the end of the century if immediate action is not taken. That means Guzman’s predictions of flooding, drought, famine, war, and disease are, if anything, understated.
Guzman, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, rigorously lays out how even a relatively small rise in temperature could cost hundreds of millions of lives, or, if we are unlucky, perhaps billions. The gigantic gap between those two estimates is at the center of his research. Will we lose 100 million people, or more than a billion? And will those who die be rich carbon emitters, or the poor of Africa and Bangladesh who haven’t yet reaped the economic benefits of a fossil-fuel-driven economy?
The topic lends itself to fire and brimstone, but Guzman builds his case in a lawyerly way. He starts by examining forecasts of the strength and likelihood of storms and floods, and then begins estimating casualties. A one-meter sea-level rise in Bangladesh will likely displace 20 million people; in Egypt, another seven million will be flooded out. If saltwater flushes into Northern California’s Sacramento River Delta, 20 million Californians will be without freshwater. All of this will create stresses, and set people on the move, leading to the collapse of another kind of infrastructure: borders will cease to function and, by extension, so will governments. Potential displacement by flooding: between 25 million and one billion “environmental immigrants.”
Meanwhile, another group of involuntary migrants will be fleeing droughts. When millions of people are on the move in search of habitable land, “atrocities are possible” and civilization itself may begin to fall apart, he warns.
Diseases, including dengue, hantavirus, and cholera, will overrun national boundaries and governments’ capacity to react. In many respects, Guzman is talking about the end of benevolent striving for the betterment of humanity. Why defeat malaria, finance power plants in Africa, or send UN troops into troubled nations if all of your good (or ineffectual but well-meaning) works will end up in a swirl of dark water? And if we don’t have a hopeful cover story about making the world a better place, then who are we?
IN CONTRAST, William F. Hewitt’s A Newer World is a shot of green cheer. The journalist and environmental activist posits that we are not “losing the battle against climate change”; rather, we are making “astonishing progress.” He takes what optimism there is and runs with it, even to the point of saying that America’s failure to adopt climate-change legislation or lead the world is okay, because where Congress failed, other institutions, such as individual states and the European Union, have stepped up to the plate.
Hewitt’s book is a great deal more haphazard that Guzman’s; I often found myself scurrying to the notes to check his sources, and mentally editing the giddy certainty out of his prose. The overall effect is to somewhat dispel Guzman’s gloom, and replace it with a vision of the future that may be less likely, but is a great deal more likable.
Hewitt proposes that alternative-energy technologies like wind, solar, and geothermal are either already competitive with fossil fuels in terms of price, or are about to compete with them. He champions energy efficiency and green building, and predicts a massive growth in electric vehicles, from 100,000 in 2011 to five million by 2017. Sure, it’s possible, but what are the odds?
I disagree with Hewitt on the analysis and the nuances, but not on the substance of his good news. Yes, we are making progress, awareness is increasing, there is hope. “Hope” in this case is more a strategy than a feeling. The problem with Hewitt’s good news is that technology is only part of the answer. At one point, he mentions that wind has achieved “grid parity” with fossil-fuel power, meaning it can compete without subsidies. This is only intermittently true: wind can deliver power more cheaply than other sources, but it depends on when and where the generation is.
But there are bigger problems with fossil fuels. Hewitt mentions an interesting study by three economists who found coal-fired electric power generation produces $53.4 billion a year in “gross external damages” from air pollution (including the health-care and loss-of-productivity costs of both asthma and premature deaths). This far exceeds the value that coal-fired power adds to our economy.
In other words, it’s not simply the planet that’s cooked; it’s also the books. The externalities of some fossil fuels exceed their economic benefits, meaning that coal burns at a social loss, but the utilities still make money. In the context of such egregious market failures, it’s hard to argue that a windmill will turn things around. We need a bigger revolution in pricing pollution and carbon than whirling blades can provide.
HERE'S WHAT I FIND somewhat hopeful: Americans change their minds quickly and cheaply. Though 71 percent of the country believed in global warming in 2008, by October 2009 that figure had fallen to 57 percent. That is in part because of a $500,000 campaign from 2003 to 2010 to sow doubt about the reality of climate change in the public’s mind, according to the Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle. Environmental groups, Brulle believes, spent considerably more, but were poorly organized and not united in their message.
In the coming years, I believe these groups are likely to get help from the insurance industry, which is already revising its actuarial tables to account for storm-driven losses, now double what they were in the 1980s. Indeed, I think we’ll soon reach the end of the so-called debate about climate change, and from there we’ll move on to acceptance, and perhaps action. In the meantime, I think books on climate change have run their course. Odds are such a big part of the game that printed volumes are an inadequate medium for reflecting the true uncertainty of the subject: they are too linear, too deterministic. I hope the next climate book I review is a computer game. And at the end, it should deliver the player a shock.