“The rich will adapt. The poor will suffer.”
That’s where we’re headed with global warming, according to “Climate Shock,” a welcome new addition to the growing library of depressing but important books about climate change.
Although that quote may seem too glib, it’s probably right on, and I appreciated such a blunt reality check in a book by two economists, Gernot Wagner from the Environmental Defense Fund and Marty Weitzman from Harvard University.
If you’re interested in learning more about climate change and the options for dealing with it, “Climate Shock” isn’t a bad place to start. Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything” (which I reviewed for Real Change last fall — Nov. 12, 2014, “Igniting Change”) is still the gold standard, but “Climate Shock” is easier to read and much shorter, only 155 pages of text. It also makes new and useful points.
Many of us do want to know how we — the whole world — can respond to climate change so that poor people suffer less. Klein emphasized that angle in her book (her subtitle is “Capitalism vs. the Climate”), and this new book doesn’t dwell on economic inequality nearly as much. But a reader can still use Wagner and Weitzman’s observations to help determine the best ways to take action, individually and collectively.
First, the authors lay out the situation, listing four factors that make climate change the most difficult environmental and public policy problem the planet has ever faced. “It’s almost uniquely global, uniquely long-term, uniquely irreversible, and uniquely uncertain — certainly unique in the combination of all four.” That sentence may have a few too many uniques, but this still helps explain why we’ve been so unsuccessful addressing climate change so far and why the odds are so long for beating it.
Wagner and Weitzman then focus at length on “geoengineering,” which they see as an inevitable proposed solution to the problem. Proponents of this concept claim that humans can prevent the worst effects of climate change with a technological fix.
In the main example used in the book of how geoengineering might work, the natural eruption of the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines in 1991 pumped about 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, resulting in a temporary decrease of global temperatures by about 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit. If something like this could be done on purpose, at a relatively low cost (globally speaking, and compared with the costs of increased climate change) of under $10 billion a year, why not try it?
Like most environmentally minded scientists, economists included, Wagner and Weitzman point out that geoengineering should only be researched or attempted extremely carefully because of all the uncertainties and potential negative effects. But we all certainly need to become knowledgeable about it, because eventually the big-money, fossil-fuel based corporations will push hard for various geoengineering solutions. The unintended impacts of geoengineering would surely hit those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder the hardest, just like climate change itself.
“Climate Shock” wraps up, as does nearly every book about climate change, with a chapter about “what you can do.” This one works better than most. The authors start by saying we need to “Vote… Vote well… Vote for those who seek to look out for society at large,” not to further an agenda. Simple, but they nailed it. That’s exactly what it will take, on a grand scale, for our society to make a stand against climate change.
We also need to do much more, of course, and they describe that with flair as well: “Scream, protest, debate, negotiate, cajole, tweet, use all the means at your disposal to call for the scale of policy change needed to match the magnitude of the climate challenge. To use the economists’ logic of comparative advantage, do what you do best: Teachers, teach; students, study; community leaders, lead.”
They end the book by concluding, “It’s capitalism with all its innovative and entrepreneurial powers that is our only hope of steering clear of the looming climate shock.” They lose me a little bit there, but I guess economists need to believe that. If capitalism can be used as a positive tool while we scream, negotiate, cajole, etc., to stop climate change, then let’s do it.
We may not have a choice. And as we celebrate the 45th Earth Day this month, there’s really no better time to think about our climate future.
Book Review - Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet By Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman