Hot: living through the next fifty years on earth

By Bryan Walker 22/03/2011

American journalist Mark Hertsgaard understands what lies ahead for humanity as climate change unfolds, some of it already unavoidable though hopefully manageable, but with outright chaos lurking if we fail to rein in emissions. He harbours no illusions. The fact that his little daughter will be part of the generation living through the coming turmoil gives an extra edge to his writing in his new book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. The battle to prevent dangerous climate change is over; the race to survive it has begun. That’s how he sums up where we are now.

Survival means adapting to the new conditions, and at the same time working hard to ensure that things don’t get even worse than they’re already set up to be. While we manage the unavoidable we must also avoid the unmanageable. Hertsgaard is a reporting journalist. He goes to places and talks to people and finds out what is happening. In some places good things are happening. One such he reports is King County, the municipality that encompasses the city of Seattle. It’s a heartening account of a local government body that takes the science seriously and works to be ready for the coming decades. As one official put their task: “Check the science, determine what conditions we’ll face in 2050, then work backwards to figure out what we need to do now to prepare for those conditions.” And along with the adaptive measures has gone a commitment to reduce emissions: the Seattle mayor by 2010 had been joined by over a thousand other mayors in an agreement voluntarily pledging emissions reductions. Hertsgaard also reports the seriousness of Chicago and New York in pushing a green agenda.

The Netherlands, which he considers has the most impressive plan in the world for adapting to climate change, looks a good deal further ahead than 2050. The details of some of their flood protection plans have a chapter devoted to them, and the author mentions the care that is taken to involve the whole community in the formulation of the plans. He notes that after two metres of sea level rise there is less confidence that the country will be able to cope. All the more reason for them to take mitigation much more seriously than they have so far managed to do.

There are less happy examples of places which appear to be in denial of their future. Louisiana still forcefully resists mitigation measures and its elected representatives don’t appear to credit climate change is a threat. Such hurricane protection as is being considered looks seriously inappropriate. Florida too is gambling against sea level rise and future hurricane risk. The state’s assumption of the responsibility as insurer of last resort is “monumentally risky”.  Abroad, Hertsgaard instances Shanghai as a city on the edge of denial, describing his astonishment at the low elevation of the airport runways and the lack of dike protection on the river for the fastest growing part of Shanghai.

A chapter on how business adapts to climate change begins with the wine industry, so vulnerable to shifts in temperature. Hertsgaard is alarmed at the complacency of many winemakers, who welcome the higher temperatures and good vintages of recent years without recognising that this is a temporary phenomenon as temperatures continue to rise. The Lageder family he visits in north Italy provide a notable example of a more aware approach displayed by a few who are not waiting to see if climate change becomes a real problem but taking the time and money to make changes in preparation.  Insurance companies also, in spite of some exceptions, display generally inadequate measures to help increase their customers’ climate resilience and to invest in renewable energy. However, he somewhat optimistically thinks insurance companies and business in general will yet rise to the occasion as it become clear that adaptation and mitigation are not options but necessities.

Turning to food, he makes the case for ecological agriculture as able to perform better than industrial agriculture in adapting to climate change. It’s not a conclusion easily arrived at, and he’s not interested in taking an ideological stance on the matter, but patiently explores the options. A striking section describes the unexpected environmental transformation of areas of the Sahel where farmers have discovered the immense benefit of allowing trees to grow in concert with their crops. It’s not clear whether the success will carry over into the higher temperatures ahead, but certainly for now the farmers employing the method are in no doubt that they have made a very successful adaptation.

California and Bangladesh are placed in juxtaposition in a chapter on the responsibility to assist the poor to adapt to the changes that face them. California has many challenges ahead, particularly relating to water, and in his discussion of them it is apparent that the measures that need to be faced are not beyond the capacity of the state to fund provided American aversion to taxation can be oveercome. Bangladesh can manage too, much more effectively than is often credited. They have great resilience from their experience in dealing with floods and other disasters for centuries. However there’s one proviso, summed up in the words “given half a chance”. They are a poor country, albeit far from a helpless one ‒ they simply need assistance with such matters as infrastructure. The rich industrialised countries owe it to them not as charity but as compensation, a legal obligation spelled out in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The inaction on climate change of the last decade was a crime. Hertsgaard quotes with approval the prominent German scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber when he uses that word.  The Bush administration with its endeavours to thwart action against global warming comes in for part of the blame, but so does the carbon lobby and its deceptive campaign to put its financial interests ahead of the future of our children and civilisation. Hertsgaard adds his shame as a journalist at the assistance given to the carbon lobby by the media, guilty of aiding and abetting the crime in a “journalistic failure as profound as any in modern US history”.

The final pages of the book are given to a description of a Green Apollo crash programme to jump-start the transition to an economy that is both climate-friendly and climate-resilient. There are no surprises in what Hertsgaard offers here. It centres on a carbon price, greatly improved energy efficiency, renewable energy sources, consumption reduction and population reduction. It needs activism to demand it and government action to drive it. Only intense, sustained public pressure will push governments to resist such powerful vested interests as the oil and coal industries.

An outline such as this doesn’t do justice to an impressive book.  It doesn’t capture the detailed interest of the author’s conversations with the many significant people he visits and interrogates on his travels, nor the full urgency and clarity of his advocacy, nor the humanity of his book. Hertsgaard’s lucid and coherent journalism has the scope to convincingly communicate why there is such need both to prepare in advance for what might otherwise overwhelm us and to work to prevent what will certainly overwhelm us if we continue our dependence on fossil fuels.

[Purchase via Hot Topic affiliates Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK, with free shipping worldwide).]