Avoid the Unmanageable and Manage the Unavoidable: A Review of Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth by Mark Hertsgaard

Posted: December 17, 2013 in Books, Climate Change, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Reviews, Science
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I’ve been noticing two trends in my reading habits this year: a lot of memoirs, and a lot of books on climate change. In Mark Hertsgaard’s 2012 book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, I find myself reading both non-fiction genres united within one cover. Hertsgaard is, like me, a relatively new father, and he finds himself wondering at what life for his daughter Chiara will be like in the 21st Century. As this is something near and dear to my own heart, it was with a great deal of anticipation that I sat down to read his book.

First a bit of background. Hertsgaard is an American reporter who, according to his book copy, “covers climate change for Vanity Fair, The Nation, and L’Espresso” and he has written several books in addition to Hot. This shows me right off the bat that he is going to, at the very least, have contacts relevant to his topic, and that he is theoretically interested primarily in facts as opposed to slant. His style throughout the book is certainly in a more convivial mode than a typical journalistic style, but this book is approaching a serious topic from a different perspective: how can he make life better, or at least livable, for his young daughter? I say convivial because, despite the at times desperate tone of his subject matter, Hertsgaard still manages to sound more like a concerned friend than, say, Al Gore does with his at times pedantic approach in The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, which I reviewed here, or Gwynne Dyer’s apocalyptic approach in Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats reviewed here. Hertsgaard takes a middle ground between them, treating climate change and its repercussions on a personal level. Should he buy a property on this side of the lagoon, knowing that when the sea levels rise two feet the levee connecting it with town will be under water? Should he move to a region that is already in full-on mitigation mode, such as King County in Washington state? These are questions that he has had to ask himself, but he doesn’t stop there – he tries to put his feet in the shoes of others that don’t have the ability to make choices such as these.

One father whose shoes he borrows lives in Bangladesh, in a town already dealing with increasingly briny groundwater and increased flood danger. Bangladesh is a natural choice when discussing climate change – it is a low-lying country with vast river deltas and a huge population already living in imminent danger of floods from typhoons and monsoon weather patterns. Like the proverbial canary in the mine, Bangladeshis will feel the effects of climate change far sooner than most people in the wealthy and somewhat insulated West. In the case of the Bangladeshi family, he focuses on a father and his young daughter, surrogates for himself and Chiara. The town they live in is situated on one of Bangladesh’s numerous deltas, deltas that make up about 90% of the southern part of the country. Sea water has been encroaching further and further back up the fresh water rivers, making the soil untenable for farming, and forcing the father to think about relocation. The thing is, in a country like Bangladesh, which is about the size of New York state but with over 150,000,000 people, relocation is no simple matter. Add to that a GDP which is less than 10% of the average US earner, and you not only have no place to move to, but no funds to do it. And there is no value in the land they already hold – if they have to leave because their situation is untenable, it won’t be any more tenable for others. So they stay, and they hope that the flooding and the salt don’t get worse.

A phrase that Hertsgaard uses through the book is “avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable.” In that vein, he talks about a variety of methods to deal with climate change, from the increase in dike height in The Netherlands and King County, WA (mitigation), to a reduction in coal burning power plants (CO2 level reduction), to the use of GMO crops in order to feed the world’s hungry (at, he claims, a net drop in emissions). Some of his suggestions will be more palatable than others to interest groups. I know GMOs are a touchstone for many people, but among climate scientists, the true dirty word is “adaptation.” By attempting to adapt to climate change, it appears to them to be accepting that it is necessary, that there is nothing we can do to stop it, that we have failed as a species. The thing is, as Hertsgaard points out time and again with many examples, we as a species tend to not see much further than the ends of our own noses. The idea of planning for next year can seem onerous, let alone planning for fifty years ahead. In this, Hertsgaard points out, the Dutch have the rest of the world beat, hands down: their national plan to deal with climate change is not year-by-year; it is not decadal; it covers two hundred years. And it isn’t just a lot of good intentions: they are spending approximately one billion dollars US equivalent annually, and have plans that include moving entire towns to allow for flooding in some areas, while protecting others. This will, as Hertsgaard states, sound insane to most Americans. The amount of red-tape that would need to be waded through in order to move a few houses, let alone entire towns, would make this virtually impossible in most nations; however, the Dutch situation is relatively unique. A country that has had to work together to push back the sea historically, is psychologically, and perhaps more importantly legally, better prepared for the necessary sacrifices.

These sacrifices, according to Hertsgaard’s research, won’t be simple ones like do I move further up the hill. They’ll be of the magnitude of, “Do we abandon New Orleans? Do we build a ten foot seawall around New York City, or abandon lower Manhattan? Are London or Paris worth saving?” Not easy questions to answer, and questions that will be asked by every nation and people on Earth, no matter how insulated they now appear to be from the effects of climate change.

On a scientific level, Hertsgaard talks a lot about the 500 parts per million level for CO2 (Carbon Dioxide). Natural levels have historically fluctuated (we can find this in ice core samples), but the 500ppm level is seen as a threshold, because it would lock us in to a 50% chance of three feet of sea rise by the end of this century – but it is a level that is only achievable if we cut our emissions to almost zero within the next seven years, a target that is virtually impossible. The issue is that CO2 levels will continue to rise for several years once emissions are cut, and then stay in the atmosphere for decades or longer afterward. And then there are the climactic tipping points, such as the melting of arctic permafrost (and the release of methane, a much stronger greenhouse gas), or the loss of icecap and its reflective qualities (called albedo – a high albedo means a lot of the sun’s energy is reflected back into space, such as when it hits ice or snow – a low albedo, say that of the ocean or land that isn’t ice-covered, absorbs the heat energy and raises the temperature). Average world temperature at 500ppm would be four degrees Centigrade – but this is an average. Some places would be cooler, but others, such as the interiors of continents, would be much hotter, perhaps seven or eight degrees on average. Some areas would become, quite simply, uninhabitable.

This all sounds like a lot of doomsaying and pessimism, but Hertsgaard has done careful research, speaking with scientists and politicians in jurisdictions worldwide, as well as speaking with real on-the-ground people being affected today by the early challenges brought about by climate change. His approach – what should the concerned parent know – makes the book not only very readable, but also very pertinent, especially for those with young families, or those planning on living a good long time into the 21st Century.

Steve’s Grade: A-
Hertsgaard tackles an uncomfortable topic with care, but without the kid gloves. He doesn’t even bother to give climate change naysayers the time of day: the science is in, the verdict is clear, and now is the time to start planning for the future.

Mark Hertsgaard’s website

Buy this book:

Powell’s Books

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