For three decades we have all known, at some level, about global warming. As a point of scientific inquiry it is older, first identified by the nineteenth-century researchers John Tyndall and Svante Arrhenius, but as a source of popular anxiety and conversation it dates to the first sophisticated computer models of the early 1970s and the first World Climate Conference in 1979 and landmark congressional testimony by the NASA atmospheric physicist James Hansen in 1988. It has been around long enough to become a cliché—I thank it for the heat wave I’m experiencing in Seattle as I write this—and long enough to have birthed a newer cliché: the idea that we have so changed the planet with our engineering and our emissions that we now live in the Anthropocene, a new geologic epoch of man’s own creation. Long enough, certainly, for something to have been done about it. In the new millennium, which has brought us Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, Lord Nicholas Stern’s seven-hundred-page Economics of Climate Change, and a string of failed climate legislation and UN conferences, the warnings have been ever louder and more sustained.
The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, our principal contribution to the climate and the principal driver of warming, has only been rising. It is now 40 percent higher than preindustrial levels, higher than it has been anytime in the last 800,000 years. In New York’s Madison Square Garden, a seventy-foot doomsday clock, recently unveiled by Deutsche Bank, is tracking greenhouse-gas levels in real time: 2 billion metric tons added each month, or 800 a second, for a total of 3.7 trillion tons and counting. The ticker has thirteen red digits, but when you stare at it from Seventh Avenue, the last three are a blur. They’re spinning too quickly to see.
This book is about how we’re preparing for the world we seem hell-bent on creating. It’s about climate change, but not about the science of it, nor the politics, nor directly about how we can or why we should stop it. Instead, it’s about bets being placed on a simple, cynical premise: that we won’t stop it anytime soon. It’s about people, and mostly it’s about people like me: northerners from the developed world—historically the emitter countries, as we’re called—who occupy the high, dry ground, whether real or metaphorical.
I’m interested in climate change as a driver of human behavior—as a case study, the ultimate case study, in how we confront crisis. Warming will reshape the planet, and in broad strokes we already know how: Hot places will get hotter. Wet places will get wetter. Ice will simply melt. Poor, mostly tropical countries, those least responsible for the consumption that fuels the factories that produce the emissions that cause the warming, will be hit hardest, but wealthier, higher-latitude regions—Europe, Canada, the United States—are not entirely immune. The change is so vast, so universal, that it seems to test the limits of human reason. So it should not be surprising that the ideologies that led us here, those that have guided the postindustrial age—techno-lust and hyper-individualism, conflation of growth with progress, unflagging faith in unfettered markets—are the same ones many now rely on as we try to find a way out. Nowhere is humankind’s mix of vision and tunnel vision more apparent than in how we’re planning for a warmed world.
The idea that people are irrational has lately been in vogue. We can thank the global financial crisis for that. Behavioral economists have reminded us that the market, far from being a collection of fully logical individuals, is hostage to Keynesian “animal spirits,” the emotions, prejudices, impulses, and shortcuts that are part of nearly every human decision and every financial bubble—and part, no doubt, of our apathy about reducing carbon emissions. In the United States, nearly 98 percent of the federal climate-research budget goes to the hard sciences, which have produced mounds of evidence for global warming—enough to make a believer of anyone who gives it an honest look—and produced increasingly refined computer models predicting an increasingly dire future. One recent prediction, from MIT, is of a median warming of 5.2 degrees Celsius by 2100 if we don’t curtail emissions—a temperature spike that could entirely melt the polar ice cap in summertime, turn much of Central America and the southern United States into a dust bowl, and wipe island nations off the map. The remaining 2 percent of the federal research budget goes to social scientists, such as those with Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, who probe what may now be the most important question: If we know the risks, why aren’t we doing anything? The center’s director, Elke Weber, suggests that at both levels where humans make their decisions—emotional and analytical—there are roadblocks. The emotional block: What we don’t see doesn’t scare us. “The time-delayed, abstract, and often statistical nature of the risks of global warming does not evoke strong visceral reactions,” Weber writes. At the analytical level, there is, along with the tension between individual and systemic risk—an apparent tragedy of the commons—something economists call hyperbolic discounting. It goes like this: Offer to give someone either $5 today or $10 next year, and he’ll probably take the $5.
Among many activists, politicians, and scientists, the assumption is that climate change now suffers mainly from a PR problem: If the proper nudges can be found or the reality of it finally made visceral, the public will take action. Unspoken and scarcely examined is a second, much bigger assumption: that “taking action” means trying to cut carbon emissions. That taking action will take a certain shape: Green roofs. Carbon caps. Green cars. Solar panels. Footpaths. Forests. Fluorescent bulbs. Bicycles. Insulation. Algae. Inflated tires. Showers. Clotheslines. Recycling. Locavorism. Light-rail. Wind farms. Vegetarianism. Heat pumps. Telecommuting. Smaller homes. Smaller families. Smaller lives. We hope our collective fear of global warming will push us inevitably toward collective behavior. But what if the world as we know it goes on even as the earth as we know it begins to disappear? There’s another possible response to melting ice caps and rising sea levels, to the reality of climate change—a response that is tribal, primal, profit-driven, short-term, and not at all idealistic. Every man for himself. Every business for itself. Every city for itself. Every country for itself. There’s the possibility that we take the $5.