February 07, 2011

This Weekend’s News: A Review of Hot, and the Challenge of Climate Gridlock

Mark Hertsgaard’s new climate change book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty
Years on Earth
is at the top of my reading list. So I was happy to see it was
well received by The New York Times
this weekend
; a must read review that not only offers insights into Hertsgaard’s
opus, but well-written commentary from the reviewer, Wen Stephenson, on
America’s intractable climate gridlock.

“I haven’t had the talk yet with my kids: my 11-year-old son
and 6-year-old daughter,” Stephenson writes. “I mean the one about global
warming, about what’s coming. But then, we grown-ups haven’t had the talk yet
among ourselves. Not really.”

Throughout his review, Stephenson artfully uses the careful narrative
from Hot to call for action to combat
climate change. Indeed, the reader senses this urgency throughout the review, not
just from excerpts of Hertsgaard’s passages, but from Stephenson as well.
Despite the looming dangers from climate change, Stephenson writes, “Hertsgaard
also knows that we cannot allow fear or despair, or even anger, to be our only
response. To face this challenge, we need reasons to believe the task is

According to Stephenson, Hertsgaard makes the case for the
“double imperative,” or what those familiar with the climate fight know as a
need to make investments in both mitigation and adaptation efforts. “In short,
we have to live through global warming even as we halt and reverse it,”
Hertsgaard warns. Stephenson emphasizes this point, acknowledging that curbing
our greenhouse emissions won’t be enough: “We also have to do everything we can
to prepare for the effects of climate change.”

Stephenson’s knowledge of the political and social hurdles
to combating climate change adds important context, and is perhaps sobering for
the unfamiliar reader:

But most important, what Hertsgaard
finds is that the ability to adapt to climate change depends as much on “social
context” — defined as “the mix of public attitudes, cultural habits, political
tendencies, economic interests and civic procedures” — as on wealth and
technological sophistication. Wealth and technology clearly matter, but
politics and culture may trump them. Take Louisiana: efforts to prepare for
future hurricanes, Hertsgaard writes, “have been crippled by the state’s
history of poor government” along with “its continuing reluctance — even after
Katrina — to acknowledge the reality of global warming for fear that might harm
oil and gas production, and an abhorrence of taxes and public planning as somehow

For me, the takeaway comes in the penultimate paragraph when
Stephenson makes a thoughtful and alarming point regarding the political will
(or lack of) to combat climate change: “Hertsgaard’s reporting makes me wonder if there isn’t more hope for the Sahel than
for the vulnerable South and Southwest of the United States
. After all, why
prepare for something — much less try to halt it — if you refuse to believe
it’s happening?”  (Emphasis added)

Stephenson concludes by coming full circle with the message
he led with: that grown-ups need to have a serious conversation about tackling
climate change. “The American social context too often remains the largest
obstacle, Hertsgaard observes, not only to adaptation at home but to cutting
emissions globally,” Stephenson writes. “It’s not clear how to change this, but
an honest, urgent, grown-up national conversation — beginning in Washington —
would be a start.”

For more on the intractable climate gridlock, read this
story from The New York Times on
Saturday about the legal
hurdles California’s landmark climate change law

This Week's Events

This week looks rather light on natural security-related events, but these ones are worth joining if you can:

Tomorrow at 9 AM, the Brookings Institution will host a
discussion with Assistant Secretary of Energy David Sandalow on Battery
Technologies for Transportation: From Scientific Discovery to Marketplace

On Wednesday at 1 PM, join the Wilson Center for an event on
The Future
of U.S.-EU Energy Cooperation