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Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth Hardcover – January 19, 2011
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Q: You write about your daughter Chiara quite a bit in Hot. In the prologue, you describe the moment when you came to understand just what climate change would mean for her. You had a kind of terrible epiphany while crossing Westminster Bridge in London.
A: Yeah, that was on October 18, 2005. Hurricane Katrina had struck seven weeks before, and Vanity Fair had sent me to London to report what became the cover story for its first "green" issue. I did an interview with David King, the chief science adviser to the British government, who was way ahead of the curve on this stuff. He shattered the conventional framing of the climate problem and made me see that we had entered a radically new era.
See, from the time global warming emerged on the world’s agenda in the late 1980s, public discussion had focused on two basic questions: Is global warming real? And if so, how can it be stopped before it gets really dangerous, which is to say before it triggers outright climate change, with stronger storms, deeper droughts, harsher heat waves, and so forth? But King told me that British scientists had shown that global warming had already triggered climate change. His specific example was the record heat wave that battered Europe in the summer of 2003, when corpses were piling up outside the morgue in Paris. About half of the excessive temperatures of the 2003 heat wave, King said, were attributable to man-made global warming.
Anyway, in essence David King told me climate change had arrived one hundred years sooner than scientists had expected. And that wasn’t the worst of it. He went on to explain that the physical inertia of the climate system—the laws of physics and chemistry—guaranteed that average global temperatures would keep rising for another thirty to forty years, even if humanity somehow was to halt all greenhouse gas emissions overnight. The upshot was that our civilization was locked in to a large amount of future climate change no matter how many solar panels, electric cars, and other green technologies we eventually embraced.
Q: Is that why you say your daughter belongs to what you call Generation Hot?
A: Not only my daughter. Every child on earth born after June 23, 1988, belongs to Generation Hot. Generation Hot includes some two billion young people, all of whom have grown up under global warming and are fated to spend the rest of their lives confronting its mounting impacts.
I date Generation Hot to June 23, 1988, because that’s the day humanity was put on notice that greenhouse gas emissions were raising temperatures on this planet. The warning came from NASA scientist James Hansen’s testimony to the United States Senate and, crucially, the decision by the New York Times to print the news on page 1, which made global warming a household phrase in news bureaus, living rooms, and government offices the world over.
Unfortunately, Hansen’s and countless subsequent warnings by others went unheeded. The U.S. government, under Republican as well as Democratic leadership, listened as much to corporate-funded deniers of climate change as it did to actual scientists. So instead of shifting to greener technologies, U.S. emissions have soared over the past twenty years. That, in turn, helped accelerate global warming to where it triggered outright climate change. And as David King explained, once climate change gets triggered, it can’t be turned off quickly.
As a result, my daughter and the other two billion young people of Generation Hot are destined to live with rising temperatures and stronger climate impacts for the rest of their lives. Which is why our new mantra in fighting climate change has to be “Avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable.” On the one hand, we must redouble our efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions and stop global warming before it unleashes an unmanageable amount of climate change. On the other hand, we have to put in place better defenses against sea level rise, more effective water conservation systems, and many other measures to manage the climate change that is already unavoidable. In short, we have to live through global warming even as we strive to stop it.
Q: Where do you find hope for the future?
A: I’d like to underline that my feelings of hope are not merely a matter of philosophical outlook. In the course of researching Hot, I came across many concrete reasons for hope and quite inspiring examples of how individuals, governments, and nonprofit groups are facing up to these challenges.
The first two chapters of Hot explain the new realities of global warming and specify the kinds of impacts that are unavoidable during the lifetimes of today’s children. Members of Generation Hot who live in New York City, for example, will endure twice as many extremely hot summer days by the 2020s as they do today, which is no small thing if you recall how unpleasant the summer of 2010 was. By the time my daughter is my age, the snowpack in California will have melted to where shortages of drinking water will be a virtually permanent condition. And the projections for Africa, South Asia, and other poor regions of the world are often even more troubling.
Nevertheless, most of my book is devoted to solutions—to answering the question I posed that day on Westminster Bridge: What will it take for Chiara and her generation around the world to live through all this? And what I’ve found during four years of on-the-ground reporting is that a lot is already being done to prepare to fight against these gathering threats.
Some of the most encouraging steps are being taken here in the United States. In Seattle, the former chief county executive, an amazing guy named Ron Sims, directed everyone in government to "ask the climate question." That is, ask climate scientists what conditions the region will face in the year 2050 and then work backward to prepare for those conditions—by building stronger levees, improving freshwater storage, and building more resilient housing. Sims told me he championed this approach for economic as much as ecological reasons. He thinks people and businesses will move to his region because it is prepared for what’s ahead.
Overseas, the clear leaders are in the Netherlands, where the government has begun implementing a 200-Year Plan to cope with climate change. Planning that far ahead is almost inconceivable here in the U.S., but the Dutch plan is well funded and politically tough-minded. They are very serious about protecting their nation from stronger North Sea storms and other projected impacts, and there’s a lot we can learn from them.
But the single most hopeful story I came across was in West Africa, where I saw large numbers of very poor farmers who are already adapting to ferociously hot temperatures with remarkable success. Their method sounds counterintuitive but is ingenious: they grow trees amid their fields of millet and sorghum. The trees provide shade for the crops, help the soil retain rainwater, and offer a range of other benefits, with the result that crop yields, in a land where hunger is a constant threat, have doubled and sometimes tripled.
These are the kinds of examples that all of us—as individuals, communities, governments, and businesses—can benefit from and apply in our own lives. In that sense, Hot is a good-news story about a bad-news predicament, and that gives me hope.
From Publishers Weekly
A new father, Hertsgaard (Earth Odyssey) was growing increasingly anxious and despondent about climate change and the world his child would inherit. His new book is his investigation into the techniques that could allow his daughter and her generation "to survive the challenges ahead." This readable, passionate book is surprisingly optimistic: Seattle, Chicago, and New York are making long-term, comprehensive plans for flooding and drought. Impoverished farmers in the already drought-stricken African Sahel have discovered how to substantially improve yields and decrease malnutrition by growing trees among their crops, and the technique has spread across the region; Bangladeshis, some of the poorest and most flood-vulnerable yet resilient people on earth, are developing imaginative innovations such as weaving floating gardens from water hyacinth that lift with rising water. Contrasting the Netherland's 200-year flood plans to the New Orleans Katrina disaster, Hertsgaard points out that social structures, even more than technology, will determine success, and persuasively argues that human survival depends on bottom-up, citizen-driven government action. (Jan.) (c)
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It extends to the author's lack of understanding how the privatization of public transportation with the auto, gas, and tire companies conspiring to purchase every electric light rail system in the USA and replace it with cars and buses using their products. This has also been driven by the federal government's funding of interstate and local highways throughout the country. While countries in Europe were building light rail and high speed train systems and integrating them with public housing, in the USA where the private sector was in control, freeways were built instead and at public expense with the resulting suburban sprawl and cities where more than 50% of the land is taken up for moving or parking or storing cars. This asphalt footprint is why cities are becoming hotter by the year and requiring more and more energy for air conditioning.
The author's lack of fact checking is quite apparent with his quoting a geology professor who blamed the sprawl of cities in California to the passage of property tax legislation in 1978. This is wrong on so many levels. For starters the sprawl accelerated tremendously in the late 1960's more than a decade before Proposition 13 went into effect. What the author does not understand is that the California state department, Caltrans, spend 99% of its budget on highway construction and maintenance to this day. This department is overseen by the California Transportation Planning advisory committee appointees. The members of the committee have consisted entirely of people from companies engaged in highway construction, real estate, and the automobile industries. During the 1960's a new freeway was opened year after year in California and even before the freeways opened for motorists there were developers building homes along each side. Desert land worth nothing became home lots worth many millions of dollars thanks to the spending of federal and state funds on the new freeways. These new freeways also encouraged people to live further away from their place of employment and to buy more cars, gas, tires, etc. so a win win for the industries involved with transportation planning in the state. This continues with the proposed high speed train whose route is going to be through the least populated sections of the state where it will serve far fewer people and yet provide enormous windfall profits for land speculators and residential construction firms.
The author decries consumer choices and gives the example that televisions with plasma screens require 3 times as much electricity and what a disaster that will cause when everyone buys one. The reality is that the plasma screen market was always held back by the weight of the screens and their lack of reliability (electronics do not like heat and plasma TV's are very hot internally). Now households have LCD screens that were first backlit with fluorescent tubes and use a great deal less energy than their old CRT television and the current generation of LCD screens are backlit with LED's and so use even less power. And unlike the author's contention, making something more efficient does not increase its consumption. Do people watch more TV with a LCD screen or drive twice as much if they own a Prius? Hertsgaard and his editor really did not think this through or bother to fact check such assertions.
Moving jobs overseas, along with US capital and expertise, has also had an environmental as well as an environmental impact which is overlooked by the book. As a child everything I ate or wore and every appliance and piece of furniture was made in the United States. Now very little of what I eat and wear is made in the USA and my TV and clothes washer and microwave were manufactured in Korea. The rise of Wal-Mart has also been a factor with all its products coming into the country from Asia and so via container ships. A single massive container ship produces as much emissions as 50 million cars and this impact from 6,000 such ships currently in operation is one of the larger contributors to global warming.
Food consumption is another problem created in large part by our government. Under Nixon the grain subsidies were greatly increased to provide agri businesses with cheap corn and cheap feed for animals with an end result that the per capita consumption of beef is 60% higher in the US than in Europe. Cows require 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. When compared to staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice, the impact of beef per calorie is even more extreme, requiring 160 times more land and producing 11 times more greenhouse gases. Fortunately many people are becoming aware of the negative health impacts of beef and dairy consumption which along with sugar are increasing rates of obesity and colon cancer and type II diabetes, and so are reducing their consumption of these products.
This is an example of areas where the author has failed to provide any information or guidance as to how individuals can reduce their own carbon footprint. Even the steps of driving less, not jetting overseas to go hiking, and abstaining from eating beef and drinking milk would contribute greatly. Car owners can buy smaller and more fuel efficient cars, replace tungsten lamps with LED ones, buy locally produced goods when possible, and they can put solar panels on their roof.
Hertsgaard's book is good on the what but poor in terms of the why and ignores the actions best taken by individuals. While I can understand why it may be difficult to propose actions to be taken it is inexcusable not to even make an effort to do so with a book on the impacts of global climate change.
On today's news there was a report of an increase in the forecast of inevitable ocean rise from 3 feet to 5 feet. No response from our leaders in Washington, D.C. The science is not that hard to follow, the five interconnected feedback loops. In light of how the DOE cannot require fuel efficient cars any faster and the FDA is unable to protect us from Monsanto's contamination of our food and Congress has flatly refused since 1999 to even bring a bill out of committee to require GMO labeling for the protection of those with potential allergic reactions and other concerns, but instead is working on a bill to override Obama's moratorium on offshore drilling, it looks to me like the next 50 years on earth will be much worse for many higher life forms than the author forecasts.
Dealing with this will be Mitigation (stopping acceleration of climate change) or Adaptation (learning how to live with it"). "Avoiding the unmanageable" and "Manageing the Avoidable" are critical. Otherwise, the only alternative is suffering! What do YOU think the mix should be?
Most recent customer reviews
It was a pretty decent book, if a bit slow in spots.