By Aaron Labaree
What’s so great about global warming? If you don’t know the answer to that question, you’re probably not an oil executive, snow-machine manufacturer, or genetic engineer. While the UN prepares its next report about the dangerous effects of climate change (its most recent bulletin came out last month and warned of changes “on all continents and across the oceans”), forward-thinking companies are figuring out how to make money off these same impacts. This scramble is the subject of Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, by McKenzie Funk. Funk has crisscrossed the globe—hopping from Baffin Island to Bangladesh and dozens of points in between—to learn how melting glaciers, raging forest fires, and rising seas might make some people rich.
A Shell executive declares, “I will be one of those persons most cheering for an endless summer in Alaska.”
It turns out that for almost every effect of climate change, there is a way to profit. Most obviously, melting glaciers have many goodies underneath them. Funk describes an atmosphere of giddy optimism in the oil, gas, mining, and shipping industries over potential expansions in the Arctic. A Shell executive declares, “I will be one of those persons most cheering for an endless summer in Alaska.” Greenland, which may soon win its independence from Denmark thanks in part to its newly revealed oil and mineral wealth, hopes to bottle water from its melting glaciers. This is the low-hanging fruit.
Less lucrative, but equally plentiful, are opportunities to help mitigate the effects of chaotic weather and depleted resources, “selling the best Band-Aid,” as Funk puts it. He rides along with private firemen in California as they spray fire-retardant chemicals on the million-dollar homes of paying customers, ignoring the other houses along the way. He meets investors setting up billion-dollar funds to purchase water rights in the drought-stricken American West and a Wall Street banker negotiating a deal for a million acres of farmland in Sudan that he’s betting will surge in value as crops fail elsewhere. “Just look at that shit,” the banker remarks on the plane ride in, “you could grow anything there.”
This enterprising spirit animates even the last section of the book, which deals with what looks to be the unwinnable battles of a warming planet: inundated lowlands, environmental refugees, infectious disease. The bigger the problem, it seems, the greater the confidence of inventors, engineers, and marketers. One Dutch architect wants to sell floating buildings to the Maldives as its dry land disappears under rising seas. And an English biotech firm is conducting field tests of its own genetically engineered mosquito, which can wipe out populations of local mosquitoes that, lately, have begun carrying and transmitting dengue fever.
Some readers of Windfall will probably admire these entrepreneurs’ ingenuity, self-confidence, and chutzpah
It’s all surreal, and it’s all really happening. Windfall never gets dull because every few pages Funk introduces another bizarre, futuristic scene. The farmland investor listens to “We Are the World” with the son of a Sudanese warlord while they wait for a land deal to go down. 18-year-old Canadian soldiers fire machine guns into the ocean, preparing to defend the country’s claim on the Northwest Passage. And of course there’s the Goldman Sachs building, lights blazing, surrounded by a high wall of sandbags while the rest of lower Manhattan goes dark during Hurricane Sandy. Funk’s narration moves briskly between continents and catastrophes and gives the reader the sense of seeing only what’s most important, making it—for a book that incorporates so much research and deals with such a grim subject—a surprisingly easy read.
With its broad scope and clear prose, Windfall brings to mind New Yorker reporter Elizabeth Kolbert’s seminal 2006 book on global warming, Field Notes from a Catastrophe. Both authors have frightening news to bring us but let the facts speak for themselves and refrain from lecturing. Like Funk, Kolbert visited far-flung places, observing some of the earliest effects of global warming and talking to scientists, whose frank admissions of fear were often chilling.
But though it isn’t a call to arms, the book does address the moral problem of global warming, the central aspect of which is that, as Funk writes, “it is not equally bad for everyone.”
Funk conducts an updated survey on the state of the warmed world, but his sources are mostly businessmen, and Windfall is about this new class of entrepreneur as much as about any ecosystem. Funk almost never criticizes these men (they’re all men) directly, but he has a knack for showing them at their most smug and silly. The Dutch architect, for example, is enraptured with his company’s own PR video; the private firefighter, en route to the fire, finds time to call his hotel and order a large bag of his wasabi peas, his favorite snack, to his room. The various executives and entrepreneurs come across not so much as coldhearted profiteers but salesmen on the make, full of themselves and, quite often, full of hot air. Their plans, despite the money and brainpower behind them, have a way of fizzling. Shell, for example, spent $4.5 billion on leases and infrastructure for its Arctic oil play only to see its drill ship crash into the shore just months after launch. Its crew had towed it into a cyclone, and the towline snapped.
I admit that this snafu cheered me, as did various other blunders by would-be climate moguls. Some readers of Windfall will probably admire these entrepreneurs’ ingenuity, self-confidence, and chutzpah (“We’ve managed to sell snow to the Eskimo!” declares an Israeli snow-machine salesman, exaggerating only slightly), but I found myself repelled by their cynicism and, as the book went on, hoping that each would lose his shirt. Windfall withholds such judgments. But though it isn’t a call to arms, the book does address the moral problem of global warming, the central aspect of which is that, as Funk writes, “it is not equally bad for everyone.” The people and nations most responsible for creating global warming will be the ones most able to ride it out and even to profit from it. The poor will get poorer and the rich, if they don’t get richer, will at least be able to protect their wealth.
Sober as it is, Windfall might still share a little of its subjects’ wishful thinking.
This future—where the rich live in comfort behind high walls and everything goes to hell outside—is one that years of dystopian science fiction has conditioned some of us to expect. Funk’s book is compelling evidence that this really is the one we’re going to get. Windfall left me with an uncomfortable mixture of emotions: outrage at the injustice of this situation, along with a strong desire to be on the inside of those walls when they go up.
I wonder, though, whether this ambition isn’t just selfish but unrealistic as well. Funk concludes the book with an ambiguous consolation: “Everything, for some of us, will be just fine.” I don’t know about that. The one shortcoming of Windfall might be that it’s actually a little too optimistic. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—consistently conservative in its predictions—has the world on track for four degrees warming, Celsius, unless greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced. That’s bad. “In a 4˚ C world,” one recent scientific paper states blandly, “the ecosystem services upon which human livelihoods depend would not be preserved.” This statement begins to sink in when you remember that the term “ecosystem services” is a rather dry way to refer to the life-sustaining features of the natural world: drinkable water, arable soil, etc. A 4˚ temperature rise, said the author of another recent paper in an interview, “would likely be catastrophic rather than simply dangerous…and would guarantee the eventual melting of the Greenland ice sheet and some of the Antarctic ice sheet.” That would mean a rise in sea levels of more than 20 feet, not to mention the release of vast amounts of methane from warming permafrost, a potent greenhouse gas that would in turn cause further warming. This is the Al Gore scenario, and it has gotten more, not less likely since Gore first scared us with it back in 2006. The absence of either panic or scolding in Windfall make it a much better read than most books about the climate. But it doesn’t change the facts. I’m afraid that, sober as it is, Windfall might still share a little of its subjects’ wishful thinking. When it comes to the effects of unchecked climate change, I wouldn’t bet on anyone being able to build a wall high enough to hide behind.