McKenzie Funk’s book, Windfall, explores the question, “What are we doing about climate change?” Readers are introduced to ambitious speculators who are eager to make enormous profits on new opportunities resulting from a warming planet. They are not investing in research for sharply reducing carbon emissions. They are obsessed with keeping the economic growth monster on life support. Climate change investment funds will soon become gold mines, creating a flood of new billionaires. The future is rosy as hell.
Mining corporations are slobbering with anticipation as Greenland’s ice melts, providing access to billions of dollars worth of zinc, gold, diamonds, and uranium. A defunct zinc mine, which operated from 1973 to 1990, provides a sneak preview of the nightmares to come. The Black Angel mine dumped its tailings into a nearby fjord. The zinc and lead in the runoff was absorbed by the blue mussels, which were eaten by fish, which were eaten by seals. Investors won, the ecosystem lost.
Other entrepreneurs are anxious to turn the torrents of melt water into hydropower, providing cheap energy for new server farms and aluminum smelters. Meanwhile, the tourism industry is raking in big money serving the growing swarms of disaster tourists.
As the Arctic ice melts, sea levels could rise as much as 20 feet (6 m). A number of low-lying islands are already on death row — the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Seychelles, Bahamas, and the Carteret Islands. Islanders are pissed that faraway rich folks are destroying their home. Bath time is also predicted for large portions of Manila, Alexandria, Lagos, Karachi, Kolkata, Jakarta, Dakar, Rio, Miami, Ho Chi Minh City, and a fifth of Bangladesh. There may be a billion climate refugees by 2050.
Five nations have shorelines on the icy Arctic Ocean: Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), and the United States (Alaska). Beneath the rapidly melting ice are billions of dollars worth of oil, gas, and coal. We would be wise to leave this energy in the ground but, of course, we won’t. There will be abundant testosterone-powered discussion over borderlines in the region, and this might include blizzards of bombs and bullets. Both Canada and Denmark claim ownership of Hans Island. Russia has planted a flag on the North Pole.
A melted Arctic will also provide a new shipping lane, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, providing a much shorter and much cheaper alternative to the Panama Canal. Both sides of the Northwest Passage are owned by Canada, but other nations, like the U.S. and China, disagree that Canada owns the waterway. They prefer it to be an international route of innocent passage, like Gibraltar. Funk took a cruise on the Montreal, a frigate of the Royal Canadian Navy. They were engaged in Arctic war games, which included an exercise that seized a naughty American ship.
The core driver of climate change is simple: “add carbon, get heat.” As carbon emissions skyrocket, so does the temperature of the atmosphere. We can’t undo what has already been done, damage that will persist for centuries, but it would be rather intelligent to quit throwing gasoline on the fire. Unfortunately, the titans of capitalism have a different plan. Renewable energy cannot power our nightmare, and environmental activism has failed. Governments are careful to ignore the prickly issue, because voters delight in living as wastefully as possible. Technology is our only hope.
Cutting emissions would blindside our way of life (and so will not cutting emissions). But cleverly adapting to climate change will greatly enrich the titans, temporarily. There’s growing interest in seawalls, storm surge barriers, and floating cities. Israelis are making big money selling snowmaking and desalinization equipment. Biotech firms are working like crazy to produce expensive drought resistant seeds. India is building a 2,100 mile (3,380 km) fence along its border with Bangladesh, to block the flood of refugees that are expected when rising seas submerge low-lying regions.
Others dream of making big money creating monopolies on the supply of freshwater, which is diminishing as the torrents of melting ice rush into the salty oceans. There are two things that people will spend their remaining cash on, water and food. Crop yields are sure to drop in a warming climate. This will lead to rising prices, and create exciting opportunities for profiteering. A number of wealthy nations are ruthlessly acquiring cropland in third world regions.
Funk visited Nathan Myhrvold, a Microsoft billionaire, who now runs Intellectual Ventures. His plan is to keep economic growth on life support by creating a virtual volcano called StratoShield. Volcanoes spew ash into the atmosphere, which reduces incoming solar heat, and cools off the climate. StratoShield would spray 2 to 5 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere every year. This would make the sunlight one percent dimmer, and enable life as we know it to continue, with reduced guilt, for a bit longer (maybe) — hooray!
Funk also visited Alan Robock, who opposes the plan. Volcanic ash is not harmless. The goal of StratoShield is to block heat. The catastrophic side effect is that it’s like to severely alter rain patterns in the southern hemisphere, spurring horrendous droughts, deluges, and storm systems. On the bright side, life in Microsoft country, the Pacific Northwest, would remain fairly normal, and the sulfur dioxide sunsets would be wonderfully colorful.
Funk didn’t mention that the geoengineering, if it actually worked, would have to be done permanently. Beneath the shield, ongoing emissions would continue to increase the atmosphere’s carbon load. If the shield was discontinued, and full sunlight resumed, the consequences would not be pleasant.
Myhrvold’s former boss, Bill Gates, is running a foundation that’s spending billions of dollars to eradicate disease. The mosquitoes of the world are nervous, fearing near term extinction. The foundation is dedicated to promoting the wellbeing of humankind. Oddly, it has spent nothing on research to cut carbon emissions. Folks will be spared from disease so they can enjoy drought and deluge. There is no brilliant win/win solution. The path to balance will be long and painful.
Funk finished his book in 2012, a very hot year for climate juju all around the world. He had spent six years hanging out with tycoons, “the smartest guys in the room.” All were obsessed with conjuring highly complex ways of making even more money by keeping our insane civilization on life support, for as long as possible, by any means necessary.
Climate change is a manmade disaster, and those most responsible are the wealthy consumers of the north. Funk imagines that the poor folks of the south will be hammered, while the primary perpetrators remain fairly comfortable. It’s a wicked problem because “we are not our own victims.” We feel no obligation to reduce our emissions or consumption. We care little about misery in far away places.
I am not convinced that the north will get off easy. Anyone who spends time studying the Earth Crisis will eventually conclude that humans are remarkably clever, but pathologically irrational. We’ve created a reality far too complex for our tropical primate brains. We’ve created a culture that burns every bridge it crosses. Funk reminds us that, “We should remember that there is also genius in simplicity.” I agree.
Funk, McKenzie, Windfall — The Booming Business of Global Warming, Penguin Press, New York, 2014.