Plan B

HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth
By Mark Hertsgaard
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 340 pages

“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

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That epigram kept coming to mind as I read HOT, the latest book from veteran environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard. As I followed Hertsgaard’s global journey tracking the already-occurring disruptions of climate change, it was hard not to feel hopeless. From the rice paddies of Bangladesh, where saltwater intrusion is decreasing grain harvests, to California’s wine region, where rising temperatures threaten to ruin a multibillion-dollar industry, to the wreckage of New Orleans, Hertsgaard shows that the consequences of global warming are upon us. Climate change isn’t a future problem; it’s a present danger. Even if we were to go cold turkey on fossil fuels today, the CO2 built up in the atmosphere during the past century will still alter the climate and put huge strains on human civilization.

Yet even as he lays out the depressing details, Hertsgaard – in a display of his own first-rate intelligence and optimistic spirit – manages to show that, in fact, hope is not lost. “If all goes well,” he writes, “the next fifty years may be remembered as the second of three eras of global warming – a bridge between the first era of discovery and delay and a third era of deliverance and survival. … There will, alas, still be losses. … But we can keep those losses to a minimum if we act boldly.”

Since the scale of the climate crisis became clear, our efforts to address the problem (as lackluster as they may be) have centered on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is what climate policy wonks call mitigation. But at this point, mitigation, though still necessary, is insufficient. No matter what we do, we are doomed to experience at least a 2° C increase in global temperatures, and that means more floods, more droughts, and rising sea levels. So while we pursue mitigation we also must start on adaptation. We have no choice but to get ready for the storms that are coming. Hertsgaard writes: “From now on, humanity must pursue both adaptation and mitigation at maximum speeds.”

The twin challenges pose a major test of whether we humans collectively can meet Fitzgerald’s standard for top-notch thinking. Accepting the existential threat of climate chaos has been tough enough (see: climate change denialists). Now, we must somehow take our thinking a step farther and find ways to at once make our lives climate-friendly (less carbon dependent) and climate-resilient (able to absorb the shocks of a carbon saturated world). In the words of a Dutch environmentalist quoted in the book, we have to “avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable.”

Our predicament is mind boggling, but Hertsgaard navigates the complexities of our situation with precision and patience. The environment correspondent for The Nation and a contributor to Vanity Fair, Hertsgaard is very much a journalist’s journalist: He has an eye for evocative details, an ear for aphorism, and a knack for explaining vast amounts of dense research. Although he has covered the climate beat for years, he approaches the issue with a fresh perspective and manages to scare the hell out of the reader without ever sounding like a screeching Cassandra.

But HOT ranges far beyond the dispassionate analysis of most reporting. This is, above all, an emotional book. As Hertsgaard explains at the outset, he started work on HOT right after the birth of his first child. It was when he realized that his daughter would grow up on a frighteningly different planet that the author had what he calls an intense “Oh, shit moment” – and dedicated himself to understanding what life will be like for his daughter’s generation. A father’s love runs like an electrical current through HOT, and it makes the book hum with urgency. If the academic and government reports that form the basis of climate change science are notoriously dry, much of the literature of global warming has been full of feeling. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature was elegiac; Ross Gelbspans’s The Heat Is On was frustrated. With its ember-like pulse, HOT joins that tradition. The book is full of righteous anger. Reflecting on our collective inaction and the cynical manipulations of the fossil fuel industry, Hertsgaard doesn’t shrink from hard words: “This was a crime.”

That call-’em-like-you-see-’em attitude is bracing and it’s essential. After all, adapting to a hotter world will take more than just smarts. It will also require heart.

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