Why Can't We Really Care About Climate Change?

There is a passage early on in McKenzie Funk’s book, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, that ticks through so many world-gone-crazy anecdotes that maybe aren’t but probably are related to a changing climate that the mind boggles.

Drought-crazed camels would soon rampage through a village in Australia, a manatee would swim past Chelsea Piers in New York City’s Hudson River…. Armadillos were reaching northeast Arkansas. Wolves ate dogs in Alaska. Fire consumed fifty million acres of Siberia. Greenland lost a hundred gigatons of ice. The Inuit got air-conditioning units…. In retrospect, this was the moment that we began to believe in global warming—not in the abstract science of it, which most could already passively accept, but in the fact that there were money and power to be won and lost.

Windfall is about money and power, yes, but also—mostly—the people chasing it. The dreamers, I guess we should call them. Only they’re the ones dreaming of an extremely likely future shaped by so much carbon in the atmosphere. Funk’s book is very good and not at all like anything else I’d ever read on the topic, the topic being global warming. I had a bunch of questions so I called him up but he was in the middle of eating a burrito, so I called back 10 minutes later, which is the amount of time it takes to eat a burrito.

McKenzie Funk’s Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming is out today from Penguin. You may obtain it from your favorite book-obtaining places!




McNally Jackson

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And you can read three excerpts here.

Ryan Bradley: Your book is about climate change but I lost count about how far into it you get before a scientist appears.

McKenzie Funk: Oh it’s the very end.

Right! And even then…

…even then it’s not climate science, it’s genetically modified mosquitoes.

Hahaha. Yes. Did you set out to do a totally different sort of book that happens to be about the changing climate but not?

Well I sort of fell into this book, really [with a story in Harper’s]. I was guided by the fact that I thought climate change was frightfully boring. A bunch of people saying “yes it’s true,” and some other people saying “no, it’s not true” and fighting over that when it’s already been kind of proven to be true is totally inane. Or the perhaps more boring battle is cap and trade in the Senate. I can’t think of anything more boring than that except for climate change treaties in the UN which might actually be the peak of boringness. Trying to get some sort of international climate agreement, a bunch of diplomates bloviating, and nothing happens. That is truly boring. People don’t have much imagination about this.

It just wasn’t interesting to you?

Don’t get me wrong, I care about the environment, but climate change was never my issue. I didn’t even set out to do a climate change book. I set out to… basically I heard that Canadians were going to go strut around the Arctic and I thought that was absurd because who’s afraid of Canadians? And why are they strutting? Because they think they’re going to get rich off this crisis? And there was something to fight over? That was appealing because it was human. I like to plumb the psychology of people, I suppose, and most of all, that story, and the stories in the rest of the book, are about people, not climate change.

To get to the interesting stuff you simply sidestep the debate.

Take that recent kerfuffle over the Polar Vortex. I think the forces of reality seem to have won that battle, because everyone wrote a story about how “actually, it is real.” But, who cares? People seem pretty pleased with the fact that we won the war against Trump and Limbaugh—but nothing changed. The world is still emitting more and more carbon. It is weird that the debate is the thing people cover because it’s so dumb and boring and changes nothing.

So how do you think about climate change?

This is the biggest thing people have done. We raised the level of the oceans. We changed the makeup of the atmosphere. Climate change just puts up such a crazy big mirror on our psychology, on us, and that no one tries to look at ourselves through this mirror is weird. Our go-to is carbon cap-and-trade. I have such a hard time explaining what this book is to friends of my mom….

How do you explain it?

Usually I just settle on a list of examples. “Well, look, you’ve heard about the oil rush in the Arctic, well, that’s a response to these impacts, and I’m looking at how people the world over are preparing for these impacts, particularly to make money.” Usually they look at me like, huh, and think it’s a basic activist climate change book, which it isn’t.

It’s a look at humanity’s greatest achievement-slash-disaster and how some of us are actually dealing with it. Something you must have encountered is that this is such a large, amorphous topic, involving world systems, and there’s no smoking gun—and yet, here, as you point out, again and again, you can observe what is happening, you can go out into the world and see the effects and people doing things about the effects. Why does the amorphous argument even still exist? And why is this a viable excuse for people—I guess “the media” generally—not to cover it?

[sighs] It’s like, all the shit that’s happening, let’s ignore it, because there’s uncertainty? It speaks to the state of the media, the play-by-play politics are what we can cover without having to spend much money and doing much reporting. That’s what news is. Climate change is slow moving. News is not, especially now. And the politics of climate change revolve around these unbelievably dumb things, like people fighting over whether it’s real or not. That story has been done approximately one million times.

It’s refreshing, in a weird way, how all the characters in the book have moved so far past this, even the characters you might think of as evil, even a corporation like Shell literally gives up on trying to affect the politics because it’s a pit of unchangingness.

Well obviously it’s different if you’re a corporation and not a news organization. But, still, you talk to people in hedge funds and they are smart. I’ve got a friend at a hedge fund and his job is the closest to mine of anyone I know—he’s out there really trying to understand, going places in the world to discover what’s really going on.

Even when you get there, though, it’s impossible really to point at something happening and say “this is climate change, right here.”

I do a bit of a trick in the book around that, actually. As much as possible I try to avoid saying, “this was climate change” and instead I go with people who will say “this is related to climate change.” It takes a bit of the weight off me, and the science. What matters, honestly, is how people are responding to this thing. Climate change matters but the bigger thing I hope people will see are the limits of human nature and how much we rely on certain ways of thinking about the world, and how much we’re applying those same ways of thinking to climate change and continuing what’s going on because we’re not thinking in particularly different ways.

A lot of these ways seem to be: we are going to make a gigantic pile of money.

The first section of the book—Melt, it’s called—is this expansionist view of the world: We’re going to go claim this new territory that’s opening up. People are just seeing the upside.

It’s weirdly optimistic…

Yeah. Perhaps rightly so. The middle section about water, you get into a lot more market driven, libertarian—applying market thinking to this problem of climate change. Toward the last section you get this sort of techno optimism. It’s something I hope people notice is that there’s this whole new world we made yet we’re doing the same things we’ve always done.

Yet there are no villains in Windfall, really. Was that practically a problem?

No. Everyone is acting in keeping with his own world ethics. I basically liked most of the people I traveled with, and the important thing to see in that is there are a lot more bad ideas than there are bad people.

What do you see as explicitly a bad idea?

The overall bad idea is to think that capitalism will deal with climate change. I think the hope among a lot of politicians and even scientists is that people will eventually decide that climate change is real and out of fear and self-interest they’re be like, “oh shit, let’s do something about this,” if it gets bad enough. And that’s not untrue, but if you look at what’s going on, if people are left to follow their own self-interest, people say, “this is happening, I’m going to make money off it” not, “this is happening, I’m going to buy a Prius and walk to work.” There’s a huge gap between stimulus and response. The response is, people think, we’ll go green. That’s definitely not the case. Businesses will say not “I must go green” but “I must make money” and “what’s in it for us?”

If we’re relying on people getting so scared they really do something about climate change and stop this, well, that’s a bit of a pipe dream. We need to rely on something better than self-interest and market mechanisms. That’s the biggest bad idea—that we can just innovate our way out of anything.

That is a hard truth to take, that me, being a concerned citizen, recycling and walking to work, that isn’t enough?

Nope. It needs to cost people money to emit carbon. Obviously that’s not a new idea, but government really needs to do this not because it’s going to make America rich or we’re going to get green jobs, but it’s not going to come from companies, and individual citizens aren’t going to do enough.

This is a bleak reality, and the fix seems to hinge on some of the boring stuff—legislation that might one day make carbon emissions costly. Do you think that’s why media, and television especially, does such a terrible job covering climate change?

You could critique television in general for not covering well almost any topic, but you add in the travel costs necessary and scientific uncertainty… But honestly is television any worse at covering this than politics?

Well one is certainly more covered than the other.

Yeah—the mention of climate change, you’ve seen, it totally tanked after 2009 when everyone was talking about Copenhagen. Television just has a hard time covering anything that’s slow moving and far away, and most of climate change is still far away. It might also be that they think it’s boring. They’re right only if they think of the boring parts.

Are you worried about going on television and having to come up with some sort of pithy soundbite that paints in black and white what, in your book, is actually pretty grey?

What I worry about is they’re going to say, “these assholes are making a lot of money on climate change, isn’t that bad?” Well, yes, but it’s also inevitable. It’s very easy to point at these people and say they’re villains rather than see how they’re people sort of like us who aren’t that many steps removed from the rest of us, especially in this country.

What do you hope people come away from this book thinking?

I hope they understand that it’s not really a tragedy of the commons. We have this idea that everyone’s sort of slacking and we’re screwing each other, but it’s all kind of OK because we’re doing it to each other.

So much of the denial is bundled up in that! There’s this very specific strain of denial that hates the fact that everyone is to blame, that I’m just here living my life and how dare you suggest that I’m ruining the planet while minding my own business. Even people who should be the ones who believe in it! We’d get so much hate mail when I was at Popular Science and even mentioned climate change in passing. And this was from longtime subscribers.

It’s important that we realize that not only are we [Americans] the ones who have historically caused most of the emissions but we are also the ones who are least likely to get hit. We can afford palliative measures, we can build seawalls, and get water to where it’s needed, and if we do geoengineering, it might benefit us. And the second thing is in some cases I think people will benefit, especially in high latitudes. It’s important to recognize that climate change is mostly bad for everyone, but for some areas people are going to make money.

One reason we’re not scared about climate change—when I say we, I’m talking generally about the guy walking down the street here in Seattle—is we shouldn’t be. It’s not actually going to do that much to you or me or this guy. That’s sort of the big takeaway, is that people need to understand the moral stakes. If you care about issues of justice, or what happens on the other side of the world—and some people do and some people don’t—than this is more than the tragedy of the commons. We’re getting off pretty easy.

That’s a conservative message, by the way, the “you break it you buy it” responsibility is pretty strong in mainstream conservative Republican thought. If you look at South Sudan, which I visit in the book, that was a country that conservatives championed and helped make independent. There’s more than self-interest at work. It’s not just liberals who care about the rest of the world. It’s conservative Catholics, evangelicals of various stripes, really anyone who emphasizes doing what’s right by others, however distant.

Let’s talk about the drought out West, which is shaping up to be a huge story.

For me the chapter on water was one of the hardest—it was the last I felt comfortable with. Water is somewhat like climate change in that it’s somewhat obtuse and can be really boring.

But what is more vital?!? Air, maybe.

Totally—but there are so many laws. I focused on hedge funds buying up water rights, hoarding them, building basically a portfolio with water rights. That’s something that’s unique to the West, and started in California. These forward looking people see climate change happening, populations growing, and say “let’s grab this water, it’s only going to go up in value.”

There are some big, very secretive companies that are water hoarding companies. And there are water brokers who go around to ranchers and say, “Hey, you’ve got some water, you are old, and your sons don’t want to farm, I will give you X amount of money if we package it and sell your water to this city downstream.”

This is happening, now, but only west of the Rockies and also you mention Australia….

In Australia you can trade water rights like a stock. You can literally turn off your pipe upstream and say I transferred my rights downstream, and some guy downstream turns on his pipes, and now he has your water.

Which is totally creepy and depressing that something necessary for all life on earth can be commoditized. During your reporting what else did you uncover that kind of made you despair?

It took me so damn long to write this book [six years], I sort of thought there was going to be a climate treaty at the UN, that there might be real action toward arresting climate change, or that the election of Obama would create some sort of action in the Senate. I just took those things for granted. And: nothing’s happened. It sort of bolsters the key premise of the book, unfortunately, that people are going to prepare for the world we’re making rather than the one we want.

OK, what about nice surprises?

I had no idea that Greenland had people! And that they yearned for independence and were all kinds of worldly, and lived in beautiful villages, and thought climate change could make them rich. These guys are going to fuel their independence based on oil and minerals. Greenland for me was so exactly what I thought was maybe happening, when I was writing my book proposal. And then I went there and it encapsulated that.

Which almost never happens—that the thing you imagine going into the reporting is perfectly there for you on display. There are far more examples of not-quite-what-you-or-the-reader were expecting.

Seeing the Great Green Wall [a “wall” of trees to keep the ever-expanding Sahara Desert at bay] in Senegal was like that. I thought it was kind of a dumb idea, and it may well be, but I was surprised when i found myself rooting for it, wanting them to plant this wall.

How much do you find yourself talking about climate change day-to-day?

I don’t really talk about this much. We talk about the weather, sure, but just like the rest of us do. The few times I’m at a party and someone starts talking my ear off the way people do about climate change, about how bad it is and how much they love polar bears, I try to change the subject. I don’t have too much to say in that regard.

Ryan Bradley is a senior editor at Fortune.