Mark Hertsgaard’s powerful new book Hot examines what the rapidly warming planet means for humankind over the next fifty years. His focus is on what he terms “Generation Hot” – those who will live their adult lives during the coming half-century – and the climate disruption they will have to reckon with. Traversing the world to hear from people on the front lines from Bangladesh to King County, Washington, Hertsgaard highlights the urgency of beginning now to manage the unavoidable impacts of climate change.
In Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, Hertsgaard describes the development of the discourse on how to deal with climate change, which requires both mitigation by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the effort to prepare for and adapt to unavoidable impacts. He notes that an overwhelming focus on mitigation has largely obscured the issue of adaptation and that, at least until fairly recently, discussion of adaptation has not been welcome:
At the moment, this double imperative remains unrecognized by many of us, whether we are individuals, communities, businesses, or governments. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of concern about global warming. But if awareness is high, understanding remains low, in rich and poor countries alike, among both the general public and policymakers. To hear most politicians, corporate advertisements, media reports, and even environmental groups tell it, fighting climate change is all about shifting to cleaner energy sources (and—a distant second—stopping deforestation.) If we switch to solar, wind, and other low-carbon energy sources, we can “Stop Global Warming,” to quote one oft-heard slogan, in the same way we turn off a car engine. But few people seem to recognize how quickly this shift must be made, nor do they grasp how substantial the impacts will be in any case.
It is not widely-enough understood and discussed that we face projected harmful impacts, including three or more feet of sea level rise by the end of the 21st century. This spells out disaster that might be limited to some extent if changes are prepared for. Hertsgaard lays out other projected and potential impacts: harsher heat waves; stronger storms; more disease and pestilence; increased drought and less frequent but more intense heavier precipitation events; more wildfires; lower crop yields; and mass extinctions.
He spoke with leaders who have been driving forces for adapting to climate change in urban areas, like King County executive Ron Sims in Seattle, Washington. Sims, now the deputy administrator at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is the rare politician with a remarkable long-term vision and the will to carry it out. He led King County in developing a fifteen-year strategy to both reduce emissions and better equip the region to deal with climate change impacts. Sims used reports on regional impacts from the University of Washington to determine likely future conditions, then worked backward to find out what was needed in the present to prepare. By explaining to voters what is at stake, for example, he was able to win public support for financing a program of levee improvements through tax increases.
But Seattle is just one city among many. In embracing government intervention and public planning strategy it has so far been one of a few exceptions to the general pattern of failure to focus on climate change preparedness. Hertsgaard describes the importance of the social context in which adaptation takes place, using New Orleans as a example of political failure and lack of the necessary planning mentality:
Every locality is different; experts emphasize that there is no one-size-fits-all model of climate change adaptation. Nevertheless, if we compare the failures in New Orleans with the successes in the Netherlands, one lesson stands out: social context matters more than technological prowess. The Dutch have been relatively good at preparing for climate change largely because of their long history of consensus-based water management and their shared belief in social planning. By contrast, Louisiana’s efforts have been crippled by the state’s history of poor government, its dysfunctional relationship with the Army Corps of Engineers, the power of its oil and gas interests, its continuing reluctance—even after Katrina—to acknowledge the reality of global warming for fear that might harm oil and gas production, and an abhorrence of taxes and public planning as somehow socialistic.
In this light, adaptation is less a problem of science and technology than of politics and of public philosophy and understanding. The fact that we don’t have precise predictive knowledge of conditions fifty years down the road should not be a barrier to action; the real challenge lies in bringing the political system to the point of recognizing and taking steps to deal with the fact that the future will not be like the past. Hertsgaard offers a snapshot of where and how those changes are being made, and a thoughtful reflection on what it might take to bring us all up to speed.
The shape of the planet his daughter will inherit is Hertsgaard’s overarching concern, and why he has felt compelled to embrace more direct action. In a recent article in the Nation magazine, “Confronting the Climate Cranks”, he takes on the political obstructionists, the “corporate lobbyists and right-wing ideologues,” who have stood in the way of action on climate change for two decades. Hertsgaard plans to join with members of Generation Hot in Washington to confront the “climate cranks” in Congress, in the media, and the corporate sector on camera.
By highlighting the specific climate impacts that have already begun and will intensify in the coming years, we aim to shift the debate away from abstract ideology toward the actual consequences the cranks have wrought for Generation Hot. And by conveying our message through children and parents, we can reach the ordinary Americans whose support is essential to overcoming the power of money and insider status in Washington. We hope you’ll join us.