Interviews April 2007

As the World Warms

Gregg Easterbrook talks about his cover story, "Global Warming: Who Loses—and Who Wins?," and the unexpected by-products of climate change.

On a 1997 episode of Saturday Night Live, Chris Farley rampaged around a Weather Channel set dressed as a Mexican wrestler, rumbling, “I am El Nino! All other tropical storms must bow before me!” He was parodying the powerful mass of warm surface water then circulating in the eastern Pacific—a phenomenon on which the media seemed to blame nearly every meteorological event at the time, from floods in California to storms in the Great Lakes to mild winters in New England.

Also See:

"Global Warming: Who Loses—and Who Wins?" (March 2001)
Climate change in the next century (and beyond) could be enormously disruptive, spreading disease and sparking wars. It could also be a windfall for some people. By Gregg Easterbrook

These days, climate change makes the easy mark. It seems to be held liable for every weather-borne offense that now afflicts us, from iron-hot summers to pipe-freezing winters, searing droughts to torrential rains, desertification to drowning polar bears. And should you be brave enough to read any of the predictive literature about climate change’s long-term effects, you’ll soon find yourself mired in a speculative litany of disasters rivaling the Book of Revelations.

Yet you are right to worry, says Gregg Easterbrook in The Atlantic’s latest cover story. Excess carbon dioxide is warping our climate already, and the worst effects likely loom ahead. So what to do? Digging a hole in a nearby beach and inserting your head is one option; but we've tried that as a society for sometime to little avail. Global panic is another option; but, as it turns out, we’ll need to keep cool in order to cash in.

And cash in we can, Easterbrook argues. As with all great challenges that have confronted mankind, the roiling climate will churn out winners and losers. Some people—Russians, for instance—should fare quite well in a warming climate. Others—like Bangladeshis—ought to be looking now for new digs. But Easterbrook’s point is that we can no longer abide either ignorance or alarmism; climate change is upon us, its effects are real, and the sooner we start to realistically adapt, the better our chances of emerging in the winner’s circle. 

Easterbrook is an Atlantic contributing editor. We spoke by phone in mid-February.

—Timothy Lavin

You’ve covered climate change for some time. But in the last few months the terms of the discussion seem to have shifted substantially—we no longer argue about whether the world is warming, but about what to do about it. What’s changed?

It’s clearly the accumulation of scientific evidence, especially in the last five years. The evidence has been very strong, so much so that even at the White House level it’s no longer denied. When the Bush Administration came to office, the president and all of his chief advisors constantly emphasized scientific uncertainty and the need for more research. And they don’t talk about that anymore. They’re still trying to sort of waffle on what to do about the problem. But they no longer talk about the scientific uncertainty because at this point while there may be a lot of uncertainty about exactly what’s going to happen, there’s no uncertainty about the fact that some degree of climate change is now in progress.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its most recent assessment that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” Do you think doubts about the science underlying global warming have been laid to rest?

No, there’s still a huge range of doubt about exactly why climate change is happening. We have no idea what component is natural and what part is artificial and no one has even the slightest clue about exactly what’s going to happen, what the degree of change will be. And you can’t even be sure it’s going to be bad—it may be that change on balance will be good. But as recently as five years ago a lot of serious people entertained the idea that there was no climate change, that this was just some crazy claim or that it was faulty research or that too little was known to be able to say what’s going on. But now, especially in the last five years, but in the last fifteen years overall—especially with studies of ocean temperatures (since the oceans contain most of the surface mass of the earth that’s really more significant to temperature change than the air)—it’s clear that something is going on. And whatever is happening is happening a lot faster than most observers who are serious about this issue expected.

Early in this article you ask, “If the world warms, who will win? Who will lose?” But even the winners in this equation would seem to face grave risks. The Inuit of Canada may come to own valuable ports, for instance, but their traditional ways of feeding themselves and making a living will be decimated as the animals they hunt disappear. I suspect many people will consider the question and answer, “We will all lose.”

No, I don’t think so. In economics we don’t find many zero sum games and I don’t think this is a zero sum game. I think a lot of people and nations will come out ahead. The Inuit—the little semi-nation of Nunavut—is going to become significantly more valuable in a warming world. Right now Nunavut’s a frozen wasteland. I would love to be the guy with the Nunavut promotion account twenty years from now because I’m going to rechristen the place “the gateway to the hemispheres” and invite celebrities, and cruise ships will be stopping by, and the sign on the dock will say, “Welcome to Nunavut, Gateway to the Hemispheres!” We’ll see all kinds of wild economic activity up there. There will be change, yes. The traditional way of life will fade and be replaced with something else, maybe something zany, but change seems an inevitability of human experience. Really no society on earth, maybe the ones in the Amazon basin are the only exception, has been able to insulate itself from change. We can’t insulate ourselves from it and I doubt the Inuit will ever be able to do that, either.

You say that we have to make our peace with climate change and learn to adapt to it, even if this seems like capitulation. But some might say the information age has provided the perfect set of solutions for the ills of the industrial age. Between technological advances, rising wealth and the ability to coordinate action across the world like never before, we have many tools with which to fight a changing climate. Is it possible that we’re conceding defeat too early?

I think at this point some form of mandatory greenhouse gas restrictions are justified; the sooner the United States enacts them the better, as long as the're wisely written. I’m an optimist on this issue and I think that control of greenhouse gases will turn out to be cheaper than predicted and will turn out to work faster than predicted and that human ingenuity will be much more creative than people think. So within a realistic length of time—say, your lifetime—this problem of artificially triggered climate change will be brought under control. But even if reforms are really successful, as long as greenhouse theory is correct, a warming world is absolutely cast in stone—the armies of the world could not prevent it at this point. And even really successful programs of greenhouse gas reduction in the developed nations will not stop increasing accumulation in the atmosphere for at least several decades, and maybe longer. And unless greenhouse gas theory is totally wrong, in which case we don’t have to care about this, the world is going to get warmer and the climate is going to change and we must make our peace with it because we can’t stop it. That’s not capitulation, that’s pragmatism.

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Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

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