Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming
by McKenzie Funk. New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2014, 310 pp.
In the epilogue of his book, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, McKenzie Funk finally outlines an argument that had thrummed away in the background of the preceding twelve chapters, present but muffled under globe-trotting reportage and profiles of men seeking profit on a warming planet. It’s not a groundbreaking argument, but it provides a sense of Funk’s framing. “The hardest truth about climate change is that it is not equally bad for everyone,” he writes. “Some people—the rich, the northern—will find ways to thrive while others cannot … The imbalance between rich and north and poor and south—inherited from history and geography, accelerated by warming—is becoming even more entrenched.”
The phrasing here confuses an important distinction. Is it climate change that is exacerbating global inequities? Or is it our response to climate change? To varying degrees it is both, of course, but differentiating them is necessary because our response will have significantly greater consequences for vulnerable populations than climate change itself. Funk largely conflates the two because he views climate change and global inequalities as stemming from the same source: “The people most responsible for historic greenhouse gas emissions are also the most likely to succeed in this new reality and the least likely to feel a mortal threat from continued warming.” This is as facile a perspective as the claim on the previous page that climate change is “essentially a problem of basic physics: Add carbon, get heat.”
The problem is not that these statements are untrue. It’s that they are so simplistic that they obscure any effective way to deal with the enormous complexity of climate change and inequality. To be fair, Funk notes elsewhere that how we respond to climate change may magnify existing power and economic imbalances. But he means the response that is the subject of Windfall: people in affluent countries discovering opportunities to profit off the impacts of climate change. It does not seem to have occurred to him that the conventional climate strategy—to mitigate rather than adapt, to minimize energy consumption rather than innovate, to inhibit fossil fuel use in even the poorest countries—may entrench global inequalities much more effectively than petroleum exploration in the Arctic or genetically modified mosquitos.
It is tempting to agree with Funk’s framing. There is “a more perfect moral clarity” in the idea that the rich world must cease carbon dioxide emissions for the good of all or risk an environmental disaster that will burden the poor the most, and that those seeking financial gain in this man-made catastrophe are simply profiteers. But it is a clarity premised on an unfounded faith in our current ability to radically cut carbon emissions, and it ignores some destabilizing questions: Where does China fall in this schema, for example? What about Greenland, which as Funk notes, stands to hugely gain from climate change without having contributed anything to the problem? Don’t drought-resistant crops with higher, more predictable yields provide benefit both seed companies and poor farmers?
Funk elides these questions and stresses that he is not identifying bad guys but illuminating “the landscape in which they live,” by which he means a global society consumed by “techno-lust and hyper-individualism, conflation of growth with progress, [and] unflagging faith in unfettered markets.” If this is what he sees when he looks out at the global landscape, he is using an extraordinarily narrow beam for illumination.
Fun as it is to watch Funk puncture the petty vanities of these men, mostly by simply quoting them, it is impossible to grasp the bigger picture from these chapters.
The people that Funk spotlights in this landscape are the hedge funders, entrepreneurs, and other businessmen (apparently no women are profiting from climate change) who are finding ways to thrive on the real, perceived, and anticipated effects of global warming. These effects are divided into three categories: melt, drought, and deluge. There are upsides—for some, at least—to all three. A melting Arctic means previously inaccessible mineral and petroleum deposits become exploitable, and newly ice-free shipping lanes benefit global trade. Drought offers opportunities for investing in water rights, water being a commodity that will likely increase in price as it becomes scarcer in places like the U.S. West and Australia. And rising sea levels allow Dutch engineers to sell their expertise in water management to low-lying communities worldwide.
The issues raised in the two best chapters, about private firefighting services in California and an investor’s purchase of thousands of acres of farmland in newly independent South Sudan, are not new and arguably have less to do with climate change than with social and economic dynamics. But these chapters stand out because of the men profiled in them. Funk has a terrific eye for the vanities of a certain type of person: the good old boy who believes himself a straight-talker, rejecting social niceties and political correctness to tell it how it is, but is mostly full of hot air, pettiness, and self-interest.
The wasabi-pea-munching Chief Sam DiGiovanna, for example, leads a team of for-profit firefighters employed by insurance giant AIG to protect homes from forest fires. He calls media outlets to see if they’d like to interview him on his way to fight fires in affluent neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley. (Their protection efforts are mostly useless, as it turns out, because of a combination of incompetence on the part of his Oregon-based dispatchers and the effectiveness of public firefighters.) It is genuinely appalling to read that because Chief Sam’s team mimics public firefighters—uniforms, red fire-emblazoned SUVs with sirens, pump trucks—a neighbor of one of their clients mistakenly believes they are in the neighborhood to fight the blaze, not protect individual client homes. As she points out where the team can access the fire, Chief Sam lamely stands around and says that more resources are coming, unwilling to abandon the illusion that they are acting in the public interest.
Funk travels with investor Phil Heilberg to South Sudan to finalize Heilberg’s leasing of a million acres of the country’s farmland, a deal that would make him one of the largest private landholders in Africa. Attempting to acquire the signatures of Sudanese officials in order to legitimate his land deal and pacify investors in the scheme, Heilberg, who compares himself to Ayn Rand’s protagonists and witlessly psychoanalyzes the warlords who keep blowing him off, seems mostly out of his element. He leaves South Sudan amid the chaos of its fight for independence without getting his signatures. Other nations pursuing land deals seem to have had more luck; countries ranging from India to Qatar have leased or purchased vast tracts of farmland in poorer countries.
Fun as it is to watch Funk puncture the petty vanities of these men, mostly by simply quoting them, it is impossible to grasp the bigger picture from these chapters. At one point Funk compares public firefighting to mitigation, or “cutting emissions for the good of all,” and Chief Sam’s private firefighting to adaptation efforts in which “individual cities or countries endeavor to protect their own patches.” (The failure of a mitigation-dominated approach to cutting global emissions goes unmentioned.) A libertarian abandonment of public goods such as firefighting would indeed be calamitous, but we don’t seem to be in any danger of that occurring. If Chief Sam’s outfit is anything more than an apparently ineffectual experiment on the part of insurance companies, Funk does not say what it is.
The same is true of his Wall Street farmland investor. Heilberg appears feckless rather than indicative of some trend of colonizing climate profiteers. Funk illustrates why working with warlords is a bad idea from both a moral and business perspective, but he never articulates what the effect of Heilberg’s farming plan, if successful, would be. Funk ominously notes that private militias had ravaged South Sudan during the civil war of the 1990s, but he doesn’t make the connection to current foreign land purchases. Heilberg, for his part, planned to farm his land and sell crops in Sudan before selling the food abroad. Nor is it obvious what countries like China or Egypt plan to do with the land they have acquired in places such as Sudan and Ethiopia, or how leasing farmland is different from other forms of foreign direct investment.
Furthermore, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out who, exactly, is profiting. Funk devotes half a chapter to Nigeria’s construction of a “Great Green Wall,” a line of trees intended to slow desertification in the country. But desertification results mostly from unsustainable agricultural methods. How climate change may impact the process is unknown, especially since climate models for sub-Saharan Africa are notably variable. Few people seem to think that the green wall will slow the Sahara’s expansion. The profit-generating capacity of a tree-planting scheme dominated by a Japanese spiritual group (one of the weirder details of the project) is left unexplained.
Geoengineering is another example. Although Intellectual Ventures (IV), an investment firm headed by Microsoft entrepreneur, cookbook writer, and alleged patent troll Nathan Myhrvold, may hold patents on speculative geoengineering technologies, how the company could profit from them is not clear. Distasteful as IV’s practices may be, is it necessarily a bad thing that some entities might profit from technologies that allow people to adapt and thrive in a climate-changed world, whether through solar radiation management, improved mosquito control, or better seawalls?
Funk clearly sees this idea and what he calls “techno-fixes” as opportunism and as relinquishing our duty to mitigate climate change through significantly cutting carbon emissions or consumption. Despite peevish asides such as the fact that the “Gates Foundation has notably spent not a penny on helping the world cut carbon emissions” (quite possibly because emissions reductions have little to do with helping poor people), Funk does not outline what radical emissions reductions would entail.
Presumably, though, an effective approach to lowering carbon emissions requires both the public and private sectors, and private sector involvement means that someone sees an opportunity to profit. The notion that corporations will respond to incentives that erode their bottom lines—or, for that matter, that governments will enact tax or energy policies to the detriment of their citizens—does not correspond to what we have learned from thirty years of failure to adequately address climate change and reduce carbon emissions. The task, then, is to rethink our strategy for transitioning to a low-carbon global society and, as importantly, equitably adapting to an unavoidably warming climate. Where are the opportunities for achieving these goals, and how do we design our strategies to benefit as many people as possible? Stuck in the conventional climate framework, Windfall does not provide any useful answers.
Funk adopts the position that he is unearthing some uncomfortable truths: “Environmental campaigners shy away from the fact that some people will see upsides to climate change.” Environmental campaigners who have chosen to ignore the blindingly obvious may indeed not want to acknowledge that climate change will produce winners and losers. But for everyone else, Funk provides a narrative of familiar villains—Royal Dutch Shell, Monsanto, Wall Street bankers, African war lords, genetically modified organisms. To those firmly entrenched in a particular view of the world, Windfall is the validating story of profit-seekers in the rich world that have brought us to the brink of environmental catastrophe and will now find a way to make money off it. If only it was this straightforward.
It is not just the rapaciousness of corporations, the selfish behavior of billions of unthinking consumers, or even the resource-intensive economies of what neo-Marxists always optimistically call “late capitalism” that is ushering in the Anthropocene. Climate change results from the fact that every facet of modern life—the necessities and comforts the vast majority of us enjoy, demand, or aspire to—contributes to the emissions that are warming the planet. If we are going to manage this condition in a pragmatic and ethical way, it will take a great deal of imagination to find the opportunities that climate change presents, including financial opportunities, for making the world a more prosperous, more resilient, and more equitable place.
Jason Lloyd (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a project coordinator at Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes in Washington, DC.