“Overheated” by Andrew Guzman

Guzman_OverheatedISBN 978-0-19-993387-7. “Overheated – The Human Cost of Climate Change” by Andrew Guzman was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. “Overheated” is probably the most up-to-date book on the impacts of climate change we have examined to-date. With each book we plough through we always seek another weapon in the armoury we use against deniers & despair. So does Guzman add to this arsenal? Sadly not but it isn’t for want of trying. This must be the hardest topic in the world to really convey and few have managed to attach the appropriate emotion & reason to the topic. You may wish for a Mark Lynas (“Six Degrees“) meets Greg Craven (“What’s The Worst That Could Happen?”) meets Al Gore (“An Inconvenient Truth“). This is none of these.

We feel the need to criticise this book harshly but we do not wish this to seem in any way unkind to Andrew. This is workmanlike and a respectable addition to a body of works that covers the effects of climate change. The reason it scores a “miss” is because it didn’t hit me in the heart. It aimed too high. As Guzman himself recognises early on in chapter 2:

“Climate change remains part of the culture wars in the United States.”

Simply telling your audience the “facts” is never going to be enough.

You’ll notice early on the reference to the USA. Like other similar works this has suffered from some parochialism. It doesn’t travel well. Guzman – a Professor of Law and Associate Dean for International and Executive Education at the University of California, Berkeley – has pitched this at a North American reader. He has also made awful attempts to dumb-down some concepts into mini-parables. These flop about the text like so many beached whales. Why did his editor let him commit these crimes against literature? For example the potential Nuclear threat arising between India and Pakistan is boiled down to a very long and boring anecdote about two children arguing over a bottle of fizzy drink. Seriously? Such instruments of narrative can serve their purpose if they are short, snappy, simple and end in a witty punchline. No such joy here.

This aside the author has an uphill struggle ahead of him. How to write a book that might convince a climate change denier? Tough. For one thing, the deniers are not reading books like this. Secondly, every-time I put on my ‘pretend-climate-change-denier-hat’ on I felt myself screaming at the page in frustration. Guzman never quite delivers the killer knockout punch. It just doesn’t grip me. I felt myself trotting out all the predictable denier criticisms.

To be fair the author has ticked all the boxes and done his homework. You cannot fault the content but it lacks the required emotion – the right spirit. It isn’t persuasive enough. It isn’t enough to use the example of Khmer civilisation’s collapse in the 15th century as an example of what happens when we run out of clean water. What we needed to know is how it feels to go thirsty. How does it feel to watch your child die of dysentery? What is it like to live in a refugee camp in continual fear? It isn’t going to be enough to write about a flood in China that killed 3.7 million people in 1931. We have to know what it is like to be swept away in our own homes. What is it like to be cold and wet and hungry? How does it feel to be half drowned, to live in pain, to be dying of fever? Today, tomorrow. That is what you don’t get from this book. And take it from me – for ME to write this is quite a milestone – I am normally Mr Rational and if I was writing this book four years ago I might have churned out something that looked pretty similar. However, I am older and wiser. Now we know it isn’t enough. I want to FEEL something. I want to feel they way I felt at the end of watching Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” as my toddler played in front of the TV. I want to look in her eyes and imagine her future world. Would she look back upon her father’s life and consider it well lived & harm free? That is a gut reaction.

There are quite a few small things that I did like in Guzman’s book. There are times where he uses the arguments that are at the fore-front of my brain. These seem pretty obvious but there are some very bright people who simply miss them. Take this classic:

“…the evidence for man-made climate change is overwhelming.”

Now THAT has to be the starting point for almost every debate doesn’t it? Many an author just leaps in to list the evidence but this simple statement is often a better starting point. Well done Andrew. As he reaches his conclusions about policy at the rear of the book we read this:

“Funding research into solar or wind energy may seem expensive, and subsidising the development of these energy sources may seem unnecessary, but these actions are easier to understand once we appreciate that carbon is not being priced at its true cost.”

Amen to that. It is such an obvious point but we need to drive this home over and over. Guzman turns his attention to critiquing what he calls the “Pixie-Dust Strategies” and wastes no time in simply demolishing the rubbish we hear churned out from the economics profession. I share his frustration at being told that; in fifty years we will be so much richer than now, so it will be better to worry about Climate Change then – when we can afford better to do something. This is obviously flawed as he points out:

“In India and Pakistan were to tip into war, perhaps nuclear war, nobody would argue that future economic prosperity could erase the resulting disaster.”

In short: all the money in the world won’t help you if you are dead. Likewise the argument that economic growth will somehow continue unhindered by climate change is also tackled:

“The procrastination argument only works if doing nothing now is the best strategy for long run growth. The evidence that climate change will slow growth suggests just the opposite. Taking action today to reduce the impacts of climate change will promote growth. This means we can expect a richer future if we respond to climate change now rather than waiting.”

So procrastinate no more. And finally: the old chestnut that the economists tell us about how people do not value the future – that somehow we discount it:

“This extreme myopia seems quite odd, and it is hard to believe that people really have such disregard for the future. One way to determine this is to ask them if they are saving for retirement or for their children’s college education. […] Anyone willing to dismiss the costs of climate change because they are in the “distant future” should, for some reason, be opposed to saving for a retirement that is thirty-five years away.”

Of course they don’t. As one Nobel Prize Winner put it – our analysis of the risks of climate change are unique only to the climate change debate. You find it nowhere else in policy making. Weird.

Rising sea levels don’t seem so threatening… But when combined with more powerful storms, hitting poor countries (where natural protective eco-systems have been degraded) then you have millions of refugees. Refugees camps, poverty, over-crowding and mass migrations are the known ingredients for the creation of deadly contagious pandemic diseases. Human health will nose-dive in a new environment impacted by heat-waves, smog, wildfires and new illnesses. Food and water supplies will fail. Healthcare, sewage treatment and irrigation infrastructure will cease to be. There will be disease and famine “on a new and horrific scale” writes Guzman:

“The World Bank has estimated that the cost of a “moderate pandemic” could be 3 percent of world GDP or, if a serious outbreak, 5 percent. Global GDP is about $60 trillion, meaning that a pandemic could cost the world in the range of $1.8 trillion to $3.0 trillion, or somewhere between the GDPs of Brazil and Japan.”

You still think that climate change might result in slightly nicer weather? Still think that a few wind turbines are a price too high to pay to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions? Then there is conflict. Nuclear-armed countries will go to war over their share of dwindling water resources. Other states will simply fail. I read this in the full realisation that – yes – all this will come to pass. Yet we live in a world where many sceptics simply point out that human beings live in all kinds of environments successfully. They simply cannot imagine that our future problems will be any different nor any worse than the problems we have today. How do we prove this to them? They cannot see that rapid unprecedented climatic change is bad. That is a failure of imagination. They see the problem only through ideological blinkers. They desperately want to believe that “it can’t all be bad”.

What is worse is that rich Westerners in the north of our planet also afford themselves the luxury of believing all the bad stuff will happen to some poor people in far away lands. Guzman writes:

“The current way the wealthiest on earth treat the poorest is no justification for a failure to do anything about the disaster that climate change will trigger.”

True but this isn’t Guzman’s finest argument. Other than the threat of salt-water contamination, flood or drought in some quarters of mainland USA he doesn’t quite succeed in making that threat seem imminent. And if he did the deniers will just call it alarmism. You can’t win. But we must try. We must find the words that convey the concept of immediate threat to US today in a meaningful way. The problem is that today climate change isn’t playing ball. It is off wrecking the lives of people who ‘don’t matter’ in our economic system. They don’t have value. Likewise who cares about melting ice-caps? It is happening somewhere else to things we don’t care about. It isn’t us and the things we care about. The bottom-line, that maybe Guzman has missed here, is that this needs to be happening NOW to “people who matter”. It isn’t.

Of course the Uru Chipaya people of Bolivia do matter. The glaciers that feed their rivers are fading away. (Guzman points out that “[m]ore than one out of every two people on the planet live in watersheds of major rivers that originate with glaciers and snow in mountains.”) But these people are not the cause of climate change. That is the bitter irony. And we should be as mad as hell for them.

“In 2004, for example, Bolivia contributed less then one-third of 1 percent of global GHG emissions. Although no country deserves the kind of water crisis that Bolivia is facing, the disconnection between those who have caused the earth to warm and those who are suffering most is striking.”

The word here is “disconnect”. If Guzman is to succeed in his mission to make people care about climate change then he has to connect them to it. The forces pitched against this connect happening are enormous. Guzman is not blind to the forces at play. He turns his attention to the suffering of the people of Nigeria. Climate Change is turning up the volume on regional conflict but the author is frank:

“This sort of conflict will only harm the United States and other countries if it interferes with the supply of oil from Nigeria or if it fosters the sort of extremism that threatens global security.”

I am not so convinced that the US cares much about anything in its military and foreign policies unless it threatens energy supplies. Even anti-terrorism is a pretty thin fig leaf used to justify securing either markets or basic resource supplies. Hence if Climate Change proved to be a National Security issue would the USA act appropriately? Or is it easier just to send in another aircraft carrier? The track record suggests the latter. This is not a sustainable solution. Guzman knows it and is realistic. Regarding proposals for carbon trading or taxation:

“Any politician making such a proposal would be taking an enormous risk.”

This risk is at its most acute in the USA where Guzman admits that, although politicians are not necessarily taking bribes, they are influenced by contributions from industry and lobbyists.

We face all these perils yet all this inaction for a scenario projecting just 2degreesC of temperature rise globally by 2100. This is the scenario that Guzman used for the book. We already know this is hopelessly unrealistic. Yet why do we project out to a day just 86 years from now? That is only one human lifetime. Do we imagine that there will be some techno-wizardry romping over the horizon on January 1st 2101? The 22nd century will follow the same trajectory as the 21st. There will just be less fossil fuels. With the rate we are going there will also be a lot less people too.

We need books like “Overheated” to communicate effectively. These need to project a narrative that cuts right through the cultural divide. They need to project a roadmap to salvation in which we are all winners. They need to show (beyond any doubt) the risks of failure. Guzman has got all the right words, in all the right places, yet still his book does not bridge the giant disconnect between the “people who matter” and the victims of climate change. Until he does, until we all can, we are just preaching to the converted in a world where the unconverted are pulling all the strings. For a book that is meant to be about the ‘human cost of climate change’ it just doesn’t have a human face nor a human heart. Giant fail. But a nice try.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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