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Making a Profit from Climate Change

April 2014

Book Review

Making a Profit from Climate Change

by James Wells

The Booming Business of Global Warming
by McKenzie Funk
The Penguin Press, 2014
Hardcover; 320 pages; $27.95
ISBN 9781594204012
eBook; 320 pages; $14.95
ISBN 9780698151567

Reviewed by James Wells

In the United States, people concerned about climate change focus much of their energy on how to communicate the facts about climate in the face of a well-funded campaign of disinformation on the topic. In much of the rest of the world, people are simply dealing with the reality of climate change that can be observed in their region, and the change that is to come.

When people see change in the world around them, they make adjustments as much as they are able. One type of adjustment is to look for new opportunities for economic gain. The recently-published book “Windfall,” by McKenzie Funk, describes efforts by people, companies, and even entire countries (and potential countries-to-be) to make a profit from changes in the world’s climate.

Making a profit is not, by itself, a bad thing, a point that Funk is careful to make in the book and also when he speaks. As he puts it, “The people I write about are generally good people who believe that they are doing good, or at least not something bad.”

The examples in the book illustrate that, in many cases, the potential for profit arises from the need for important and helpful services. Who could fault the Dutch for making a living by exporting their skill in building seawalls? If Israeli inventors have a better snowmaking technology based on their research into desalinization, it’s a great idea for them to find buyers in the Alps, whose ski areas are increasingly starved of snow. The people of Greenland see an opportunity to achieve independent statehood, at long last, partly through new resources revealed by the receding ice.

From there, the moral questions get more and more dodgy. Between India and Bangladesh, the border fence was originally created for reasons other than repelling climate refugees, but stiffening the boundary has assumed a new urgency as the seas rise on low-lying Bangladesh. Just north of the border between the United States and Mexico, a project to prevent the ‘loss’ of water by lining the All-American Canal with concrete will result in serious consequences for Mexican farmers who depend on the underground movement of that water.

One notable constant is this: the valuable services to respond to climate change are generally available only to those who can pay. In the Netherlands, those Dutch seawall engineers are spending three billion dollars engineering a solution for the rising Maas River, while they eye the opportunity to help build a great New York City wall system that could cost more than twice that.

Meanwhile, island nations with insufficient currency find themselves facing the prospect of their demise as independent states. At a conference held at Columbia University in 2011, experts discussed methods for a nation to continue to exist after its land is underwater or uninhabitable – floating islands, towed into place, are one possibility. Another choice is to recognize a “nation ex-situ” that exists as a trusteeship, entirely in order to receive climate reparation payments and distribute them to their exiled population.

An iconic moment in “Windfall” occurs during the tale of the private ‘firefighters’, whose task is to scurry around in advance of wildfires and douse flame retardant chemicals on the homes covered by certain insurance policies – but only those homes. While they dress the part of actual firefighters, these crews have no intention of actually fighting the fire.

“[Just as the crew finished spraying one of their listed homes with fire retardant,] a neighbor appeared. She seemed to have mistaken Chief Sam for a public firefighter, and all of us attempted to play along. ‘You could get right to the fire at the second property down, at Las Palmas,’ she said.

‘Okay, okay,’ Chief Sam said. The air filled with smoke.

‘I’ve got trails in here,’ she said. ‘You can pull all the way in.’ She pointed down the street, toward the flames, waiting expectantly.

‘Okay,’ Chief Sam said, barely looking at her, ‘We’ve got more resources coming.’”

This scene summarizes a core dilemma facing the world with respect to climate change. Who will act together for everyone’s benefit, and who will fend only for themselves? Will anyone be willing to turn away from newly-revealed resources? Private solutions are usually much less effective than their public analogs — witness the private firefighters who don’t actually fight fires — but those with the means to protect themselves or profit from climate change will be strongly motivated to do whatever gets them ahead, and also to defend the rightness of their actions.

In the concluding chapter of “Windfall,” Funk writes:

“The hardest truth about climate change is that it is not equally bad for everyone. Some people – the rich, the northern — will find ways to thrive while others cannot, and many people will wall themselves off from the worst effects of warming while others remain on the wrong side. … Climate change is often framed as a scientific or economic or environmental issue, and not often enough as an issue of human justice. This too needs to change.”

The book will be an eye opener for anyone whose entire climate focus is on advocating for emission reductions. I asked the author whether efforts to reduce emissions even mattered any more. “Every quantity of reduction will matter,” he said. “But there is enough warming already baked into the current situation that we are going to have to face the facts of continued warming, and the justice and fairness issues that come along with that reality.”

“Windfall” covers these serious issues with very personal, often humorous, in-person reporting based on the author’s travels over six years. The book portrays decisions made by people who find themselves in places and circumstances where actions that might have seemed unlikely or even absurd a few years ago are simply reasonable responses to the world today. Reasonable, at least, as seen from each individual viewpoint.


Thanks to McKenzie Funk for an interview, his reading at Village Books, and for “Windfall.” His site is “Windfall” is available at Village Books (a much better idea than ordering from that evil web retailer whose name evokes the image of a fiercely independent traditional people). Quotes are from the text of “Windfall,” from our interview, or from the reading.

Several events and issues in this article are summarized from chapters in “Windfall.” Examples include: Greenland’s push for independence, the India-Bangladesh border fence, Dutch seawall builders, the Columbia University conference on legal implications of sea level rise, Israeli snowmaking technology, and the All-American canal lining project.

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