Climate Change is October Surprise After Sandy; Interview

Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, author of "Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth." Photographer: Francesca Vietor/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via Bloomberg

If there’s a silver lining to superstorm Sandy and its aftermath, it’s having extreme weather back on the national agenda.

“Who would’ve thought the October surprise in this election would be climate change?” said author Mark Hertsgaard, speaking by phone from his home in San Francisco. “And it’s getting resonance because this storm hit the media capital of the United States.”

Hertsgaard, 55, is a fellow with the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute chaired by Google Inc. Chairman Eric Schmidt, and environment correspondent for the Nation, a left-leaning 147-year-old magazine. He was less surprised than many New Yorkers when the storm flooded lower Manhattan and subway stations and tunnels.

Hertsgaard specifically foresaw that Gotham nightmare in “Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). His 2011 book examines how governments and communities worldwide are attempting to reduce global warming and adapt to the rising sea levels and extreme weather that scientists say it causes.

“I take absolutely no joy in the fact that I, like others, was reporting well in advance that this was a scenario that climate change was likely to bring about,” he said.

Action Plan

“Hot” is a hopeful if grim call to action. Hertsgaard concludes that even if the world stopped burning fossil fuels today, because of the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere the planet will face decades of intensifying summer heat, rising sea levels, storms and droughts.

“What do we do now given that we’re already locked into 50 years of rising temperatures?” he asked last week. “It’s not enough to put in bike lanes and solar panels, because we didn’t do that 25 years ago.”

He said New York City is better positioned than most to adapt because its political leaders recognize the need and residents are more amenable to government-organized solutions than in many other parts of the country.

“And New York has lots of money,” he said. “Bangladesh knows what to do but it doesn’t have the money to do it.”

Building sea walls may not be an ideal solution for New York, as they’d cost tens of billions of dollars and leave parts of the city unprotected, he reports in the book. But we’re long past the point of choosing among ideal solutions, he said.

High Costs

“Yes it will cost a lot of money with New York,” he said, referring to building sea walls and, among other measures, planting more trees, which cool urban temperatures. “But I don’t think there’s any question that you can justify that expense, because you’re talking about some of the most expensive and economically productive real estate on earth.”

Hertsgaard blames the coal and particularly the oil industry for funding a disinformation campaign about global warming. Coincidentally, last week the president of the New America Foundation, Steve Coll, won the $48,000 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award for his book “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power” (Penguin Press).

“For all the people critical of Obama for not doing more, grow up,” said Hertsgaard, who has a 7 1/2-year-old daughter and is co-founder of the nonprofit activist organization Climate Parents. “No American president can take on the richest industry in human history without strong, sustained popular pressure behind him.”

Piecemeal progress slowing global warming isn’t enough, he said. “We have to radically ramp up efforts or it’s not going to matter very much.”

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