By The Economist
CLIMATE change is a pretty scary topic, and those who write about it have, for the most part, been happy to play up the scariness. This may be due to noble motives or base ones. Many will have chosen to write about climate change because they think something should be done about it and that if their readers get scared they will be more likely to act. Others may intuit that their readers are likely to be seeking stuff that confirms how right they were to have perceived the dreadfulness of the world in ways lesser people have not. This is the road to “climate porn”, which revels in exaggerated disaster.
It is refreshing, then, to read books which look at the warming to come not as a frightful warning, nor as a fait accompli, but as something to which, at some levels of change, people will have to adapt—and which in some settings they may adapt to rather well. The setting Matthew Kahn is interested in is the city, one of his preoccupations as an economist; Marek Kohn’s is the British Isles.
Mr Kahn suggests that city-dwellers have various advantages in preparing for the changes to come. They live in surroundings which, historically, have favoured innovation, have proved resilient in the face of shocks and between which it is comparatively simple to move when things get too bad. Migration from city to city is easier, when it comes to finding a niche to fill at the far end of the journey, than from country to town.
The author has a good eye for the conflicts that can complicate his picture of rational people responding to risk. National and city governments have an interest in making their cities seem safe which pulls against the interest that city dwellers have in gauging the risks and acting accordingly. Los Angeles sends perverse signals about water use that will come back to haunt it; Manhattan (like Venice) has an interest in downplaying the risk of truly catastrophic floods. In Manhattan the issue is further complicated because the people whose taxes might pay for flood protection—mostly in rented accommodation—are not the owners of the property that will increase in value if floods are taken seriously.
The book tries to cover a lot of ground, but it remains (as climate-resilient cities will need to be) a bit pedestrian. It is overlarded with references to unhelpful popular culture and its take on some climate issues, as opposed to their economic consequences, is a tad superficial. Mr Kahn’s belief that “Moscow is unlikely to suffer from extreme heatwaves” does not engender much trust in his lists of cities that are climate-proof or climate-vulnerable (our picture shows a woman surviving Moscow this summer). To say that such a belief was fair enough at the time the book was written is to face the fact that the climate is a rather more complex and uncertain thing than the even, upbeat tenor of the book encourages readers to think.
For a far fuller sense of what climate change might mean to a specific city, turn to the chapter on London in Mr Kohn’s “Turned Out Nice”, a tour de force of information and speculation. Like Mr Kahn, Mr Kohn takes the position that attempts to limit climate change are important, but that some change is inevitable. Thanks to the moderating influence of the Atlantic ocean, he concludes that in Britain for the rest of this century this change will be less profound than elsewhere, having “nothing to compare with the kind of shocks that will hit Spain, half of which could become semi-desert, let alone Bengal”. But that does not mean it will be negligible. As climate change reinforces some trends and counteracts others it will reshape Britain and its landscapes.
Mr Kohn illustrates and elaborates this idea by studying a range of specific places in detail, among them Glen Affric in the Highlands, the meanders of the Cuckmere river as it reaches the Sussex coast and the industrial citadel of Sizewell, a nuclear power plant which looms above a famous nature reserve. Writers such as Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin have spent recent years bringing sustained and sympathetic observation, detailed research and a sometimes wilful eclecticism to their accounts of Britain’s landscapes. In his application of their techniques to the future, Mr Kohn gives a depth to the scenarios of which he speaks that the numbers and maps of more mundane climate prognostication can never match.
In the process of immersing the reader in a fully realised set of tomorrows, Mr Kohn also recasts his perception of today. Nature writing which takes the future and its possibilities as seriously as the past allows the reader to look at the present in a way that the declinist narratives so common in environmental writing disbar; the reader can see today as being in the middle of things, pulled in many directions, not pressed down at the end of time.
This unusual perspective should recommend the book to anyone interested in how the British relate to their land. It also encourages a pragmatic rebooting of those relations. The need to choose how to adapt to the future highlights the choices—about town planning, or forestry, or coastal defences, or immigration—that have shaped the present. It encourages the reader to think of the practicalities of what goes where, and why, of what should drain (city streets, through porous surfaces into the ground beneath) and what should soak (seaside levels, released from the hydrologic corsets of Victorian planners), of what should be wild and what be tamed.
Mr Kohn’s book is a richer, harder and more rewarding read than Mr Kahn’s. But both share a welcome desire to look at what climate change means in a world that can adapt to it—and what can hinder that adaptation. They look at the opportunities as well as the costs; they encourage as well as warn. And both remember that there will be some things that cannot be saved, even though others may not be lost.