Getting Rich on Global Warming

 Courtesy McKenzie Funk

Lurking in the background of the dire projections and familiar arguments about global warming is an uncomfortable truth: Some of us have a lot to gain from a warmer planet. The idea that, when it comes to climate change, the meaningful divide isn’t between believers and doubters but winners and losers is at the heart of McKenzie Funk’s immersive and startling Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming (Penguin). Funk, a veteran journalist, spent six years traveling the globe with scientists, nationalists, warlords, entrepreneurs, hedge-fund managers, and others who are exploring the “upside” of global warming: profit.

In 2006, as the world was still arguing about whether global warming even existed, Funk was aboard a frigate bound for the Arctic. The Royal Canadian Navy was conducting 12 days of war games to demonstrate its resolve in defending the Northwest Passage, the long-frozen, elusive shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which was on the brink of being ice-free for the first time in recorded history. The countries that controlled it would prosper, and the corporations with access to it – moving oil and other goods – would reap untold fortunes.

In the American West, Funk found climate change played as a zero-sum game: Lucrative private firefighting companies would save the homes of the wealthy from rampant wildfires while poor, nonpaying properties burn. Elsewhere, drought-besieged areas were trading valuable water rights on emerging resource markets as the land around them turned to desert.

In the poorest nations, and those most vulnerable to the sea, climate change is going to mean loss on a catastrophic scale. Entire nations, like the low-lying Maldives, will likely be underwater by the end of the century. In others, like Bangladesh, millions will be displaced. Bracing for mass migrations, wealthier countries are building new border fences and shoring up defenses. “The big thing the U.S. worries about,” says Funk, “isn’t what happens to our shores when a Superstorm Sandy hits. It’s the huge climate-change migrations it will cause.”

Funk devotes the end of Windfall to the scientists who hope to save the world by radically reinventing it. They envision a future of mutant mosquitoes bred to pass genes for infertility on to wild populations and man-made floating islands offering refuge for citizens displaced from the disappearing coasts. Some of these far-flung adaptations are thrilling, if unsettling. But, Funk argues, if we’re focused only on fighting global warming rather than adapting to it – essentially preparing for the worst – then we’re missing the bigger point. “I don’t care about climate change per se,” says Funk. “But I care about what it means for people on the other side of the world. I care about the imbalances and the big shifts: Who’s going to lose; who’s going to win?”