Tag Archives: global warming

Another great sci-fi novel from one of the most gifted young talents in the field

A review of The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The time is the not-too-distant future, about a century from now. The rising seas have proven to be the most drastic effect of runaway global climate change, with most of the world’s coastal cities now under water up to at least the second story of the towers that dominate them.

The action takes place in and around the ruins of Washington, DC, now part of the Drowned Cities that lie on the mid-Atlantic and southeast coasts of what used to be the United States of America. Everywhere in the region, private armies roam about in constant warfare with one another, their ranks dominated by the child soldiers they have forcibly recruited from the area’s surviving population. In the eye-for-an-eye society that has emerged, few live to adulthood.

Most of the world’s population ekes out a primitive living in places such as this. Only the relative few who live within the confines of Island Shanghai, Beijing, Seascape Boston, and a few other cities continue to flourish behind sea-walls, protected from invasion by the genetically enhanced armies ranged around them.

Years ago, the people of China sent a peacekeeping force to the Drowned Cities to forge peace among the warlords’ contending armies. The effort failed. Left behind when the peacekeepers evacuated Washington, DC, was Mahlia, the teenage daughter of a Chinese general and a local woman — a “half-breed,” a “castoff,” a “war maggot.” This is Mahlia’s story.

Not long after her father abandons her and her mother, Mahlia is set upon by soldiers from the Army of God and, simply because she is who she is, her right hand is cut off. A younger boy, hiding nearby, creates enough of a distraction to allow her to escape with her left hand intact. She calls the boy Mouse.

Together, Mahlia and Mouse encounter one of the “half-men” — a monstrous, bioengineered soldier named Tool, a blend of superior human intelligence and body shape with the face of a dog and the strength, speed, cunning, and ruthlessness of the world’s most able predators. Their meeting proves fateful, and is the pivot on which the plot turns in this beautifully written and fully realized post-apocalyptic novel.

Marketed as a book for young readers, The Drowned Cities is science fiction at its best for fans of any age. The only way in which this novel falls short through adult eyes is that it avoids obvious references to sex. (Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.)

In a relatively short writing career to date, with just five published books to his name at age 40, Paolo Bacigalupi has won every major award in the science fiction field and was a Finalist for a National Book Award. His is an extraordinary talent, with great promise for many more enthralling stories to come.

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Social entrepreneurship: what it is, how it works, and where it’s going

A review of Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know, by David Bornstein and Susan Davis

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

After three decades of increasingly widespread public attention, a surprisingly large number of commentators in the field of social entrepreneurship continue to argue about the most basic question of all: What is a social enterprise, and what isn’t? In this superb little book, David Bornstein and Susan Davis straightforwardly put this question to rest: “Social entrepreneurship is a process by which citizens build or transform institutions to advance solutions to social problems, such as poverty, illness, illiteracy, environmental destruction, human rights abuses, and corruption, in order to make life better for many.” So much for all those deconstructionists who contend that a social enterprise must never turn a profit, or must always turn a profit, or must address some sorts of problems but not others!

As an introduction to the field, Social Entrepreneurship is unmatched.

Most books on social entrepreneurship feature case studies or vignettes starring some of the field’s most innovative and successful individuals. This was the case with an earlier book of Bornstein’s, How to Change the World, which is widely (and rightfully) regarded as “the bible” of the field. By contrast, the three short chapters that constitute Social Entrepreneurship ask and answer the most fundamental questions that any reader unfamiliar with the pursuit of social change might ask, first clarifying the definition of social entrepreneurship, then examining the practical challenges practitioners face, and finally “Envisioning an Innovating Society.” In that third chapter, Bornstein and Davis discuss how government, academia, business, philanthropy, and the news media might contribute to fashioning the “everyone a changemaker” world posited by Ashoka’s Bill Drayton.

As the authors point out, “Social entrepreneurs have always existed. But in the past they were called visionaries, humanitarians, philanthropists, reformers, saints, or simply great leaders. Attention was paid to their courage, compassion, and vision but rarely to the practical aspects of their accomplishments. Thus, people may know about the moral teachings of St. Francis but not about how the Franciscans became the fastest growing religious order of its day. Children learn that Florence Nightingale ministered to wounded soldiers but not that she built the first professional school for nurses and revolutionized hospital construction. Gandhi is remembered for demonstrations of nonviolent rsistance but not for building a decentralized political apparatus that enabled India to make a successful transition to self-rule.” And if St. Francis, Florence Nightingale, and Gandhi exemplified the isolated and occasional social entrepreneurs of yesteryear, there are thousands of courageous individuals now walking parallel paths to institutional change on every continent — backed up by a growing suport network that includes Ashoka, the Skoll Foundation, the Schwab Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Avina, and many other organizations. Given the enormity of the challenges facing humanity in the 21st Century, their combined efforts may represent our last, best hope to create a world in which our grandchildren can live healthy, rewarding lives.

David Bornstein and Susan Davis came to the task of writing this book with impeccable qualifications. In addition to How to Change the World, which went into a second edition in 2007, Bornstein wrote The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank, first published in 1996. He is the preeminent journalist in the field. Davis is a supremely accomplished activist, having served as a founding member of the Grameen Foundation and then co-founding BRAC USA, which she serves as President and CEO. (BRAC began its institutional life as a Bangladeshi nonprofit, later expanding to many other countries around the world. It is regarded as the world’s largest NGO.) She also helps select Ashoka Fellows. Previously, she held a series of senior positions with the Ford Foundation, Women’s World Banking, the International Labor Organisation, and other institutions.

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Barack Obama’s foreign and military policy viewed from the inside

A review of Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, by David E. Sanger

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, I expected a great deal from his Presidency — much too much, it’s clear in hindsight. What I didn’t expect was that as President he would exercise U.S. military power almost as aggressively as George W. Bush. As the subtitle of this excellent book hints so broadly, the apparently anti-war candidate Obama quickly morphed in office into a resolute, hands-on Commander in Chief.

In his campaign, Obama had “promised to restore traditional American ‘engagement’ by talking and listening to America’s most troubling adversaries and reluctant partners. His supporters saw a welcome turn away from the ‘with us or against us’ black-and-whites of the Bush years. His critics saw naivete and softness. Both have been surprised. This is a book about those surprises.”

In practice, Obama learned that his brand of engagement yielded little more than vitriolic rhetoric from Iranian mullahs, North Korean generals, and the Pakistani military. What has proved far more effective are the actions he could take consistent with his more sophisticated view of American power: a massive increase in drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; the country’s first-ever (known) use of cyberwarfare in a targeted attack on Iran’s nuclear program, along with increasingly brutal sanctions on the country and its government; the ever-growing use of Special Forces in operations such as the murder of Osama bin Laden; and a pronounced “pivot” from Europe to Asia in combating the rise of China, as exemplified by the opening of a new military base in Australia. While ending U.S. participation in our “war of choice” in Iraq and beginning the pullout from Afghanistan, President Obama has sharply stepped up our use of the weapons of war in a growing number of undeclared and sometimes undercover hostilities.

Make no mistake about it: Barack Obama has made an idelible mark on the U.S. military and intelligence services, sharpening their missions and reshaping their priorities, and all while forcing them to live within more limited means. And anyone who might be tempted to think that Obama acted this way out of weakness needs to understand that great extent to which he made decisions at crucial times in the face of opposition from nearly all those around him — in giving the green light to the Navy SEAL mission to kill bin Laden, and in deciding to ask Hosni Mubarak to resign. As Sanger writes, “‘He personally basically overrode just about his entire government,’ said one official in the room, noting that Gates and Clinton were still actively opposed, ‘Look, this is what I’m going to do,’ Obama said, according to notes of the meeting. ‘I’m going to call [Mubarak] now.'”

All this, and more, comes to light in the five sections that form the backbone of this book. Sanger writes about each of the leading hotspots in turn: Afghanistan and Pakistan; Iran; Egypt; China and North Korea. This is truly world-class reporting, informed by sources at the very highest levels of the U.S. government.

Sanger concludes, “It is too early to know if the emerging Obama Doctrine — a lighter footprint around the world, and a reliance on coalitions to deal with global problems that do not directly threaten American security — will prove a lasting formula. His effort at ‘rebalancing’ away from the quagmires in the Middle East toward the continent of greatest promise in the future — Asia — was long overdue. But it is a change of emphasis more than a change of direction. Obama proved her was adaptable to new realities, what James Fallows rightly called ‘the main trait we can hope for in a president.'”

If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be a 30-year veteran of The New York Times and serve as its Chief Washington Correspondent, read this extraordinary book with an eye on those sources, both named and anonymous, and their revelations, which pop up seemingly on every page. You’ll see, then, how very deeply embedded in the fabric of official Washington is this one newspaper — a newspaper that serves as the source of an extraordinary proportion of the stories that make their way onto evening news broadcasts and the front pages of other papers around the world. In laying bare the pattern of Barack Obama’s surprisingly aggressive use of military power, Confront and Conceal is just as effective in revealing David Sanger’s unusually high-level access at the White House, the CIA, and the Pentagon.

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The power of unreasonable people, and how they’re changing the world

A review of The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

For more than a decade I’ve been deeply immersed in the world of social entrepreneurship. Yet somehow I neglected to read this important book when it was first published four years ago. (I acquired a copy, stuck it on a shelf, and promptly forgot all about it.) To my mind, The Power of Unreasonable People ranks with David Bornstein’s seminal work, How to Change the World, as a point of entry into this fascinating, and increasingly important, realm.

The field of social entrepreneurship, still early in its development after Bill Drayton first gave the concept prominence early in the 1980s with the launch of Ashoka, is rife with disagreement. Some observers insist that a social enterprise must be a not-for-profit enterprise. Others assert that only for-profit ventures qualify for the label. Fortunately, Elkington and Hartigan believe that the whole range of organizational forms can be thought of as “social enterprises.” I say fortunately because (a) I agree with them, and (b) to insist otherwise is to miss so much of what is exciting in the field.

The Power of Unreasonable People covers the landscape, describing examples from virtually every area of interest in development, from healthcare to education to poverty eradication. In fact, the book is most rewarding in its presentation of vignettes of individual social enterprises, including interviews with many of their principals. A lot of the examples are familiar to anyone active in the field. Some are not. However, this is no mere collection of case studies. The authors embed each organization within a typology of their devising, allowing the reader to get a sense of how they may be compared with one another. The Power of Unreasonable People concludes with a discussion of the structural changes that are essential if humankind is to prevail in the face of endemic poverty on three continents, ethnic and religious conflicts, and the growing impact of climate change.

John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan are two of the most qualified people in the world to have written this book. Elkington, a force in the area of corporate social responsibility for three decades and a prolific author, co-founded the consultancy SustainAbility in 1987 and originated the term Triple Bottom Line in the 1990s. Hartigan served as founding managing director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship from 2001 to 2008, partnered with Elkington to establish the consultancy Volans, and now works as Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University.

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The truth behind one of the companies you hate the most (and it ain’t pretty)

A review of Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Until recently, when GoldmanSachs emerged as such a deserving target of opprobium, ExxonMobil was, without doubt, our country’s most-hated corporation. The two companies probably compete for that distinction today. Private Empire is Steve Coll’s admirable attempt to explain how and why the world’s most profitable private oil company became a pariah — and to relate how the company has changed in recent years. Oh, yes, it has changed.

Unless you’re under the age of 20, you were already highly aware of the ExxonValdez disaster off the coast of Alaska in 1989 — the country’s biggest oil spill until BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. You probably also knew that ExxonMobil is the direct descendent of the Standard Oil trust assembled in the 19th Century by the quintessential robber baron, John D. Rockefeller. So, perhaps it’s clear how, when the company came into existence in its present form — in 1999, with the acquisition of Mobil Oil, another Standard offspring — it had already been rivaling its ancestor for public displeasure for a decade as a result of Exxon Valdez. (“Fortune had ranked the corporation as America’s sixth most admired before the accident; afterward, it fell to one hundred and tenth.”) It’s pretty hard not to know at least a few facts about a company that’s often ranked the biggest private enterprise in the world and supplies so much of the fuel to which we are so blithely addicted.

It’s no mystery why ExxonMobil stayed so unpopular many years after the Exxon Valdez spill. A heavy-handed Texan named Lee Raymond set the company’s tone and policy during his 12-year reign as CEO (1993-2005). “Exxon maintained a ‘kind of 1950s Southern religious culture,’ said an executive who served on the corporation’s board of directors during the Raymond era. ‘They’re all engineers, mostly white males, mostly from the South . . . They shared a belief in the One Right Answer, that you would solve the equation and that would be the answer, and it didn’t need to be debated.'” And, whatever that One Right Answer might be, it was closely held unless Raymond thought it needed to be made public. As one new employee he brought on observed, “the oil corporation’s system for maintaining confidential information was far more severe than anything she had seen while holding top secret clearance at the White House.”

It was Raymond’s determined, some might say fanatical, insistence that scientists hadn’t proved the reality of human-caused global warming that led the company to invest heavily in Right-Wing think tanks and other front groups campaigning against any proposals to regulate carbon emissions. Raymond’s successor, Rex Tillerson, despite his similar background, proved far more resilient on the issue. He discontinued the corporation’s support for anti-climate change campaigners and later took a high-profile public position in favor of a carbon tax.

Interestingly, “Rex Tillerson believed that transformational change would upend the oil business and global energy economy eventually. Breakthrough batteries might be the pathway, or breakthrough biofuels, or cheaper, more efficient solar technology, or some combination of those technologies, or perhaps something unimagined in the present. Not anytime soon, however. For two decades and probably much longer, Tillerson’s Management Committee concluded . . . [that] ExxonMobil could feel secure about its investments in oil and gas.”

Like Daniel Yergin in his excellent recent book, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, Steve Coll debunks the notion of Peak Oil, quoting ExxonMobil executives on the significant evidence against it. However, what both authors underplay is that the large new deposits of oil and natural gas the companies are adding to their reserves, seemingly by the day, tend to require more expensive and environmentally more damaging methods of extraction. Peak Oil may not be a reality, but we’re surely in for years of increasing costs, both financial and environment, to extract fossil fuels unless the leadership of the world’s major countries manage to cap and then reduce carbon emissions.

Unfortunately, there seems little likelihood of that. ExxonMobil’s own strategic plan projects rising sales of petroleum and natural gas at least until 2030 — by which point the total load of carbon in the atmosphere will be so great that the world’s coastal cities will all be likely to drown in rising water by the end of the century. (Name a big city: odds are 4 to 1 that it’s vulnerable to flooding from rising seas.)

Private Empire showcases Coll’s exhaustive research on ExxonMobil in its 704 pages. The book is structured chronologically, focusing on the period from 1989 t0 2011. Along the way, Coll constructs detailed scenarios that reveal the issues confronting the company in a number of countries where it sources oil or gas (or mightily tries to do so): Chad, Venezuela, Equatorial Guinea, Russia, Iraq, and Qatar, among others, making clear that “ExxonMobil’s interests were global, not national.” Though the book is subtitled ExxonMobil and American Power, Coll makes clear that the corporation is anything but an expression of American power. In fact, he details the sometimes fractious relationship the company had even with the oil-friendly Administration of George W. Bush, despite Lee Raymond’s friendship with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Private Empire is a modern-day testimony to the even-handedness of “objective journalism.” Coll almost never reveals his personal feelings about the company and its misdeeds. In fact, the book will probably be read by some as an apologia for ExxonMobil. It’s not: the author is just too good at ferretting out the facts. On balance, it’s entirely clear why so many people hate ExxonMobil with such fervor.

Steve Coll is one of America’s most outstanding journalists. He’s won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his reporting on the SEC, the other for his 2005 book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Since 2007 he has worked as President and CEO of a Washington think tank, the New America Foundation, having previously served as a staff writer for The New Yorker and as an editor of The Washington Post.  

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One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read

A review of The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Once upon a time I read science fiction virtually nonstop. Twice upon a time, actually. First, as a teenager goggle-eyed over the prospects for encountering intelligent life elsewhere in the universe — life perhaps more similar to me than normal humans — and later, in the 1970s, when I actually wrote science fiction (or at least tried to) and even joined the Science Fiction Writers of America. (I’m an associate member to this day.) Of many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of science fiction novels I read over all those years, only a few stand out in my memory. I’ll list them in a separate post.

I fully expect The Windup Girl to join them on my list of all-time bests. It’s that good. Like so many of the other truly outstanding sci-fi novels, The Windup Girl won both the Nebula Award of the Science Fiction Writers of America and the Hugo Award voted by fans.

The action takes place in Bangkok sometime in the 23rd century. Sometime in the past, the oceans have risen twenty feet or more, and the city survives only because a visionary Thai king has built an enormous seawall, dikes, and pumps to hold back the waters of the annual monsoon. Genetic engineering has run amok around the globe, and the Thai Kingdom is one of few countries, perhaps the only country, still resisting the “calorie companies,” powerful food-exporting corporations headquartered in the American Midwest and in China. Having killed off virtually all traditional sources of food — and hundreds of millions of people — with genetically engineered plagues to increase their leverage in the market, the calorie companies hungrily eye Thailand and its own independent success in creating new fruits and nightshades capable of resisting the ubiquitous plant-killers.

In this grim environment, so long removed from the 21st century, one character “wonders if it was really better in the past, if there really was a golden age fueled by petroleum and technology. A time when every solution to a problem didn’t engender another.”

Emiko, the windup girl, is herself a product of genetic engineering, a “New Person,” a Japanese construct born in a test tube, bred in a creche, and trained to be an obedient secretary, interpreter, and lover to the businessman who buys her. Emiko is now stranded in Thailand by the businessman, who found it more cost-effective to buy a new windup girl back in Japan rather than pay her passage home. She now works as a despised prostitute in a Bangkok brothel.

Emiko is one of a large cast of memorable characters, each a finely rendered portrait of a human being tormented by personal demons, haunted by the ever-present ghosts of Thailand, and caught up in an ugly and unstable system. The others include Anderson Lake, an American calorie man who secretly represents AgriGen, one of the most powerful of the calorie companies; his secretary-manager, Hock Seng, an old Chinese-Malayan business tycoon who barely escaped the ethnic cleansing campaign waged by Malayan “Green Headband” Muslims; Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the celebrity “Tiger of Bangkok,” a fearless commander of the paramilitary “white shirt” troops of the Environment Ministry, charged with enforcing the genetic isolation of their country; Jaidee’s sidekick, Lieutenant Kanya, a humorless woman who fights like a demon; and the warring heads of the country’s two most powerful ministries, Environment and Trade, General Pracha and Akkarat.

Hock Seng’s musings seem to sum up much of what transpires in this brilliant novel:

“All things are transient. Buddha says it is so, and Hock Seng, who didn’t believe in or care about karma or the truths of the dharma when he was young, has come in his old age to understand his grandmother’s religion and its painful truths. Suffering is his lot. Attachment is the source of his suffering. And yet he cannot stop himself from saving and preparing and striving to preserve himself in this life which has turned out so poorly.”

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Eight recent books that illuminate the state of affairs in America today

In recent months I’ve reviewed eight nonfiction books in this blog that collectively represent a panoramic view of America today — and of our prospects to thrive in the future. It’s a decidedly mixed picture, but I’m convinced it’s real. Together, the books in this accessible little collection constitute a primer on the challenges we face as a nation.

If you want to read the original review of one of these books, simply click on the title below.

Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, by Mark Hertsgaard. An able journalist who specializes in reporting on the environment generally and global warming in particular interviews many of the world’s top scientists in the field — and comes away gloomier than ever.

The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham. The directors of United for a Fair Economy and its project, Responsible Wealth, respectively, explode the Ayn Rand myth that corporate leaders are self-made “job creators” who did it all on their own, and that the rest of us deserve our fate.

99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins. The founder and former director of United for a Fair Economy, now at the Institute for Policy Studies, is one of the country’s top experts on the gap between the really rich and the rest of us. He prescribes action to build a new economy that will benefit all 100%.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. A veteran civil rights lawyer exposes the horrific consequences of the War on Drugs, including the institutionalization of racism in American jurisprudence. This is a shocking indictment of our political and judicial leadership over the past three decades.

Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It, by Jeffrey D. Clements. A former Massachusetts assistant attorney general examines the four-decade legal history that culminated in the Citizens United decision, details how it undermines American democracy, and lays out a strategy to fight back.

Rebuild the Dream, by Van Jones. One of our nation’s most passionate and insightful young leaders, building on his experience both as an activist and in the White House, analyzes the similarities and differences among the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, and the 2008 Obama campaign and its aftermath. He advocates a grassroots citizens’ movement to regain political advantage over the extreme Right Wing.

Republican Gomorra: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party, by Max Blumenthal. A young journalist, author, and blogger digs through the history of the Religious Right and turns up an astonishing story of its antecedents — and of the true, often masked, beliefs of its current leaders.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin. A Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post and her researcher and co-author root around through the maze of our country’s 16 federal intelligence agencies and reveal just how far we’ve come in the years since 9/11 from our cherished self-image of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

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Global warming and climate change: the next fifty years

A review of Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, by Mark Hertsgaard

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

We are now at least a decade into what journalist Mark Hertsgaard terms the “second era of global warming,” which began sometime around the turn of the 20th century. As he writes, “The battle to prevent dangerous climate change was now over; the race to survive it has begun.”

Hertsgaard probably has as broad and deep an understanding of global warming and its consequences in the form of climate change of any nonscientist on the planet. He has been writing about the topic for more than two decades and has interviewed most of the major players in climate science climate-related government policy not just for this book, which involved five years of travel around the world, but for Earth Odyssey, a widely read investigation published in 1999 that reflected seven years of travel. The man knows whereof he writes!

Hot is the author’s attempt to find a hopeful path forward through the gathering storm of climate change. Throughout, he ponders the life his young daughter, Chiara, will face in adulthood. Much of Hot is written in an optimistic tone. Hertsgaard explores a laundry list of policies and procedures that, if widely implemented, will permit humanity to forestall the extremes of climate change and to adapt to its nonetheless unavoidable consequences. Some of the practices he touts — painting roofs white and planting trees in African fields, for example — could, in fact, achieve a great deal if universally employed. His theme is “Avoid the unmanageable, manage the unavoidable.” Distinguishing between mitigation — efforts to reduce carbon emissions — and adaptation — finding ways to adjust to the changing climate — Hertsgaard devotes most of the book to the latter. Previous writing on global warming has tended to focus on mitigation, which heavily involves government and corporate policy. Adaption consists largely of changing the way people and communities behave.

Unfortunately, though, the context in which he writes is not encouraging. We live in a world in which massive corporations spend millions to protect their short-term profits regardless of the consequences, major news media reflect the views of their corporate owners, the overwhelming majority of people deny the obvious, and policymakers demonstrate their affinity for the art of the possible rather than showing true leadership. To a knowledgeable reader, much of the optimism in Hot seems forced.

What it all boils down to is this: “We face a towering challenge. Countries that today are all but addicted to fossil fuels must quit carbon within the next two to three decades. Deforestation and other climate-damaging activities must also be brought to a halt worldwide. And even poor and emerging economies must halt almost all emissions by 2050. Yet even if we manage all this, it will give us merely a two-out-of-three chance to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees C about preindustrial levels, itself an achievement of dubious merit, for it will mean the lost of most of the world’s coral reefs, the disappearance of most of its mountain snowpacks, and enough sea level rise, eventually, to inundate the existing coastlines on every continent.”

The facts are disturbingly grim: even if the human race somehow manages to come to grips with the existential threat of climate change and to do everything recommended by the authors of the most alarming scientific reports, we are already locked into at least 30 years, and possibly as many as 50 years, of serious trouble. “Climate change will worsen existing conflicts over water supplies, energy sources, and weather-induced migration . . . Economic prosperity is also endangered. Approximately 25 percent of the gross national product of the United States is at risk from extreme weather events, according to the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union.”

One of the greatest threats to civilization lies in our oceans. “Three feet of sea level rise over the next hundred years — which is near the low end of what scientists now expect — will pose enormous challenges . . . [S]ome scientists believe our civilization could experience three feet of sea level rise within the next fifty years.”

Perhaps equally problematic is the certainty of increasing drought. Much of Africa, a large swath of South Asia, and large portions of the United States, especially California, the Southwest, and the Great Plains, face intensifying water shortages.

There is no lack of horror stories available to illustrate the havoc these trends can create. However, over and above all the computer-modeled predictions for a steady increase in global temperatures over the coming decades is a much more horrific possibility: the potential that some unanticipated combination of circumstances will trigger “positive feedbacks that, in the worst case, could kick off some type of runaway greenhouse dynamics.”

As Hertsgaard explains, “Unfortunately, there is ample precedent for this kind of abrupt shift into climate chaos. Although the human mind tends to think in gradual, linear terms, ice records and other historical data show that climate shifts, when they occur, tend to happen suddenly and exponentially.”

Worrying about rising temperatures and their consequences is bad enough. But it’s the potential of a “sudden and exponential” shift that keeps me awake nights.

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What will it take to wake up the world to global warming?

A review of Primitive by Mark Nykanen

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A middle-aged model is kidnapped by a community of environmental activists so passionately convinced of the imminence of climate chaos that they’ve established a Stone Age community in a snow-bound Northern wilderness. Filled with righteousness and possessing a terrifying, top-secret CIA report about global warming, they begin using her as the centerpiece of an elaborately complicated campaign to manipulate the news media in hopes of bringing the world to its senses. Which, of course, they do, but not before a U.S. Army anti-terrorist squad, the Animal Liberation Front, a crazed contract killer, a young rape survivor, a Seymour Hersh clone, two man-eating cougars, several adorable children, and the Canadian Army all become wrapped up in the tale.

So, now you know the beginning, the middle, and the end of this Mark Nykanen thriller. But, knowing even this, you have no sense of the experience of reading this nail-biting story of suspense. Improbable though the story may be, flawed though it undoubtedly is, Primitive is a skillfully written book. There’s no getting around it: Mark Nykanen knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat.

ISBN-10: 0982175647

ISBN-13: 978-0982175644

ASIN: B002YNSDGY

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