31 March 2014 by Fred Pearce
Magazine issue 2962
As the Arctic melts, the Russians are eyeing new shipping routes (Image: Jan Vermeer/ Foto Natura/Minden Pictures)
The wolves of Wall Street have got climate change, but at a terrifying cost, reveals Windfall: The booming business of global warming by McKenzie Funk
MY BOOKSHELVES contain several metres of books on climate change. This addition makes many of them seem redundant. It is also by a long way the most readable – and it made me laugh.
Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming by journalist McKenzie Funk tells the story of the people and corporations trying to profit from climate change. Many of them don’t want to halt its progress, they want to bring it on.
Here we meet private fire-fighters in drought-hit Los Angeles, selling their services to insurance companies, Russian shipping lines eyeing new routes opened up by the melting Arctic, Dutchmen rebuilding flooded islands in the Maldives, and manufacturers of snow-making machines selling their products to distressed winter resorts.
They all have an interest in global warming’s destructive progress. Funk lays bare their vanities and insanities while also exposing the magic of markets that can profit from anything.”I’m interested in climate change as a driver of human behaviour,” says Funk. “It’s a window into our collective state of mind.”
Many environmentalists have been gratified recently to discover that corporations feature climate change in their annual reports, and entrepreneurs make pitches to bankers and hedge-fund managers that read like back-issues of the environmentalists’ own doomsday scenarios.
The case seems to be won that climate change, rising population, and declining resources – from metals to water and land – are brewing up an environmental apocalypse. Gordon Gekko and the wolves of Wall Street have finally got climate change.
But not so fast. While greens fear the collapsing ecosystems, rising tides, climate migrations and mega-famines, the corporates and speculators see opportunity. Environmental pain can be corporate gain. In this synthesis of some of his great magazine journalism over a number of years, Funk brings the “booming business of global warming” spectacularly to life.
Some of his climate profit-takers do something useful to stem the problem at source – by building bigger and better wind turbines, for instance. But they are a small minority. Most of the windfalls are elsewhere. Seed companies like Syngenta and Monsanto develop more drought-resistant crops. Engineers ship air-conditioners or seek contracts to build sea walls round coastal cities.
Some of the entrepreneurs take advantage of politicians’ desire to “do something”, even something as screwy as planting a “green wall” of trees to stop the advancing Sahara desert. Others take advantage of human misery by ferrying climate refugees across the Mediterranean in leaky boats, or by building fences to keep people from fleeing Bangladesh for India.
But much of the potential profit in climate change is coming from the rapacious pursuit of resources that are in diminishing supply thanks to increasing drought and other climate changes.
Investment guru George Soros famously said “farmland is going to be one of the best investments of our time”. And land-grabbers are following his advice, buying up African farm and pasture land because, well, the world is going to run out of food, isn’t it?
Elsewhere, water-grabbers are building dams and sinking wells to corral scarce supplies, or getting into desalination, or playing the water markets in Australia and California. Water is no longer a publicly owned resource for the world, but a highly profitable business. Veolia, the world’s largest water company, is busy in 74 countries.
Even insurers win. Twenty years ago, green campaigners heralded insurance companies as the first in the corporate world to flag up concern about climate change. But, as the activists and actuaries shared conference platforms round the world, it has emerged that the insurers are not sweating about future payouts as natural disasters escalate. Instead, they are wearing Cheshire-cat grins as they consider the “pricing power” they gain as scared property owners in flood zones and on cyclone tracks pay up whatever it takes to get cover.
If things get too scary and even the insurance companies take fright, then the big daddy of all profit engines from climate change could be geoengineering. The people who brought cloud-seeding and Star Wars military technology to past generations now want to keep out the sun by throwing sulphate particles into the stratosphere and soak up carbon by dumping iron filings into the oceans.
For them, the worst-case scenario for climate could turn out to be a best-case scenario. For the rest of us, the vision of some Climate Inc mega-corporation, contracted to keep its hands on the planet’s thermostat, may be unnerving – unless, of course, you plan on being a shareholder. With money, all can profit.
This, you may say, is how capitalism works. Sure. But it knocks on the head the idea that nobody can escape the dire consequences of rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns; the idea that we all have a vested interest in working together to fix it. Sadly, concludes Funk, that’s not how it goes.
Environmental rhetoric holds that climate change will wreck the lives of our children. The trouble is that, for the most part, the victims will not be our children. They will be the children of others – in flooded Bangladesh, parched Africa, or almost anywhere without air conditioning. When the rivers empty and the wells run dry, hydrology will follow the old saying in the American West that “water flows uphill to money”. We are not all in this together.
Climate change is usually framed as a scientific, economic or environmental issue, says Funk, whereas it is primarily an issue of human justice. It is about winners and losers. This book – a terrifying romp through our climate futures – tells how the world’s winners plan to carry on winning, whatever the cost.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Climate pain, corporate gain”
Fred Pearce is a consultant for New Scientist
- Book information
- Windfall: The booming business of global warming by McKenzie Funk
- Published by: Penguin Press
- Price: $27.95