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A Fantasy Future

CLIMATOPOLIS: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future. Matthew E. Kahn. viii + 274 pp. Basic Books, 2010. $26.95.

Climatopolis meets some of the criteria for a good popular nonfiction book: It’s readable, humorous and filled with interesting vignettes. Unfortunately, it fails on the most important criterion: a good knowledge of the topic under discussion. There is little evidence that author Matthew E. Kahn, an economist, has familiarized himself with the literature on climate change and cities. For instance, there are only a few references to papers from the leading climate and urban journals, and no mention is made of any of the assessments of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Yet in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, which was published in 2007, one finds a version of Kahn’s main thesis that is more accurate and more nuanced than the one set forth in the book. The report indicates that many cities have a capacity to adapt to climate change, just as in the past they have adapted to environmental conditions and to frequent changes in resource prices and availabilities. The book goes further. Its subtitle, How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future, suggests that cities will not merely adapt, but flourish; however, a subtitle that better reflects the content would be How Some Cities in a Few Prosperous, Large Nations May Benefit from Global Warming in the Next Few Decades.

Kahn paints a beguiling picture of a world capable of adapting to climate change, a world in which people are growing wealthier and are making decisions about where and how to live, using better information than we have now about the challenges that climate change poses. Market forces and human ingenuity (driven mainly by the desire to make money) will support climate- change adaptation, he asserts. As cities experience changing climatic conditions and increased risk of disasters, households will take steps to protect their health, property and quality of life. Adaptation will take place through billions of small choices made by self-interested individuals. They will be helped by water agencies that price water properly and insurance companies that sell policies that price risk appropriately. Low-income groups may be more at risk, but Kahn is confident that with economic growth they will obtain the resources to allow them to escape risk.

Kahn has little use for the idea that government could have any constructive role in these adaptations. Some of the most interesting sections in the book detail the ways in which measures taken by the U.S. government have hindered risk reduction. For example, the government has underpriced water in regions where it is scarce, has helped ensure that insurance coverage is available where risks are high, and has supported reconstruction in devastated areas such as flood plains, despite the high risk that disaster will strike there again.

Kahn makes some interesting observations about how various U.S. cities are likely to benefit or suffer from climate change, noting that some will lose population and businesses as their summer temperatures become too hot, while others will make gains as their summer temperatures remain comfortable or their winter temperatures climb. This will shake up the quality-of-life rankings for cities, and people and enterprises will vote with their feet. Kahn thinks that such changes may help reverse the decline of some cities in the Rust Belt, and he suggests that it might be wise to purchase land in Detroit. He also notes that because cold waves increase mortality, higher winter temperatures in some cities will have health benefits.

Kahn points out that the residents of a city at risk will not all have the same priorities. For instance, those who live on high ground that is unlikely to flood may see no reason to help fund expensive measures to protect those who live in low-lying areas. And Kahn notes correctly that the cities that have a very large carbon footprint are not the ones that face the most serious risks from climate change.

But the book’s interesting observations are outweighed by its problems. It has four major flaws. The first is that Kahn does not recognize that reduction of greenhouse gas emissions needs to be among our highest priorities right now. As the IPCC assessments make clear, any delay in getting an effective global agreement to reduce emissions makes it all the more unlikely that we will be able to avoid dangerous climate change. The book focuses too much on the short term—the likely impacts over the next few decades—and ignores times further in the future, when the effects of climate change may be grave if we take no action now. Kahn, although he acknowledges that large-scale reductions in carbon emissions would be required to lower the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, does not appear to understand that well-off households will need to do a lot more than buy an efficient washing machine and air conditioner and the latest Prius.

The second problem is that Kahn does not understand the scale and nature of the risk facing most cities (and national economies) in low- and middle-income countries. The book purports to be about cities worldwide; there are passing references to places such as London, Paris, Berlin and Masdar (in Abu Dhabi), and a chapter is devoted to cities in China. But the chief focus is on cities in the United States: A whole chapter is devoted to New York City, and large portions of another chapter deal with Los Angeles; Miami, New Orleans, Detroit, Salt Lake City and others are also discussed. Kahn assumes that low- and middle-income countries will have problems similar to those of wealthy countries, and that cities in the poorest nations will have the same adaptive capacity as prosperous Chinese cities. He admires China, and although he has no good word for governments in wealthy democracies, he thinks that China will have an adaptation edge because of its governance, and because of its skilled population. He vastly overestimates the capacity of cities in low-income and many middle-income nations to adapt. He also greatly overestimates the likelihood that insurance will support needed adaptations; only a very small proportion of urban residents in low-income nations have disaster insurance. After all, why should insurance companies offer policies to people with limited ability to pay, whose levels of risk are already high and increasing?

The third problem is Kahn’s assumption that economic success and market forces will ensure risk reduction. Many nations and cities that will face serious risks from climate change have little economic success, and many of them have carbon emissions per person that are one-tenth or even one-fiftieth of those in cities in the United States. How will their citizens and governments react when they are devastated by climate change that they played little or no role in causing? Also, in many successful cities that are experiencing economic growth, risks from climate change are actually increasing, not decreasing. Most cities in Asia—including Mumbai, a very successful city—have one-third to one-half of their population living in informal settlements, often in very close quarters and in makeshift, insecure housing. These residents are critical to the success of those cities. Yet few city governments extend infrastructure and services to these settlements, even though these amenities are needed for resilience to climate change. Nor do cities manage land use to ensure that sufficient land will be available for housing, so that people need not resort to using sites that are at high risk from floods and storm surges. Kahn approves of providing those living in such settlements with title to their land plots, without understanding how difficult and conflictive this often is (especially for tenants) and without recognizing that the provision of title does not produce the infrastructure needed to protect the inhabitants against extreme weather.

The last problem, alluded to earlier, is that Kahn gives little credence to the role of government. He mentions what he refers to as a “fantasy democracy”—one in which government officials anticipate the needs and desires of their constituents, collect taxes, and provide clean water, street safety and roads. He thinks that such democracies don’t exist in the real world, because politicians are motivated by self-interest and the desire to get rich. But in fact there are some nations whose governments do accomplish these things. In several Latin American countries, democratic pressures from citizens have changed the constitution, ensured that city governments and mayors are elected, and increased the revenue base of cities. This has opened up opportunities for a new generation of mayors, who are committed to the elements of democracy that Kahn considers fantastical. It is in fact those cities where the urban poor are organized and local government is prepared to work with them that have the greatest capacity to adapt.

David Satterthwaite is senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London and is the editor of the journal Environment and Urbanization. He is coeditor with Jane Bicknell and David Dodman of the book Adapting Cities to Climate Change: Understanding and Addressing the Development Challenges (Earthscan, 2009).

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