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Book review: 'Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years On Earth'

March 8, 2011 |  4:34 pm

HOT Conservatives sometimes enjoy deriding global warming as the "religion" of enviro lefties, which is a bizarre logical leap. Based on empirical evidence compiled by researchers the world over, it’s completely rational to conclude that mankind would be wise to do everything possible to avoid the dire consequences of climate change –- denying this evidence based purely on faith that everything will work out for the best represents a far more "religious" approach.

Yet global warming activists do bear some resemblance to their evangelical counterparts in two ways: Both often describe a sort of conversion experience in which they become powerfully convinced of the need for personal change, and once converted they can bring a missionary zeal to spreading the word.

That’s certainly true of Mark Hertsgaard, author of "Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth." His conversion experience happened in 2005 during a reporting trip to London, when he interviewed David King, the chief science advisor to the British government. King pointed out that climate change wasn’t some theoretical future event –- it was already happening, and even in 2005 it was too late to stop it.

It so happened that Hertsgaard’s daughter, Chiara, had been born that year, and the discussion with King got him thinking about what kind of world Chiara would grow up in. The book is his response.

And make no mistake, Hertsgaard is a global-warming missionary. At times, his IPCC-assessment-thumping gets a little tiresome even for fellow believers like me, especially the section devoted to refuting the claims of climate deniers. Pointing out that tobacco companies are now being sued for deceptive marketing practices of past decades, he suggests that the fossil fuel industry might similarly be held liable someday for trying to refute the scientific evidence of climate change. That’s quite a stretch; reports from conservative think tanks, fact-free though they may be, aren’t really the same thing as deceptive ads.

Hertsgaard, who has written five other books in addition to writing for such magazines as the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, also brings to his book what I think of as the New Yorker approach to foreign-policy writing: Visit as many hamlets around the world as you can, take copious notes, and empty your notebook onto the page. There’s certainly value in learning the perspectives of people in far-flung places and it adds a human perspective to what would otherwise come off as a purely technical problem, but the book would have better lived up to the promise of its title if it included more information from climate modelers about what the globe will be like to live on in 2060, and less mucking through the mud in sinking Bangladesh.

But these are minor quibbles. Hertsgaard is a journalist, not a climate scientist, and I may be biased but I think that’s actually a bonus. He has a way of making problems and solutions understandable in a way that scientists typically lack, and he’s a compelling storyteller. Those who aren’t already grounded in the climate problem will find few better primers. And for some, reading his book might even produce a conversion experience.

-- Dan Turner