Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Survive and Thrive in the Hotter Future
Basic Books | New York, NY
2010 | 288 pp
Despite the compelling title of UCLA economist Matthew Kahn’s Climatopolis, his work on identifying which cities will adapt to climate change and how they will survive is underwhelming. His focus is on cities, the “growth engines of capitalism,” to examine what qualities will keep them vibrant or ensure their failure as the planet heats up.
Kahn builds his argument on a highly debatable and oversimplified premise — that “we have already released too much greenhouse gas, and I see no credible signs that global emissions will decline in…future.” From this he ascertains that “if the world is going to get hotter…the fundamental question is what the future of our cities will be in our hotter world.” Many would strongly disagree with Kahn’s impression that limiting the effects of climate change is impossible, but may appreciate a deeper understanding of climate adaptation methods.
“I am explicitly embracing an economist’s ‘human centric’ bias,” he writes, removing any reference to the impacts of climate change on the natural world. Kahn’s decision to detach humanity from the natural world paints nature largely as the deliverer of hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis: this is troubling, assuming as he does that while human beings have the agency to relocate to escape a flood- or drought-prone city, flora and fauna are out of luck.
But no matter — Kahn is an economist, not a biologist, and his primary concerns are the important roles that individual choice and capitalism play in finding solutions for vulnerable cities. He is honest in identifying the irony of Climatopolis’s core theme, that while “capitalist growth created the problem of mass greenhouse gases…now capitalism’s dynamism…will help us adapt.”
Other researchers have questioned the humanity-saving potential of technology and capitalism. But Kahn is adamant that by adding the power of individual choice, what technology cannot save — New Orleans in a flood scenario, for example — people can by moving to safer cities like Salt Lake City, Utah. And if people refuse to “vote with their feet,” the rest of society should not be held accountable for their care.
There is an individualist streak that runs through Climatopolis that is less rugged than it is unsettling for those who see climate change as a problem to be solved through governments and collective action. The power of the free market and individual choice reign supreme, for Kahn. “Cities compete with one another,” and “climate change will effect the competitive landscape for cities, [allowing] people…to choose the winner” by relocating, leaving climate-dangerous cities to those who cannot do the same.
But “Kahn can’t seem to get two things right without getting a third wrong” notes Emily Green in her L.A. Times review, and his “sloppy assessments” detract significantly from the overall potential of Climatopolis to address a critical issue. His outlook is reservedly optimistic, but the caveats he places on success makes one question just who “wins” in Kahn’s vision of the future.