Book Review: Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future

In a new book, economist Matthew Kahn offers more optimism than solutions to the problems of climate change

Reviewed by Dave Levitan

cover image, climatopolis
Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future
By Matthew E. Kahn; Basic Books, 2010; 274 pp.; US $26.95; ISBN: 978-0-4650-1926-7

Economist Matthew Kahn doesn’t screw around debating whether or not the world is going to get substantially warmer. Instead, his new book, Climatopolis, jumps right into how we—specifically our ever-growing urban areas—will survive such a sweaty future.

In long chapters on Los Angeles, New York, and several cities in China, Kahn appears to have more faith in the free market and the rationality of humans than this reader does. The likely rise in temperature and sea level in Southern California in 2050 should affect our actions now—leading to rational (and inevitably higher) electricity and water prices, and housing prices that reflect them, better city planning, and the like—but to assume that it will ignores the often irrational ways that humans move through the world.

Kahn even acknowledges that this faith in markets has been undermined, to say the least, in recent years, with global financial meltdowns still in our rearview mirror. And he is unclear about the source of this sudden surge in human rationality as we face a global meltdown of a different sort.

Kahn’s examples of how we might adapt our cities simply ignore how complicated global warming will be. Pittsburgh’s average February temperature will rise from 30.8 °F to 36.2 °F (–0.7 °C to 2.3 °C) by 2070, Kahn writes. Because severe cold is generally more dangerous than heat waves, this increase "will have a serious impact on reducing the mortality rate in Pittsburgh." This is far too small a view: What if the city’s inland location and relatively cool climate start to draw climate refugees from coastal cities? A much larger population might strain the electrical grid, leading to brownouts and the elderly dying in homes without air-conditioning—to say nothing of overcrowding, increased crime, food shortages, water rationing, and other potential life-threatening consequences of the new, higher-temperature world order. There is no good way to predict which way Pittsburgh’s ball will roll.

Climatopolis is worth a read if you don’t know much about where climate change will take humanity’s urban existence, or if you want to start making bets on the most desirable places to live a half century from now. And unlike many books on surviving climate change, it doesn’t claim to have solutions, only a blinding optimism that we as a species will find those solutions because doing so will be to our benefit. After watching the tortured and fruitless efforts at climate mitigation to date, though, I find myself decidedly unconvinced that markets will follow a better path on their own.

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About the Author

Dave Levitan is a regular contributor to IEEE Spectrum on the topics of energy, the environment, and health.

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