Addressing the Complexity of Climate Change’s Human Cost: A Review of Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change by Andrew T. Guzman

by Hari Osofsky

[Hari M. Osofsky is an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law.]

Andrew Guzman’s new book, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, does an excellent job of explaining in an accessible fashion the devastating consequences of climate change for people, especially the world’s poorest people.  The focus of this book is on bridging the gap between expert knowledge and popular understanding in order to catalyze needed mitigation.  Its great strength is that it does so without minimizing the complexity and intertwined character of the problem.  Rather, it shows how the simultaneity of climate change’s impacts and of their interaction with underlying resource scarcity and political tensions will likely have devastating human consequences even in relatively conservative scenarios of these impacts.

Each chapter builds upon the previous one in portraying climate change’s human costs.  The introductory chapter likens the problem of climate change to the game of “Kerplunk,” in which one removes sticks holding up marbles and tries to win by minimizing how many marbles fall during one’s turn.  The difficulty is that the farther one gets in the game, the harder it is to prevent the marbles from falling and to limit the risks of the removal of each subsequent stick.  The book proceeds to show how late we are in our game of “Kerplunk,” outlining the harm that climate change has already done and how that pales in the face of the harm that is very likely to come.  After an initial overview of climate change science, chapters focus on the human consequences of impacts: (1) sea-level rise, severe storms, and forced migration of nation-states and populations; (2) current and future water shortages and our lack of capacity to address them adequately; (3) the risks of armed conflict arising from water shortages and other climate change impacts; and (4) the many resulting health consequences, from increases in known diseases to the growing risks of evolving pathogens and global pandemics. The book concludes with a discussion of solutions.  It analyzes ways to set a carbon price effectively, and cautions against relying on solutions like geoengineering or waiting for an increased future capacity to address the problem effectively.

The book’s focus on the human face of climate change is an important contribution to the literature because it helps make the case for why we need to act to address the problem.  It compiles a wide range of existing information on climate change and puts it together in an engaging way that a reader without a technical or legal background could understand.  Each chapter interweaves geopolitics and historical examples with the problem of climate change and how it is likely to worsen.  This approach helps the book contextualize its argument, showing how climate change fits within a complex global context.

This book is explicit in its primary focus on describing the human problems rather than on solving them.  However, in this review, I would like to continue where the book left off by suggesting two implications of Guzman’s exposition for potential solutions.  First, this book’s description of the human costs of climate change reinforces the need for linked mitigation and adaptation strategies.  With the climate change and its consequences that we have already committed to, even if we mitigate aggressively in ways that do not seem politically viable right now, we have to be as prepared as possible for the kinds of scenarios that Guzman explores.  However, the mitigation choices and adaptation choices often interact with one another, and some of the most effective ways of approaching one may actually undermine the other.  An emerging scholarly literature is addressing the need for these interlinked solutions, and Guzman’s book suggests the importance of developing this analysis further, something I and others are working to do in current projects.  I hope that Guzman’s book spurs further work on these types of strategies.

Second, as Elinor Ostrom and many others (including me) have argued, our approaches to mitigation and to addressing the human suffering Guzman details demand polycentric approaches–ones that acknowledge the many levels of government and diverse actors involved in creating this problem and addressing it.  In describing the various facets of how well-documented climate change impacts interact with patterns of human settlement, politics, economics, and cultural and religious belief and practices, the chapters portray enmeshed choices of individuals, corporations, nongovernmental organizations, and governments at multiple levels.  Our efforts to solve or at least ameliorate this problem need to take this complex array of interactions in multiple arenas into account.  For example, if we consider the carbon pricing strategies Guzman describes in the conclusion, currently a multi-level and somewhat interlinked patchwork of carbon markets exists, which includes, among others, subnational ones within the United States, a supranational regional one within the European Union, and emerging but somewhat fragile and incomplete national ones such as the one recently created in Australia.  Given this existing set of efforts and the lack of political will in key nation-states such as the United States to set a price for carbon through national legislation, key questions remain; we not only need to galvanize public opinion in the way in which Guzman suggests, but also consider the best strategies for moving from the present patchwork to more effective global carbon pricing.  We also need to do so in a way that does not just move the problem around by setting constraints within a jurisdiction that create incentives to export to other jurisdictions that have fewer limits, a problem that currently exists with some existing pricing schemes.

In the final analysis, no one book can solve a problem like climate change that many have described as “super-wicked.”  But Guzman’s book takes on the difficult and critical task of trying to persuade people why we need to try.  Moreover, it does so by acknowledging and embracing complexity and nuance in ways that move beyond sound bites and politicized discourse.  The book demonstrates that even if we accept uncertainty, we still need to make hard choices about how to manage very serious risks.

An experience I had just before leaving Virginia highlights why we need books like Guzman’s.  A man who was helping to fix my porch asked me about the nature of my work.  When I mentioned my focus on climate change, he immediately got a look in his eyes that I recognized well after two years in rural Virginia; he was a climate skeptic who was ready to debate me.  However, I was able to sidestep that debate by discussing the complexity of climate change science and its certainties and uncertainties, and reframing the key issue as one of how we should act in the face of that risk.  We were then able to have a thoughtful conversation about the hard choices that exist so long as one acknowledges the risk that greenhouse gas emissions will cause problematic impacts.  We all need to try to keep having such conversations, and Guzman’s book can help us to do so.  Its dedication—“To Nicholas and Daniel, Whose Generation Will Face the Consequences”—and all its chapters reinforce the stakes: Our individual and collective choices in this moment help to determine how great future suffering from climate change will be and the burden that we are placing on future generations.

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