A Review of Andrew Guzman’s Overheated
I read my friend Andrew Guzman’s book Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change with great interest because I know Guzman is exceedingly capable at communicating complex ideas in an accessible format. He’s done that throughout his career, and Overheated is no exception. Like Hari Osofsky, I commend the book to our readers. Before you teach the law of climate change, give your students the facts by assigning portions of this book.
The science behind climate change is one of those issues that is beyond the comprehension of most intelligent individuals. Therefore, the translation and simplification of what is at stake is essential for public awareness and for the development of policies. The greatest virtue in Andrew Guzman’s book is taking conservative estimates of global warming and then graphically portraying the consequences of such changes. As Guzman puts it,
“[T]his book has tried to explain as clearly and honestly as possible how the effects that scientists have identified will actually affect people. If it is successful, readers will appreciate that the climate-change crisis will affect more than just our physical world. The consequences we really care about are those that affect humans, and … many hundreds of millions of people … will be badly hurt as the earth warms….” (p. 212).
It is difficult to grasp the human costs of climate change. Guzman does so by taking abstract problems–rising ocean levels, melting glaciers, climate wars, pandemics–and humanizing them with concrete stories. He explains how rising ocean levels will result in forced displacement of 20 million people in Bangladesh. He explains how melting glaciers creates water storage problems that will impact millions in Bolivia and California. He explains how climate change will destabilize regions and exacerbate conflicts in places such as Darfur and the Golan Heights. He explains how warmer temperatures will create ideal conditions for a global pandemic, similar to how the Spanish flu of 1918 killed at least twice as many people as World War I. Guzman is at his best in humanizing climate change from an incomprehensible, abstract, and distant problem of Malthusian proportions, to a problem that is concrete, imminent, and understandable.
The second great benefit of the book is the way he responds to the climate change skeptics. Rather than simply dismissing them out of hand, he puts both sides on the scales of reason and makes a convincing case that the skeptics fall short. He does it in a way that is respectful and honest, admitting where the skeptics have valid points but nonetheless fail In the end to prevail in the debate. He does it in a way that you get the sense he genuinely is trying to convince good faith, reasonable people who have their doubts to get off the fence and accept the reality of climate change and the consequences of inaction.
His style of reasoned debate reminds me of the effective campaign that scientists like Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Linus Pauling, Andrei Sakharov and Albert Schweitzer initiated in the 1950s to convince the public of the human costs of nuclear atmospheric testing. Those scientists could have belittled a skeptical public with arguments that spoke over their heads. Instead, they treated the public with respect and made a convincing case that concerns for national security should be balanced with concerns for the human cost of nuclear radiation. The result was a groundswell of national and international public opinion that convinced John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the Cold War to sign a nuclear test ban treaty. In a similar fashion, books like Overheated are essential to aid a skeptical public to understand what is at stake with global warming.
If I were to fault Guzman’s book, it would be for failing to include a more fulsome explanation in the last chapter of the available policy choices. As a trained economist and international lawyer, he is particularly well-placed to discuss carbon taxes, cap and trade, the economics of alternative energy, and the true cost of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, he only devotes ten pages to the “grown-up strategies” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Just when the reader is convinced that the climate change problem is real and that something must be done about it, we are left thirsting for an economist and scholar of Guzman’s caliber to explain in some detail why, say, cap and trade is better than a carbon tax. At only 230 pages, there was ample room in the book to add another 20 or 30 pages summarizing the policy options and proposing his own recommendations among the available alternatives. I’d be curious for Guzman to explain why he chose not to include this additional information about the path forward.
So my recommendation is that you read the book, digest the key arguments, and add his stories to your arsenal of facts that you can marshal when you are politely debating your friends and neighbors about the truth and consequences of climate change. My guess is that by simply reading Guzman’s book you will be way ahead of your interlocutors.