Book review: 'Windfall' asks who's cashing in on climate change

Book review: 'Windfall' asks who's cashing in on climate change

Cash photo by isak55 via Shutterstock

Journalist McKenzie Funk opens his riveting new book, "Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming," with a carnival-like scene at a Deutsche Bank road show called "The Investment Climate Is Changing" in February 2008. In wintry lower Manhattan, Deutsche Bank constructed a spectacular Brazilian jungle, complete with high humidity, an anaconda and a koi pond, to make the point, with great fanfare, that the bank was now in the business of climate change investing.

Deutsche was investing largely in the mitigation technologies that promise to help us all live better within the biophysical limitations of our planet-renewable energy technologies. But in its "Climate Change Fund," Deutsche also favored companies that were making a more cynical calculation: Rather than fight climate change, these companies were poised to profit from climate change. In Funk's words, these companies do business based on the premise that "the warmer the world, the less habitable it became, the bigger the windfall."

These are entrepreneurs who offer private firefighting services in California for high-paying clients; who race to snatch up mineral deposits newly revealed under Greenland's retreating ice; who buy up water rights in order to speculate on drought conditions; and who build fences to keep out desperate and destitute climate refugees, fleeing rising sea levels in some places and desertification in others. These are entrepreneurs who are angling to benefit from the development and ownership of the resources, technologies and knowledge that will allow some people, firms, cities and countries to cope with and, in some cases, thrive in a warmed world.

In the sustainability field, the trope of the "win-win" is ubiquitous. Being in the business of sustainability is about finding opportunities to score wins for the firm's bottom line that also represent wins for the planet. Professionals who work on sustainability issues operate with a more expansive conception of "value" that prioritizes environmental and social impacts along with financial returns. They think seriously about the present and future of our shared environment. "Windfall" invites us to think about another breed of environmentally savvy business actor: The people who will be winners because other people will be losers. They are opportunists for whom climate change adaptation amounts to a kind of "bunker mentality" in which new technologies make an altered biophysical world tolerable for the high-paying few, even as the many are left to struggle and perish. Funk's book lays plain that being in "the business of climate change" is not coextensive with being in the business of sustainability, or with doing business sustainably.

The actors in Funk's tale aren't interested in building a greener world, so what relevance do they have for the sustainability professionals who are? 

Three key insights 

First, often the same companies making progress in identifying and realizing win-wins are also making bets on win-losses. Royal Dutch Shell, for example, has put money and muscle behind two projected scenarios for what the future will look like. The first it calls "Blueprint," in which the pricing of emissions generates the massive development of clean energy technologies and widespread adoption of carbon capture and storage. Change comes from the bottom as people come to connect energy use to the things they value most: their health, their community and their environment. In the other scenario, "Scramble," countries keep burning fossil fuels, fighting each other to access supply and emitting more and more carbon, while "alarm fatigue" sets in among the general public. Over the last few years, Shell has come to believe that the future is more likely to resemble "Scramble" than "Blueprint," and it is acting accordingly. It gave up its stake in the world's largest wind farm; dropped funding for wind, solar and hydrogen energy; and began tar sands development in Canada. There is a battle for the soul of this massively important company, and win-loss is trumping win-win. 

Second, and related, is that corporate sustainability is already a field vulnerable to accusations of "greenwashing": that this is all a feel-good sleight of hand that distracts the public from the need for regulation and monitoring. In other words, this isn't a meaningful departure from "business as usual." When Deutsche Bank lumps together clean energy companies with resource war profiteers into something innocently called a "Climate Change Fund," these accusations become more credible; this fosters a kind of guilt by association that elides any differences between the two.

Third, many win-loss climate businesses stake their success on the development of technologies (and of course, patents for them) that will geoengineer our adaptation to more carbon and higher heat. While we shouldn't think of mitigation and adaptation as an either/or proposition, Funk is right to remind us in his epilogue that "there is also genius in simplicity" — in other words, in curtailing our emissions now. If investment money flows to those who make the win-loss bet, rather than to those fighting for win-wins, we ease our foot off the brake. We sow the seeds of future melt, drought and deluge. We cast our lot with the faint hope that our engineers and inventors are brilliant enough to make our warmed world livable, and we abandon our belief in the possibility that there is a way to prosper economically and restore the environment for everyone, rather than for the few.

"Windfall" engages, frustrates and astonishes, even as it acquaints us with characters all over the globe that Funk assures us are universally nice people. This is not a story of good versus evil so much as a burgeoning conflict over where value can be found and how it should be unlocked.

Cash photo by isak55 via Shutterstock