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FOR ANYONE who has spent several years covering, or even just reading up on, climate change, an inevitable question arises: How can you write something new? So many images—stranded polar bears, shrinking ice caps, rising seas—have grown so clichéd that it’s become hard to convey global warming’s impact to readers in a meaningful way. So if dire warnings from scientists and raging wildfires now elicit yawns, journalists are going to have to take a different tack.

With Windfall, McKenzie Funk does exactly that. Funk’s business survey–cum-travelogue exposes in vivid detail exactly how certain individuals, companies, and nations are taking advantage of a changing climate, while others are losing out. The general outlines of this zero-sum game have long been clear—northern countries such as Canada and Greenland are the winners, while poor, low-lying ones such as Bangladesh and Tuvalu are the losers. Still, Funk’s unsparing focus on the mechanics of planning ahead for the many contingencies and emergencies of a warming world makes for an arresting book. Watching the various players in the emerging new climate economy deal with the inevitability of global warming in real time is fascinating, if also fairly depressing, reading.

After devoting half a dozen years to researching and writing this book, Funk comes off a bit like the Zelig of climate adaptation. He is present at some key moments in the recent annals of climate-change preparation: the Chukchi Lease Sale 193 in 2008, when the US government sold nearly forty-six thousand acres of Arctic seabed to Royal Dutch Shell and other oil firms; the 2006 mock interdiction of a supposed American merchant vessel conducted in the Northwest Passage by a Canadian frigate; and Deutsche Bank’s 2008 “The Investment Climate Is Changing” party in Manhattan, complete with a green anaconda, two scarlet macaws, and a Brazilian dance troupe.

Name any site where someone is making a buck on global warming—in California, where wildfires are raging hotter and more often and disaster entrepreneurs are cleaning up, or in South Sudan, where an American capitalist is trying to acquire farmland from the country’s president, Salva Kiir—and Funk is there. He also journeys to places where climate change has taken a tremendous toll on the most vulnerable populations: Bangladesh’s impoverished residents are eyeing India as a refuge from both a rising ocean and more intense cyclones, while the Senegalese are in the midst of constructing a “Great Green Wall” in an effort to stave off the inevitable desertification destined for the Sahel.

Alexis Rockman, Hurricane and Sun, 2006, oil on gessoed paper, 38 1/4 x 58 1/4".
Alexis Rockman, Hurricane and Sun, 2006, oil on gessoed paper, 38 1/4 x 58 1/4".

The book’s main strength lies in Funk’s ability to bring to the fore many of the people long dug into the trenches of the climate-adaptation battle. There are a handful of figures here worth admiring, like the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District inspector John Snell, who has the unenviable job of venturing into abandoned lots under hot and humid conditions to drain fetid pools of water that could host dengue-carrying mosquitoes. Cape Verde’s UN ambassador, Antonio Pedro Monteiro Lima, also makes the list for ignoring diplomatic niceties during a 2011 academic conference at Columbia University about what happens to an island nation’s legal status when it ends up under the sea. “‘A lot of people think that sacrificed lands will die without shouting,’ he boomed. ‘But I assure you, we are shouting!’”

Others come off as a good deal more opportunistic. One firefighter-for-hire with a penchant for wasabi peas—referred to by his first name, Chief Sam—only works to protect wealthy homeowners who have bought extra insurance from the American International Group. In the midst of one blaze in Orange County, California, he hustles away when an unsuspecting resident points out he could access other homes in danger by driving on her property.

“I’ve got trails in here,” she said. “You can pull all the way in.” She pointed down the street, toward the flames, waiting expectantly.
“Okay,” Chief Sam said, barely looking at her. “We’ve got more resources coming.”

Few can compare to New York investor Phil Heilberg, who cozies up to the son of the late General Paulino Matip, the deputy commander of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, in order to get access to farmland of dubious legal provenance. Heilberg and his fellow Western financiers are snapping up as much of this fertile property as they can, to supply food and energy to nations with a rapidly growing middle class such as China and India. While the current driver of this real estate grab is simple economics, Funk argues these investors are also anticipating the day when hotter temperatures and changing rain patterns will make this land even more valuable.

Most figures in Windfall, however, come off somewhere in between these two ethical extremes—and this ambiguity hints at the difficult moral questions we face as human activity is fundamentally remaking the planet. Funk accompanies Mininnguaq Kleist (known as “Minik” for short), the head of Greenland’s Office of Self-Governance, for part of his 2008 tour promoting a formal political break with Denmark—a move that will permit Greenlanders to sell the rights to the minerals and oils made accessible by receding glaciers.

“They planned to drill themselves free” is the way Funk puts it. Minik received his master’s in philosophy from Denmark’s Aarhus University, and he recognizes the irony that a natural catastrophe for others represents a historic political opportunity for his people. Moreover, the way Greenlanders are likely to break free from their benevolent colonizers—by exploiting minerals and fossil fuels—will only intensify global warming and its effects. “We’re very aware that we’ll cause more climate change by drilling for oil,” he tells Funk. “But should we not? Should we not when it can buy us our independence?”

Moral dilemmas like these lie at the heart of this book. Shell Oil, for example, has plenty of visionary futurists who recognize the risk of serious warming, and can sketch out lower-carbon and higher-carbon scenarios stretching out to midcentury. (The two alternatives are called “Blueprints” and “Scramble,” and the latter is quite ugly.) But that doesn’t stop Shell from pressing ahead with drilling in the Arctic Ocean, and cutting back on its investments in renewable energy. Former Microsoft futurist Nathan Myhrvold dreams up technological fixes for the climate crisis that might protect parts of the industrialized world from brutal temperatures and erratic rainfall, while leaving poorer parts of the planet unprotected.

To underscore what’s at stake in all these choices, Funk juxtaposes these two worlds time and time again. Sometimes the juxtaposition is literal. During a break in bidding during the Chukchi Lease Sale 193, for instance, Funk finds a telling scene: “The activists’ polar bear costume now sat crumpled on a stone bench near the window, next to a trader chatting on her cell phone.” At other points, though, Funk works much harder to point out the deeper connections at play in a specific policy call. Koen Olthuis is a Dutch architect who is happy to show Funk a promotional video in his private screening room, demonstrating how his design innovations will be snapped up as water inundates parts of the world. “Because where there is nothing, anything is possible,” the slogan goes. Meanwhile, half of the fifty families in the Bangladeshi village of South Khali who managed to survive a severe cyclone—by hanging on to palm trees or hiding out on the second floor of a local school—have moved away to seek higher ground.

For all its acuity, Windfall isn’t a perfect book. Funk’s intense attention to detail can be revealing, but at times it’s excessive. At one point during his Greenland expedition, he recounts, “When we returned, we ate an incredible, five-course lunch prepared by the camp cook, a guy named Johnny, who was Filipino,” and he lingers over Heilberg’s breakfast order when they meet for an interview at a hotel in New York: “a skim latte, an egg-white omelet, and a side of turkey bacon.” And Funk can occasionally be a bit glib, given the seriousness of his subject: Describing an Assamese lord who is dedicated to keeping Bangladeshi refugees out of northeast India, Funk writes, “He was a patriot. He was like one of the activists from America’s Minuteman project, only he was fond of yoga.” Funk also glosses over some key scientific questions, which, had he considered them, would have added more depth and context to the book. He makes a brief reference to how Senegal’s Great Green Wall won’t actually stop desertification—but he doesn’t really explain why, or explore other adaptation options for that region. And he raises the specter that genetically modified mosquitoes pose a health threat to humans, but fails to flesh this out.

Windfall began life as a story for Harper’s, and Funk composed several of the book’s chapters for other periodicals. As a result, each chapter has the feel of an individual magazine piece. It’s not a greatly distracting limitation, but he doesn’t do enough to step outside the detail-driven narratives to hazard a larger observation about the trends he’s recording. At one point, for example, he notes, “A stalk of [genetically modified] rice seems nothing like a seawall, but to a technocrat it is the same—another patch, another software update for a world increasingly programmed by us.” More observations like that could have knitted together the disparate scenes that make up Funk’s book much more seamlessly.

Still, this sort of analysis forms the heart of Windfall and helps to set it apart from the crowded field of global-warming tracts. It becomes quite clear, across the book’s many financial and policy byways, that the rich, and the technocrats in their hire, will be able to protect themselves from the worst climate impacts, while the poor will have no refuge. It’s a chilling recognition—something that policy makers can choose to grapple with or disregard. But with the publication of this book, Funk has made it a little bit harder for the world’s leaders to sidestep the issue altogether.

Juliet Eilperin is the author of Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks (Pantheon, 2011) and a staff writer for the Washington Post. After serving as the Post’s national environmental reporter for nine years, she now covers the White House.