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Book review: 'Climatopolis' by Matthew E. Kahn

The UCLA economist offers a provocative study on which cities are best prepared to adapt to climate changes but sloppy assessments don't help his case.

October 23, 2010|By Emily Green, Special to the Los Angeles Times

You've got to admire the title. "Climatopolis" is a clever name for a book about how 21st century cities will fare in the face of the droughts, floods, heat waves and blizzards predicted by climate modelers. The bad news is that the title is the best part of the book.

Sill, two questions posed by author Matthew E. Kahn make the UCLA economist a valuable provocateur. They are: Which cities are going to be able to adapt and which won't?

In asking that, Kahn all but skips the wages of climate change on the natural world. Mass extinction of wildlife is treated as a given. Kahn's eye is on cities. "I am explicitly embracing an economist's 'human centric' bias," he writes.

How safe it is to so thoroughly unhook our welfare from that of the environment is unclear, but Kahn's not a biologist, he's an economist, one capable of writing, "At the end of the day, there is a delicious irony that capitalist growth has caused the problem of climate change. It has allowed populations to grow and cities to thrive but it will also protect us from the wrath of climate change's consequences."

Why? According to Kahn, human ingenuity will prevail. Moreover, disaster-proofing cities will be great for the economy. Think of all the efficient air conditioning units to be developed and sold! Whether the boom comes from clean energy jobs in China or Brad Pitt's floating houses for New Orleans, Kahn sees in climate change the opportunity for a 21st century renaissance.

How much any given city will have to do to climate-proof itself will depend on where it is. Salt Lake City, which he praises as unlikely to flood, is Kahn's choice for the most climate-ready U.S. metropolis.

That sounds plausible until you consider that Brigham Young's promised land is in a desert and Salt Lake City's million-plus residents already face annual dust storms powerful enough to shut down schools. Kahn seems unaware that the reason Salt Lake City is unlikely to flood is water shortages. Utah is the second driest state in the nation.

Among the most climate-ready cities internationally, Kahn likes Moscow as a place "unlikely to become unbearably hot." Presumably it was too late to recall the book from the printer last summer when Muscovites began dying in droves during a record heat wave.

Kahn fares a little bit better in his treatment of what is now the transplanted New Yorker's hometown. Chapter 4 is dedicated to Los Angeles.

By way of relief for our stressed water supply, he recommends price reform, arguing that in the high-use tiers, the rates of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power allow Candy Spelling to pay proportionately less for water for her $150-million mansion than the average homeowner with a far smaller property. This is Kahn at his playful and best, but he refuses to stay on his game. When he mocks the mayor of Los Angeles for flouting the city watering restrictions, Kahn calls Antonio Villaraigosa "Tony Villaragosa."

Kahn paints Los Angeles in familiar stereotypes. As "Climatopolis" has it, the balmy Westside is rotten with celebrities, the hot Inland Empire is becoming a smoggy ghetto for the poor, and downtown L.A. needs more than a Frank Gehry concert hall, USC and the Lakers to make it an urban magnet. Kahn knows this about downtown because his UCLA students told him that "they never go there and have no desire to."

Had Kahn himself ventured there, he might have noticed that it's not the home of USC.

There are sensible, if far from original, recommendations for Los Angeles, including pursuit of higher density housing and extending public transport. But Kahn can't seem to get two things right without getting a third wrong. Using 2000 figures, he asserts "public transit is not used in Los Angeles."

Absent from the L.A. chapter is any reporting of last summer's war in the City Council in which a savaged mayor was left with his water conservation plan in shreds and funding for renewable energy programs in gridlock. So when Kahn concludes that he's optimistic about L.A.'s chances for adapting to global warming, one is reminded about his assessment of Moscow.

That such a sloppy book is still important says more about us than the author. If it takes a bad book with a good name to drive home the point that the brightest futures will belong to cities best prepared for climate change, so be it.

Green writes the Dry Garden column for The Times. She is completing a book on water in the Great Basin Desert. Her website is chanceofrain.com

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