Hell and High Water


in Books and literature, Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

Bridge component

Joseph Romm’s Hell and High Water: Global Warming – the Solution and the Politics – and What We Should Do might be fairly described as an American version of George Monbiot’s Heat. It describes much less intrusive means for responding to the threat of climate change, as well as being more tailored to American politics. It is also less ambitious that Monbiot’s work, since it aims at the stabilization of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) below 550 parts per million (ppm) rather than 450.

The book is basically divided into two sections: one of which describes the nature and extent of the threat posed by climate change and one talking about solutions. The book is very explicitly focused on what climate change will do to Americans. Romm argues that too much coverage has focused on effects in poor countries, leading Americans to think the impact of climate change on their lives will be minimal.

Romm talks a great deal about how groups opposed to GHG regulation have created and funded a group of irresponsible ‘experts’ trying to convince the general public that major disagreement still exists about the reality and probable impact of climate change. He is very critical of the media, particularly for giving equal attention to the conclusions of a few oil-funded crackpots, compared with those of the enormous majority of scientists and all major scientific assessments.

I have some quibbles with some of Romm’s technological recommendations. I think he is a bit overconfident about the rapidity with which carbon capture and storage and cellulosic ethanol might be deployed. That said, the vast majority of what he says is correct, well defended, and similar to the thinking of others who have considered the questions seriously.

One notable omission from the book is emissions associated with air travel. At no point are they mentioned, either as a problem or an area where policy could yield improvements. As Monbiot effectively highlights, emissions from air travel are among the toughest to address, not least because lots of well-off people who consider themselves environmentalists and support good environmental policies nonetheless want to be able to jet off to South Africa or New Zealand.

Overall, Romm’s book is informative and accessible. He does a good job of bringing the issue home for Americans – de-emphasizing issues like the preservation of nature and international fairness – and emphasizing why they, personally, should be worried. Certainly, the kind of climatic impacts projected by the IPCC for 2030 or so are enough to make any reasonable person extremely nervous. He is right to say that, in a world where GHG concentrations are 650 ppm or more, climate change will be the issue being dealt with by all governments. Equally, he is right to point out that concentrations of that magnitude have a very serious risk of pushing us into a self-reinforcing cycle producing temperature increases of more than 5˚C globally and sea level increases of 25 metres or more. Hell and high water, indeed.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Padraic April 8, 2008 at 9:20 am

I don’t know if you’ve read “The Geography of Hope”, but it’s an incredibly optimistic take on environmental solutions. The author writes page after page about just how easy, fun and profitable the switch to sustainability would be…but which problem does he fail to mention?

Air travel.

Milan April 8, 2008 at 11:41 am


You mentioned that book here, but I have not read it yet.

Without a doubt, air travel emissions are a tough nut to crack. Romm may ignore them precisely because he knows that his natural audience will be most hostile to curtailing travel.

. April 8, 2008 at 12:11 pm

Map of all US emissions

Measured in millions of tons of carbon per pixel per year.

From this site

. April 8, 2008 at 12:12 pm
Milan April 8, 2008 at 4:40 pm

This post, written by Romm, captures some of his positions concisely:

Welcome NYT readers to the debate of the decade: Technology development vs. deployment
We’ve run out of time to wait for an unknown techno-fix to save us
Posted by Joseph Romm (Guest Contributor) at 1:37 PM on 08 Apr 2008

Padraic April 8, 2008 at 8:59 pm

Ack, sorry, I didn’t realize I was recycling material.

Milan April 8, 2008 at 9:42 pm

Recommending a good book twice is no fault.

I will have to give it a look. It has been added to my non-fiction list.

Bob April 8, 2008 at 11:36 pm

This photo has good geometry.

. August 21, 2008 at 11:53 am

[W]e must deploy staggering amounts of low-carbon energy technology as rapidly as possible. How much, how fast? As I detailed in a recent online article in Nature4, the “how much?” is illustrated by one possible set of solutions:

* Concentrated solar thermal electric: 1,600 gigawatts peak power
* Nuclear: 700 new gigawatt-sized plants (plus 300 replacement plants)
* Coal: 800 gigawatt-sized plants with all the carbon captured and permanently sequestered
* Solar photovoltaics: 3,000 gigawatts peak power
* Efficient buildings: savings totalling 5 million gigawatt-hours
* Efficient industry: savings totalling 5 million gigawatt-hours, including co-generation and heat recovery
* Wind power: 1 million large wind turbines (2 megawatts peak power)
* Vehicle efficiency: all cars 60 miles per US gallon
* Wind for vehicles: 2,000 gigawatts wind, with most cars plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles or pure electric vehicles
* Cellulosic biofuels: using up to one-sixth of the world’s cropland
* Forestry: end all tropical deforestation

Each of those so-called “stabilisation wedges” requires an astonishing level of effort. For instance, the 800 GW of coal with carbon capture and storage represents a flow of CO2 into the ground equal to the current flow of oil out of the ground. It would require, by itself, re-creating the equivalent of the planet’s entire oil delivery infrastructure.

. September 23, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Hell and High Water hits Georgia
September 23, 2009

Once-in-a-century drought followed by once-in-a-century flooding — Hell and High Water — that’s something larger and larger swaths of this country will need to get used to, especially if their Congressional reps keep opposing action on climate change.

Douglas county Georgia was “hit by 21 inches of rain in a 24-hour period from Sunday to Monday, knocking out the drinking water supply to most residents, and forcing others to boil their water,” the NYT reports. “As much as 15 to 20 inches of rain pounded counties around Atlanta for more than 72 hours.”

Milan September 1, 2011 at 2:21 pm

I met Joseph Romm at the White House oil sands protest today

He did not get arrested, but he has written about the pipeline.

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