Earth Day Offering: HOT by Mark Hertsgaar

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Note: The author makes a distinction between global warming (man-made rise in temperatures by excessive amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) & climate change, which refers to the effects that higher temperatures have on the earth’s natural systems and their impact, such as stronger storms, shifting seasons, sea rise levels, etc.

I am what you would call an “armchair activist.” I read & review books that I feel more people need to know about, I donate money to non-profits that are working for a safer Mother Earth, and occasionally I will go to a demonstration or a walk to raise money for a group whose work I believe in. This book, HOT, however, nearly knocked me off my seat, because it is so hard hitting with its powerful message about global warming and climate change.  The subtitle gives us a hint:”Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.”

The author, Mark Hertsgaard, a reporter who has written five previous books translated into 16 languages, dedicates this book to his pre-school daughter Chiara in the hope that by the time she is grown, the world will still be a good place to call home.

Mark takes us from Alaska to Africa, from Seattle to New York City, and from the depths of the high cost of climate change (or “climate chaos” as one of his interviewees calls it) to some of the wonderful things that farmers and city planners  and government officials are doing to repair some of the damage we have inflicted on the planet and plan for the next 50 years so that more damage is not done.

This book is so fully packed with information that I have more tabs on the pages than I can count.  When a book is this “hot” on my reading list, the best way for me to handle it is to post some quotes so you can hear the author’s voice and hopefully feel his urgency, which I now feel. In fact, I almost wish I did not know all this information, because now I really have to get my act together and be more vigilant about how I live and how I can urge our government to take heed. Even if you think the big climate changes are not made by humans (as my son believes), we need to spend some time out of our comfort zones and make a difference with our voices, our actions, and our money.

Here are some of the quotes:

“If climate change had indeed already begun (as David King, science advisor in England told the author-es) , the inertia of the climate system ensured that the planet was locked into at least twenty-five more years of rising temperatures no matter what—…” (p. 10.).

“Now, in October 2005, it was becoming clear that scientists had actually underestimated the danger…Climate change had arrived a century sooner than expected, and future generations were no longer the only victims” (p. 13).

“If the consumerism of the rich, the population increase of humanity as a whole, and the ceaseless growth imperative of modern capitalism continue unchecked, their impacts will cancel out the gains of even the most ambitious efficiency programs” (p. 22).

“In triggering climate change, humanity has unwittingly launched an unprecedented planetary experiment….What we do know is, we are pushing the earth’s climate system well beyond its normal limits” (p. 25).

“Higher temperatures cause seas to rise in two ways. First, they melt the glaciers and polar ice into water that eventually flows to the ocean, and since warmer water expands, the ocean’s volume increases” (p. 33) (The author then talks about the lag effect, which means there is already a locked in temperature rise that will continue to keep the ice melting for hundreds or thousands of years. Also, sea level rise makes hurricanes and other ocean storms more dangerous, according to Michael Oppenheimer, a foremost climate scientist.)

“Places that are hotter today will be much hotter in the future” (p. 51). The author also discusses mass extinctions and -loss of much of our water life in “dead zones,” water that are no longer habitable for fish.

This is some of the bad news. The author uses two terms throughout the book to help cope with these examples and more that I have not listed. He talks about adaptation vs mitigation. Since losses will be inevitable, how do we begin to adapt to the changes that are coming fast. And what can we do to mitigate (lessen the gravity of)  the situation so that more damage to the planet is not happening. Katrina is one of his prime examples.

When the author goes to Africa, he learns that farmers there are adapting to the changes by doing “old fashioned’ farming, such as crop rotation and “growing” trees between the rows of grains to enrich the soil. It is called “farmer-managed natural regeneration” or FMNR, and reading about it gave me hope that even in the poorest of countries (ex. Burkina Faso) there are low budget, ecological solutions to growing enough food families in the region of the Sahel.

One of the most powerful discussion is about Ron Sims,  chief executive of King County (Seattle area) who has developed a two-track strategy of adaptation to climate change that other areas in the US are emulating. He says that sprawling communities are bad for adaptation because more services are spread over a wider area, so he has developed the idea of “smart growth, green buildings, dense development, land preservation, and social justice.” The author’s reporting of this one man making a difference is inspiring. Another inspirational story is how The Netherlands are planning for the next 2oo years, knowing they live on very lowlands and have experience in dealing with too much water.

I need to reread this book to get a fuller understanding of everything that Mark Hertsgaar is telling us. His depth of investigation, his ability not to whitewash the situation and “tell it as he sees it” are what drew me into the book. But most of all, he refers to his daughter and  his concern about her growing up on an increasingly hot planet. He talks about where they live off the west coast and how much she loves the ocean, and if the ocean rises, the road between his house and where he takes her to preschool will be underwater, leaving them isolated. He writes about where else in the world he might have to move to be safer, if that’s possible.  So he is driven to gather and divulge what he finds not only for the public at large, but also and perhaps especially for the generation who will still be around in 50 years.And his section starting on page 104: How Individuals Can Make  Difference is one good place to start. But he also reminds us that there are no substitutes for government action and that we must work together to push our government into action.

Mark Hertsgaar refers to a report published in Britain called Managing the Unavoidable, which has to do with businesses changing as the climate continues to change. Using that term as a springboard, the author often uses the term: avoiding the unmanageable and managing the unavoidable. That has stuck with me and I think will be my focus as I learn more about living on the planet in a way that my existence doesn’t take away from the survival of the planet.

Hot is a good book to read as your commitment to Earth Day every day. You don’t have to read it all at once. In fact, I suggest you don’t because there is too much to digest and deal with that is upsetting. But if you believe that climate changes are here to stay and unavoidable because of the lag time, then you will have to manage the unavoidable. And as you learn more about living lightly on the earth, you will be able to avoid the unmanageable. Either way, it’s up to us! This is our home and it’s time we stopped disrespecting Mother Earth.

You may want to visit the author’s website for updates: or purchase the book from or your local book store. Or take  it out of the library, but please get it.