Book Review: Climatopolis by Matthew E. Kahn

Review by Matt Crenson

Dire predictions about global warming make it hard to imagine how the human race will cope with the droughts, heat waves and advancing seas that climate change is expected to bring later this century. But economist Matthew Kahn has a message for prosperous urbanites in developed (and rapidly developing) nations who worry about the fate of their children and grandchildren in a greenhouse world: Don’t.


In cities, where the world’s population is increasingly concentrated, market forces will ensure that all but the poorest have little to fear, Kahn argues. As long as the market is allowed to set fair prices that reflect the environmental costs of energy and the scarcity of finite resources like water, he says, people and cities will adjust. Some cities may even find themselves better off, Kahn contends, as warmer winters transform today’s snowbelt into the cool place to be. He even offers a list of the most climate-resilient U.S. cities.

These specifics make Kahn’s book more vivid and accessible than a typical policy tome on global warming.

Perhaps many looming climate problems can be solved with a dose of the heady cocktail that is one part human ingenuity and one part profit motive. But Kahn’s analysis gives short shrift to two aspects of climate change that make it especially daunting. First, waiting for markets to feel the effects of global warming before getting serious about limiting greenhouse gas emissions will guarantee that the disruption is extreme and long-lasting. Second, the world is finite. It may be true that wealthy nations can easily import food if agricultural patterns change, but only up to a point. As the recent global economic recession illustrates, when a crisis is bad enough, it hurts pretty much everywhere.

Basic Books, 2010, 288 p., $26.95.

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