200 Days in the Life of the College

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

An alumnus returns with a warning and hope

By Lauren Howe ’13

Imagine a future where millions of people around the world are abandoning their homes and migrating north to colder climates. Rising sea levels and increased natural disasters along coastal regions force citizens to reside in floating homes. This is the future Matt Kahn ’88, an environmental economist and professor at UCLA, paints for some 200 students and faculty members gathered in the Chapel as a part of the Levitt Speaker Series. It has been 15 years since he was last on campus.

Kahn’s lecture tonight focuses on his recent book Climatopolis, which makes the case that climate change is imminent and that populations will have to adjust. Despite the controversy and fears often associated with global warming, Kahn leaves the audience with optimism — ironically, by comparing the issue to the 1912 Titanic disaster. While those aboard the doomed ship did not have the benefit of seeing the iceberg before the vessel struck it, he says, climate scientists today do see the “iceberg.” Kahn argues that because we anticipate the future, we have the power to change our course of action and save ourselves.

The dialogue between Kahn and Hamilton students is lively: accord and discord, skepticism and engagement. “You insinuated the idea, let it [climate change] happen and we’ll deal with it later.… Why can’t we try to find ways to prevent these things from happening now?” asks one student.

“I am a realist, not a utopian, and collective action has failed at the world level,” Kahn replies. “Everyone is waiting for everyone else to take action, and that’s the fundamental free-rider problem: You have to play the cards you are dealt and make the best of them.”