Matthew Kahn ’88 Discusses His Book, Climatopolis

Matt Kahn '88 speaks in the Chapel.
Matt Kahn '88 speaks in the Chapel.
In a recent visit to his alma mater, Matthew Kahn ’88 spoke to the Hamilton community about his latest book, Climatopolis. Kahn is a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment, the Department of Economics, and the Department of Public Policy. His book offers an unusual approach to dealing with climate change: because little is currently being done to stop climate change, people will adapt to the changes that have already been created and show no sign of slowing down.

Kahn used how people in San Diego might adapt to climate change as an example of his argument. San Diego Foundation’s “Regional Wake Up Call” predicted that as a result of climate change, San Diego will face hotter temperatures, rising sea levels, water scarcity, wildfire risk and higher electricity demand. Kahn argued that climate scientists will be able to accurately predict smog levels and future flooding and that individuals in these cities will change their behaviors to protect themselves from the worst consequences of these climate change consequences.

A central element of Kahn’s argument is that the market will help self-interested individuals adapt to climate change. For example, water prices would rise to help ensure smarter use of this limited resource. Insurance companies would discourage development in areas at high risk for wildfires.

Kahn argued that climate change mitigation is difficult because of the “free rider problem,” in which every individual and every nation wants to ease the effects of climate change without having to suffer the inconveniences of doing so. In other words, everybody wants something to be done without having to actually do it. At the core of this problem is that people are inherently self-interested, and so they are unlikely to take a difficult path unless they will see direct benefits from it. While this is certainly an impediment to stopping climate change, this same human characteristic will ensure that people develop the best means to adapt to climate change. 

In a market economy, profit-seeking individuals will notice problems arising from climate change, such as water scarcity and hotter temperatures, and come up with innovative solutions from which to make a profit. In this way, “crisis creates opportunity,” and a market economy is essential to ameliorating the struggle of adjusting to climate change.

The lecture also focused on developing nations. While a richer country may eventually adjust to climate change with relatively few casualties, developing countries may have to suffer from a lack of resources with which to make necessary adjustments.

In response to this, Kahn stressed that economic development is key to allowing these developing countries to adapt to climate change and he argued that a market economy will be best suited to achieve that. He stated, “Economic development shields people from climate change” and vice versa, citing the devastating loss of life in Haiti after a hurricane ravaged the weaker buildings that many poor Haitians lived in.

Kahn’s theories have received much criticism from both the right and left ends of the political spectrum. While liberals disregard his capitalist approach, many conservatives are in disagreement with Kahn’s acceptance of climate change as fact. Furthermore, Kahn relates that “optimism for our future is dangerous” in a time when many find it politically advantageous to make the future appear bleak. But optimism is the exact feeling behind Kahn’s lecture. Rather than face climate change as an unstoppable force that will wipe out thousands, if not millions of lives, we can have confidence that we will adapt.

Kahn's lecture was part of the Levitt Center's Sustainability series.
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