Xconomy Bookclub: “Windfall” Looks at the Business of Climate Change

Xconomy Texas — 

Summer is around the corner and with it the seasonal hot-and-sticky climate, favored stomping grounds for mosquitoes. This year, health officials have warned Houston and other coastal communities along the Gulf coast that Zika virus-bearing mosquitoes could add a very unpleasant twist to the summer season.

Over a decade ago, it was dengue fever, which caused two deaths in Houston. Warmer temperatures for longer parts of a year mean more mosquitoes and more disease.

But what if mosquitoes like the Zika-bearing Aedes Aegypti could be, well, modified so that the insects’ spawn are incapable of transmitting disease? One British company, Oxitec, is working on a program to create modified male Aedes mosquitoes—a Trojan horse that when bred with native females may produce offspring that would not live beyond the larval stage. The goal would be to reduce the mosquito population and thereby reduce the spread of disease.

That sort of innovation are among the topics covered by independent journalist McKenzie Funk in his book “Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming.”

“Windfall” does not discuss whether global warming is real. Instead, Funk takes readers on an expedition around the world to meet companies and governments that are seeking products and services to cope with the effects of global warming or those peddling solutions, seeking to make money from climate change. “An ecological catastrophe was not necessarily a financial catastrophe for everyone,” Funk writes.

Indeed, changing weather patterns are good for business for not only mosquito bioengineers but also private firefighting companies hired by insurers in California; Israeli desalination plants that are now selling snow in the Alps; Dutch seawall builders finding new markets for their expertise; and Wall Street profiteers brokering new agricultural lands in climates previously thought to be inhospitable for crops.

Through three parts—titled “The Melt,” “The Drought,” and “The Deluge”—Funk chronicles the stories of the lesser known opportunists and victims of a changing environment. We rightly know much about those that have been hurt by ecological changes, such as communities in low-lying communities in Bangladesh or South Pacific islands that watched oceans swallow their homes. Fund reports that the Marshall Islands are expected to be the first nation “extinguished” by climate change.

What I found fascinating were the lesser-known stories, the ones of communities or companies finding opportunities in climate change. Take, for example, Greenland, which Funk calls “the first country in the world to be created by global warming.”

Hotter temperatures and shrinking glaciers in the last century meant an untapped “Gulf of Mexico in the North Atlantic” and newly exposed deposits of gold, zinc, and diamonds have become accessible. That newly accessible economic bounty has spurred a push for independence for Greenland, which has been a colony of Denmark since 1721.

Rising seas are creating new opportunities for centuries-old Dutch know-how. The need to keep the sea at bay in the Netherlands has not only created expertise in dam-building but also innovation in tools such as a “floating beach” (the work of Dutch architect Koen Olthuis, patent pending) and “smart soils” that use bacteria to create sandstone in a week, instead of years (an effort by Deltares, a Dutch institute.)

Arcadis, a Dutch engineering firm, wants to export a dual-armed dam system that currently protects Rotterdam to stand guard just north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to protect New York from devastating storms like Hurricane Sandy.

In Europe’s Alps mountain range, where melting ice is leading to shorter ski seasons, less fresh powder, and rockier trails, there is an unlikely savior in Israeli water entrepreneurs.

Those entrepreneurs have become experts in desalination because of the nation’s arid climate. Decades later, that expertise led to the development of the IDE All Weather Snowmaker, a $2 million device that can shoot out 35,000 cubic feet of snow in 24 hours at any temperature on any day of the year, Funk writes.

The first one was deployed in Zermatt, the village below the Matterhorn, on the Swiss-Italian border. “We managed to sell snow to the Eskimo,” Avraham Ophir, IDE’s CTO and executive vice president said in the book.

As all of this is happening, financiers on Wall Street and elsewhere are creating new teams of analysts and investment products focused on water, or a lack thereof. For Goldman Sachs market analysts, water is the “petroleum of the next century.” Summit Water Development Group is a hedge fund focused on amassing water rights in Australia and the American West.

Funk also writes about other “fixes” underway to combat the effects of climate change illustrate the limits of what being innovative can do. A steady flow of “environmental refugees” from Bangladesh because of flooding into the Indian state of Assam has prompted officials from the larger country to build a wire fence along the international border. Enamul Hoque, a local leader Funk interviews, seems to acknowledge the project’s futility. “The fence will not be enough to stop them,” he says. “But still we must complete it. Because otherwise, there is nothing.”

“And for the poor, absolutely nothing happens,” Atiq Rahman, an environmentalist and executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies in Dhaka, tells Funk.