Non-Fiction Reviews

Building A Resilient Tomorrow
How to prepare for the coming climate disruption

(2020) Alice C. Hill and Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, Oxford University Press,
£16.99 / Can$30.00 / US$24.95, hrdbk, xi + 250pp, ISBN 978-0-190-90934-5


With rising temperatures we are seeing increased melt from Polar ice leading to faster rising seas, increased evaporation from the oceans and increased atmospheric water carrying capacity leading to record rainburst events, and record heatwave events. These all incur all too real costs on both human and natural systems. How then to make these systems more resilient?

This is the question that Alice Hill and Leonardo Martinez Diaz set out to answer in Building a Resilient Tomorrow.  Their answer, in a nutshell, is regulations to ensure that when we construct systems – be they homes, flood management, whatever… – they are done to appropriate minimum standards.  Yet this message has not been heeded by all politicians.

In the US, they point out, the Trump Presidency has seen cuts in regulation and while these do – the authors agree – confer benefits, these benefits are short-lived and accrue nearly always to business and enterprise (such as the home construction industry) and not to consumers (people at large).  Furthermore, they point out, the poor bear the brunt of such climate-related costs as the rich can afford their own personal mitigation (such as moving from low-lying coast lines or living in buildings that are built better).

While this book is largely focussed on the US, there are many references to situations in other countries. So if the reader is not based in the US, it is easy to translate instances to circumstances elsewhere.

This book does not have a climate science focus; it is rooted firmly in policy and socio-economic perspectives. While economists and those into policy and political studies will find this book of fundamental value, it is still of interest to those in the climate-change related sciences as it is our scientific understanding that has to be translated into socio-economic action and that tap is firmly in the hands of the political classes.

Those into climate science will spot certain nuances, if not outright inexactitudes some of the wording.  For example, we are told (p154) that:

"Warming temperatures will hit hardest in countries that fall along a wide arc that sweeps from Brazil in South America, through West and Central Africa, past the Middle East then down across South and Southeast Asia…"

This had me perplexed as warming is greatest in high latitudes around the Poles and then I realised that they were talking about the thermal equator and regions that experience the highest temperatures (not the greatest warming).

However, those with a knowledge of the climate science can easily see through such minor flaws, while those into economics and socio-politics will probably not even be aware of them.  As someone who has had an interest in energy and environment issues since my undergraduate days (the best part of half a century ago) and having done a some climate science work for over three decades, I can say that the authors' overarching case is both sound and robust.

The authors do have repeated goes at Trump's policies. Trump sympathisers will probably point out that, as the authors worked for the President Obama administration, they would say that wouldn't they.  However, as Trump and his die-hard supporters do not even believe that human-induced climate change is taking place, the authors' political allegiances will not lose them any book sales.

However, as someone who reads a fair bit of the climate science academic literature and primary research, I am very aware that the authors understate their case.  A classic example of this is when the authors discuss building regulations noting that in the US some of these have been dismantled while in Australia they have been strengthened. Yet as I was reading this book (early in 2020) Australia was burning with over 2,400 homes across 3 states destroyed and the loss of 33 lives to the Australian wildfires!  More than 11 million hectares of land - an area comparable to the size of England - has been affected across the country.  In short, though Australia may have had building and planning regulations that were meant to minimise the effect of wildfires, clearly much more was needed.

Understated maybe, nonetheless this book presents its compelling argument lucidly: it is a must-read for those in politics and socio-economics.  For those of us into the science, it provides a very useful background enabling us to understand the issues the politicians (we as a community inform) have to wrestle.

Jonathan Cowie


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