McKenzie Funk came to the Knight-Wallace Fellowship in the fall of 2011 to study the paradigm of endless economic growth and to unpack years of reporting on how governments and corporations were profiting from global warming. His 2014 book, “Windfall,” won a PEN Literary Award and was named a best book of the year by several publications. He returned to Wallace House in September to give the 34th annual Graham Hovey Lecture, and he sat down with Lynette Clemetson before the event to discuss writing on and living with the topic of climate change.
Clemetson: Discussions of climate change are most often presented through science or politics, or the clash between the two. What made you want to explore it through financial gain?
Funk: I wasn’t a climate change person. I grew up being interested in environmental issues because of my parents and where I grew up in Oregon. But precisely for the reasons you describe – that it’s a political fight or a scientific question – as a narrative writer, I had shied away from it.
Clemetson: And what changed that?
Funk: It was 2006, and I was living in New York trying to get my freelance career going. I got an email from the Environmental News Network, a short one or two line item about something called a sovereignty operation up in northern Canada, a group of Canadian Rangers there to defend the Northwest Passage. And I thought, “that’s really weird.” They mentioned a climate connection, and it just sounded very different from everything else I’d heard about people reacting to climate change. I called the PR people at the Canadian Forces to ask if I could go along on the next one. They were overjoyed because this was basically aimed at the United States. They wanted the world to know that the Canadian military was up there staking a claim to the melting North.
Clemetson: And what made you want to follow the thread and keep reporting?
Funk: In the background of all of this, “An Inconvenient Truth” had just come out. There was an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report coming up the next year. There was the prospect of climate legislation coming up in the Senate. It was all sort of bubbling. My story from the Canadian Forces expedition was published in Harpers in August 2007. Around the same time, the Russian government sent two mini subs down to the bottom of the ocean at the North Pole and planted a Russian flag, and suddenly people were saying, “Wait a minute, what’s going on?
Clemetson: You approach the global crisis through three broad themes – melt, drought, deluge. And your themes are starkly organized around geography.
Funk: Yes, the north versus the global south, high latitudes versus middle latitudes. It’s obvious if you pull back and think about it. The northern countries are the ones that have been wealthiest. We not only have enough in our war chest, as it were, to survive some of these impacts, but we can, in some cases, benefit. And of course, we’re the biggest historic emitters of the carbon that’s causing this problem. That remains true even as we outsource our industrial production to China. We are the end users of much of that carbon.
Clemetson: In the weeks leading up to your talk, this topic seemed to be ever present. President Trump was angling to buy Greenland. The Bahamas was devastated by a hurricane. Do you see this issue everywhere now?
Funk: Once you see it, it’s everywhere. We just moved to Oregon, to a town called Ashland, which is at the very bottom of the state, near the border of California, not so far from Paradise, California. The town is famous for its Shakespeare Festival, which brings in tourists. The economy is basically built on how nice the town is. When we arrived, it had the worst air quality in the entire country because it was ringed with wildfires. It’s something that’s happened consistently summer after summer for the last several years. This part of southern Oregon is just burning, and the smoke permeates everything. My wife Jenny had to stay to attend school but the kids and I, we dumped our bags, our boxes and left immediately, because we were wearing smoke masks out on the street. It was like this apocalyptic new reality.
Clemetson: And how did you feel about leaving?
Funk: I was very aware that we had the privilege to be able to pack up, get in our car and drive somewhere. There were many families in the region that couldn’t get away and were just suffering through the smoke. Businesses were collapsing. It was actually the first time that it became real for my life. I started to think strategically about moving north, back to Seattle, back to a place where, if you look at the impacts, it will be safer.
Clemetson: Your book paints a picture in which the people who can afford to win will win. And people who can’t will lose.
Funk: Yeah. The gaps between rich and poor, between dark and light, between black, brown and white are set to grow unless we’re really careful about this. It’s a justice story essentially. The hope is that if we can more collectively recognize the systemic issues, the more we will take steps to adapt more fairly. A lot of the justice questions have to do with how we adapt and who we adapt for. We’ve done so little in terms of making cities more resilient and in terms of thinking about how we’re going to prepare for the storms or heatwaves or fires. There is still a lot of room to make our responses more equitable.
Clemetson: Some people come to the fellowship to pursue something new. You were already deeply involved in this reporting and in writing a book when you arrived. So how did you approach your time?
Funk: There was a Great Lakes Water Wars class that was outstanding, and Andy Hoffman’s class in the Business School on how corporations were confronting climate change. A lot of the section in the book about Shell Oil was informed by that class. But I also spent a lot of time in the fellowship on seemingly unproductive things. Jenny was pregnant. We spent time hiking in the Bird Hills Nature Area, canoeing on the Huron River. And I spent a lot of time chasing my dog.
Clemetson: Chasing your dog?
Funk: We lived in the house that Matt Power had lived in when he was a Fellow. It was donut shaped, with a central staircase. It was perfect for running in circles. And I would just chase the dog around and around, for a really long time, every day. It was great. It was one of the most important things, just having time to think. To think about what I had gathered and to put it all together.