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Pete Seeger Remembers Guthrie, Hopping Trains And Sharing Songs.

Seeger believed songs were a way of binding people to a cause. He talks about fellow folk music icon Woody Guthrie and jumping railroad cars in an archival interview from 1985.


Other segments from the episode on January 28, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 28, 2014: Obituary for Pete Seeger; Interview with McKenzie Funk.


January 28, 2014

Guests: Pete Seeger -- McKenzie Funk

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Singer, songwriter and activist Pete Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94. Seeger was one of the most important figures in the history of American folk music. In the notes to the box set "Washington Square Memoirs," Gary Janelle(ph) wrote that the image of Seeger - with his homemade, longneck, five-string banjo - is synonymous with folk music.

Seeger was known for popularizing the songs "This Land is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome," and wrote "If I Had a Hammer" and "Turn Turn Turn." Seeger dropped out of Harvard in 1938 to ride a bicycle across the country. In the 1940s, he sang union songs with the Almanac Singers. A few years later, he cofounded the Weavers, who surprised everyone, including themselves, when they became the first group to bring folk music to the pop charts, until they were blacklisted.

Seeger refused to answer questions about his politics when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. His conviction for contempt of Congress was eventually overturned. As a young man, Seeger believed songs were a way of binding people to a cause. Many of his songs were anthems of protest or odes to the working man.


PETE SEEGER: (Singing) When you go to work, well, you work like the devil. At the end of the week, you're not on the level. Payday comes, you ain't got a penny, 'cuz when you pay your bills, you got so many. I'm a-gonna starve and everybody will 'cuz you can't make a livin' in a cotton mill.

DAVIES: Seeger kept singing and protesting right through 2011, when he joined a march in support of the Occupy Wall Street protests. He also spent many years championing environmental causes. Terry spoke to Pete Seeger in 1985, and he told her one of his most important influences was Woody Guthrie.

SEEGER: Woody showed me how to hitchhike and how to ride freight trains, how to sing in the saloons. I said: What kind of songs do you sing? Well, he said, this year, there's five or six tunes that are nearly always worth a nickel or a quarter. (Singing) Makes no difference now what kind of life fate hands me. I'll get along without you now. That's plain to see. It's a Gene Autry hit, was, in 1940.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Was it hard to learn how to jump a railroad car?

SEEGER: No, for men. It's - of course for a woman, it would be much more difficult, the danger of being assaulted by men, who assume that any woman who would travel that way is open to his advances. But Woody said you wait in the outskirts of town, and when the train is picking up speed, it's still not going too fast, you can grab ahold of it and swing on.

Getting off the first time, I didn't know how to do it, and I fell down and skinned my knees and elbow and broke my banjo. Fortunately, I had a camera with me, and I hocked it in a local pawn shop and bought a very cheap guitar. I knew a few chords, and I got through the rest of the summer playing the guitar.

Woody was a direct actionist. When he was singing once for - to raise money for war bonds during World War II. He and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were in Baltimore, and they said, Mr. Guthrie, we have a seat for you at the table, and your friends, we have some food for them in the kitchen. He said what do you mean? He tipped the whole table up in a big, crowded dining hall, just dumped a whole table full of plates and everything on the floor, and tipped another table up.

And finally, he was restrained. And Brownie says Woody, you're going to get us all in trouble. I'm lame, and Sonny's blind. And they led him out. He was absolutely furious. Now, part of his education, here's what happened. Before he met a lot of radicals, he was singing country songs on a little station in California, and he sang a song with a lot of dialect. It was probably an old minstrel song, (unintelligible).

And he got a letter. Dear Mr. Guthrie: I think you mean well, or I would not bother to write. But don't you know that kind of dialect is deeply offensive to people like me? We like your music, but that dialect is unnecessary. It's a relic of slavery. Woody, next day on his program, read the man's letter on the air. He said folks, I just read you this guy's letter. I want to - I now am picking up a copy of that song.

Now, you listen, I got the copy of this song right near the microphone. And he took up this song, and held it near the microphone...


SEEGER: He tore it into strips right in front of the microphone. That was Woody Guthrie.

GROSS: You started doing a lot of performing for unions, in union halls and even on picket lines. How did you all come up with the songs that you thought would really speak for the people who were there?

SEEGER: Well, long discussion, when I met Lee Hays, I met one of the few geniuses I've met in my life. We were always talking and thinking what kind of songs were needed. We'd be trying out this and trying out that. Sometimes, one person would start a song, and another person would finish it. That's how it was with the song "Talking Union." We'd heard Woody singing, you know, the old "Talking Blues."

(Chanting) If you want to go to heaven, let me tell you what to do. Got to grease your feet in a little mutton stew, slide out of the devil's hand, ooze over in the Promised Land. Take it easy. Go greasy.

And so on. And I don't know whether it was Lee or Mill or me who thought of (Chanting) You want higher wages, let me tell you what to do, got to talk to the workers in the shop with you. Got to build you a union, got to make it strong, but if you all stick together, boys, it won't be long. You get shorter hours, better working conditions, vacations with pay, take your kids to the seashore.

They made up most of the first part of the song, and they had one problem after another. Suddenly, it came to a dead stop. How were you going to win? The song was unfinished for a couple weeks. And up on the roof one day, I found myself thinking, well, the only way any of these struggles are won is by the unity of people.

I wrote three more verses, didn't have much rhyme in them, as I remember. But I got the idea across that, in spite of all the things that could go wrong, all the attacks that would be made on a group of working people, that you could win if you stuck together.

GROSS: In 1949, you were one of the people who were supposed to perform at the Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill.

SEEGER: I did. I sang "If I Had a Hammer" and "T for Texas." I forgot what else, "We Shall Not Be Moved," maybe.

GROSS: You and many other people that were...

SEEGER: And we had stones thrown at us. It was a pretty horrifying day. A lot of people thought this is the beginning of American fascism. This is how Hitler got started. I was just one of 10,000 people there, or 20,000. It was a huge crowd, came to hear Paul Robeson. But the Ku Klux Klan had infiltrated the police force of the county, and maybe the state, for all I know, and the city. I don't know the details.

But it was the Ku Klux Klan that initiated the attack, and they had the concert surrounded with walkie-talkies, like a battlefield. And after the concert was over, everybody who attended it was directed down one road. There were three roads you could have gone, to the left or straight ahead or to the right. And I wanted to go to the left, because my home was up there.

But the police said no, all cars down here, and they directed us as though we were going to run the gauntlet. And there were some 15 piles of stones about the size of a baseball, which had been waste-high, these stones, thousands of stones, and every car that came by got a stone, wham, at close range.

There was a policeman standing about 80 feet away, and I said officer, aren't you going to do something? And he said move on, move on. Then I look around, the guy in back of me was getting stone after stone because he couldn't get past me. I was stopped. So I moved on.

Funny, last - about a year and a half ago, I was out West. A man says Pete, you were at Peekskill, weren't you? Yup, I said. He says, do you remember the time you stopped and spoke to a policeman? And I said, yeah. And there was a car in back of me, getting it. And he says, I was in that car.

GROSS: Had he been hurt?

SEEGER: Well, he would've been killed if I hadn't moved on.

GROSS: When you look back, I don't know about how many times before that you had been confronted with that kind of direct violence. How did you behave during it, and are you satisfied with the way you behaved, when you look back?

SEEGER: Well, I'm sure that, in retrospect, you can just think how - the things we did wrong. But knowing what I knew then, why, I think we did the right thing. And I was of the opinion then that the average American wouldn't go in for that kind of fascist approach. You see, there were signs went up in Peekskill. Somebody printed them up. They were put on bumpers, bumper stickers. They were put in windows of apartments and houses. I saw them in bars.

They said wake up, America. Peekskill did. Now, there was all America to do the same thing, you find these commie so-and-so traitors, whatever you think they are, and you show them what's going to happen to them. They either get out of this country, because the whole idea of America, love it or leave it. Yet, within about a month, those signs were taken down.

Now, nobody knows exactly why those signs came down, but I'm convinced that within Peekskill, there were many arguments within families. It might have been a grandparent that would say: You mean you threw stones at women and children? Well, well, we don't like these people, either, but still, you don't throw stones at women and children. I mean, is that what Abe Lincoln would've done? Is that what Thomas Jefferson would've done, or anybody you admire? Is that what Jesus would've done?

And it's significant that those signs did not stay up in Peekskill, and you'll be interested, as of last month, Peekskill has a black mayor.

DAVIES: Pete Seeger, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1985. Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94. We'll hear more of their conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


SEEGER: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 1985 interview with Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94.

GROSS: During the 1950s, when you were performing with The Weavers, I think that initially you performed at a lot of demonstrations and union halls and outside, and then you made a decision to start trying nightclubs. Was that a big crisis, to actually decide to move into the clubs?

SEEGER: We - that was a soul searching. In one sense I felt like I was going into enemy territory. Why should I want to contribute to the nightclub scene, which I thought was anathema? I come from old New England Puritans who thought nightclubs were the dens of inequity and never been much of a drinker myself. But I wanted to reach people.

And I remember Woody telling me Pete, it's good experience to sing in a bar, you ought to do it occasionally. So I did. But to take a job at a nightclub and work there six nights a week. But we took it, and it was a very valuable experience. We learned a hell of a lot. In six months The Weavers had had six months of rehearsals and we were ready to make some records.

GROSS: Were you really surprised when your records started getting played on the radio and became big hits?

SEEGER: Yes, we never expected to get on the hit parade. I'd always looked upon Tin Pan Alley as one more snare in a delusion, and if you wanted to make good music, stay away from it. But we met a really charming and wonderful man, Gordon Jenkins, who had a big, slick, band. And he said I'd love to have you record with me. So we took him up on it.

And to everybody's surprise, including the head of Decca Records, "Good Night Irene" sold two million copies in the summer of 1950. It was the biggest seller since World War II, along with one of Bing Crosby's song, "Sam's Song" was the big seller. But "Good Night Irene" was on every jukebox in the USA in the year 1950. You couldn't escape that song.

Some people have said if I hear that song once again, I'm going to kick in the - that phonograph so it never plays another record. It was - it floated out from every filling station, from every diner.

GROSS: That might have made it even more difficult, then, when you were blacklisted.

SEEGER: Well, it made it difficult for the blacklisters, but I didn't expect to last 10 minutes. I think the blacklisters would be after us a lot sooner. It took them a couple years to chop us down. And it was a full five years before they got around to calling me up before the Committee on Un-American Activities. I was surprised it took so long.

GROSS: You wanted to sing a song to the committee, right?

SEEGER: I think I did. They questioned me about a song. I said, well, that's a good song, I'll sing it to you. No, they didn't want me to sing it. They wanted to know where I had sung it, at the following place. I said well, I have a right to sing a song anywhere I want to, whether I agree with the people or don't agree with them. I'm not interested in telling you that.

They said we direct you to tell us. They said you are liable to be under contempt of Congress. Do you use the Fifth Amendment as your defense? No, I said, I just don't think these are questions any American should be asked, especially under threat of reprisal if they give the wrong answer.

So in effect I was defending myself on the basis of the First Amendment. The Fifth Amendment in effect says you have no right to ask me this question. But the First Amendment in effect says you have no right to ask any American such questions.

GROSS: I'm speaking with Pete Seeger, if you're just joining us. Have the wounds ever healed among the folk musicians who were friendly witnesses and those who weren't before UAC?

SEEGER: I think it's been harder for the friendly witnesses. History has not been kind to the Un-American Activities Committee. It feels, as I felt, that these people didn't love America so much as their own particular version of America, which was somewhat limited, shall we say. And so those who cooperated with the committee wish they could forget it all. Those who stood up to the committee, as Lee says, if it wasn't for the honor, he'd just as soon not been blacklisted. It was an honor.

GROSS: Well, that honor kept you off of television for many years afterwards. How did you feel around the early '60s when the folk music boom started taking off, when finally folk music had become commercially viable, and you were, in a way, prevented from participating in it because you weren't allowed on radio or TV?

SEEGER: Well, I was mad. I wrote some articles in Sing Out magazine, warning people that this ABC television show called "Hootenanny" would be kind of a travesty on what a real hootenanny would be. A real hootenanny was a bunch of people who hoped that music could bring people together to bring a peaceful world, a world without racism, a world where you had a right to join a union, a world without sexism.

And instead, it was a second-rate vaudeville show. Some good folk music got played on the air, but there was an awful lot which was kept off the air. Why? Because it wasn't cheerful, happy music. And yet, to my mind, some of the greatest tragic music in the world are the tragic songs that I've heard sung by American working people.

GROSS: Well, take a song like "If I Had a Hammer." That is I think one of the most recorded songs in the world. I mean, hundreds of people have recorded it, right? But when you had first written it, it was considered a very dangerous song.

SEEGER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: What was considered dangerous about it?

SEEGER: I - hard to say. It talked about freedom and justice, maybe. It's hard to say, hard to say. And if you tried to pin people down, they'd just say that's one of these commie songs. I'm sure in the Southern states the segregationist leaders would have said, oh, this talk about all my brothers and sisters, only the commies talk that way, only the nigger-lovers, only the race-mixers talk like that.

My gosh, people today can't realize, though, how much America has changed as a result of the civil rights movement and one thing after another, the women's movement. We didn't win all the victories we hoped we would win, but we won some victories, and maybe that's the way the world moves forward. One of my favorite songs these days is, oh, gosh, I love it, but I don't have a guitar with me. Arlo and I sing it all the time.


SEEGER: (Singing) We are climbing Jacob's ladder. We are climbing Jacob's ladder. We are climbing Jacob's ladder, brothers, sisters, all.

I sang it way down low, the way you might sing it if you were singing a child to sleep. That's a great song. It was made up by people in slavery, but it's I think one of the most scientific songs in the world. Revolutionists, as well as religionists, often forget that heaven doesn't come in one big bang. It comes in many steps.

GROSS: Your work has inspired thousands and thousands of Americans of different generations. And you could have, if you wanted to, really, like, played that role to the hilt of, you know, like the father of the modern American folk music movement.

SEEGER: No, I would've known it was a lie. My main purpose as a musician has been to get people singing and get people to make music by themselves. And it's the only reason I keep singing is because I'm a skilled song leader now. My voice is 50 percent shot. I can still shout in the high notes, but my low notes are very wobbly.

But I can still get a crowd singing. And so when they're singing, they don't bother listening to me. They're having a lot of fun. And that's my main purpose. I want to show people what a lot of fun it is to sing together.

DAVIES: Pete Seeger, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1985. Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: In 2008, as scientists documented a record melt in the Arctic ice, and Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth," was in theaters, a half a dozen major investment houses launched global warming-themed mutual funds designed to take advantage of financial opportunities offered by climate change.

That's one trend noted in a new book by my guest, journalist McKenzie Funk, who has looked into how some entrepreneurs - and even sound nations - stand to benefit from climate change. His subjects range from investors buying water rights and farmland around the world, to private wildfire protection services for affluent American homeowners, to the nation of Greenland, which will be able to exploit new mineral deposits as its ice melts.

McKenzie Funk's work has appeared in Harper's, National Geographic and The New York Times. His new book is called "Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming."

Well, McKenzie Funk, welcome to FRESH AIR. You begin the book with describing being on a Canadian military vessel which is firing weapons into the water. What on earth was going on?


MCKENZIE FUNK: I think the Canadians were trying to look tough for everyone defending the Northwest Passage, which they would like to claim as their own internal waters. It's a disagreement over basically who owns that patch of the Arctic and it matters because of, well, the shipping lanes that are opening up as the ice pulls back. There's also oil.

DAVIES: Right. So we're talking about new shipping routes that are now going to be open to commercial shipping because the melting of ice in the Arctic. Give us a sense of sort of the scale of the melt and the shipping opportunities it presents.

FUNK: I started reporting this book in 2006. At that point, they were saying, you know, maybe 20-30 years in the future we will see an ice free Arctic in summer. We might be able to use the Northwest Passage then. And point of fact, by the next summer, there was an opening seen by satellites in the Northwest Passage. The summer of 2007 was a massive ice loss; I want to say it was the size of Texas was missing from the usual summertime shrinkage, and it has only accelerated, I think.

There are three different ways you can ship over the top of the world. You could go through the Northwest Passage, which is through the Canadian archipelago, north of Canada, North of North America. It leads to...

DAVIES: And we're talking about a passage from where to where?

FUNK: It would go from the Eastern Seaboard, basically, from the Atlantic to the Pacific over the top of the world. This is something that explorers had tried to find for centuries - 1700s, 1800s, everyone wanted to find a way that wasn't the Panama Canal to go to the Pacific and they hoped this would be it. And until now it wasn't.

The other main shipping route across the top of the Arctic would be the Northeast Passage or the Northern Sea Route, which goes across the top of Russia, and this one's proven to be the most viable economically. We've seen a massive growth in shipping already - 20-fold, 30-fold since 2007.

DAVIES: And again, we're talking about vessels that go from where, the Atlantic ports of the U.S.?

FUNK: These vessels are mostly going to and from Western Europe - or Northern Europe and Asia, China. The big excitement over the shipping routes is that they'll save a ton of time versus the Suez Canal for the Panama Canal. And so that most of the big shipments that it happened now have come from basically northern ports within China, and they'll go over the top of Russia and they'll end up in Europe or Northern Europe. And eventually, we may see the same thing happening in the Northwest Passage, which so far hasn't been used as much commercially.

DAVIES: So when the Canadian government asserts some military authority over the Northwest Passage, the sea route across the top of the ocean from the Atlantic to the Pacific, what are they saying, that they want to charge folks for going there or they want to restrict it in some way?

FUNK: I think it's both of those. I think there could be some real economic benefits. Russia does charge fees to have icebreakers help you along the way. Canada can conceivably do that same thing. But in the case of the Canadians, I think it's mostly about not being pushed around and having this part of their country that they find to be very important to them and wanting the U.S. to not use it when we feel like it.

DAVIES: So if you have a circumstance where the melting of the Arctic ice which, you know, to many is a catastrophic development, in fact, opens commercial possibilities for some countries in the Arctic, it raises another question which is what are some other ways that this would benefit countries in the Arctic? What are some of the ways that Arctic countries may stand to benefit economically from climate change, from global morning?

FUNK: I think the main benefit for the North - there is some question to whether fishing will help and a lot of those economies and right now are based on fishing, whether fish docks will in fact move further north, and if fishing will be better. But I think that is an open question scientifically. The main benefit right now is oil and gas. Up to a quarter of the world's remaining oil and gas is in the Arctic and there's been a major push to go get it.

DAVIES: So we're talking about oil and gas deposits which were inaccessible when they were frozen over, is that right? And now they're going to be reachable?

FUNK: I think that's right. The oil companies will say, look, we've drilled for oil in the Arctic before; it's not just that the ice is pulling back, that's not the only thing that's happening. And I think that's true. You know, one thing that's happened is we've kind of gotten all the easy oil everywhere else in the world, and what's left is the Arctic. At the same time, there's no question that the ice pulling back helps for exploration and it helps for drilling. It allows them to have a longer summer season, you know, no one's going to be doing ice exploration or oil exploration when the Arctic is covered in thick ice. But if you look at Shell's case in Alaska, they had a longer season because the, you know, the ice wasn't there.

DAVIES: You write that Royal Dutch Shell did some thinking and planning about the prospects for and consequences of climate change and came up with two scenarios, one called Blueprint, the other Scramble. Let's go through them. What's the Blueprint scenario and what does it dictate in terms of their activity?

FUNK: In 2007, they came out with these scenarios, and they said these are how we're thinking the world could turn out over the next 40 years. And Blueprints is the world sort of what we want it to be. We want the governments of the world, especially at a local level, to start putting a price on carbon. We want there to be carbon taxes or cap-and-trade. We want that to push innovation to move to a greener economy. There'll be wind. There'll be solar energy. That'll be a big mix of energies certainly, because in both of these scenarios they draw out and they think that the world will be using more energy. And at the same time, they think there will be more natural gas than, say, coal.

DAVIES: So that scenario, which they called Blueprints, essentially posits that the world responds aggressively to climate change and begins to change the way we do things. If the world does that, how did Shell think its business model would change?

FUNK: Well, it was already positioning itself to be heavier in natural gas than it was in oil. And so it assumed that its business would move toward a higher natural gas mix. It had invested in things like the London Array, which is a giant wind farm off the coast of the U.K. It was looking at all sorts of advanced biofuels, things down in Brazil. And at the same time, it didn't think that its fundamental business would change, it would still be an energy company, it would still be an oil and gas company. It would just be one that was perhaps smarter and ahead of the curve than the other one. It basically assumed that regulations would and should come and then at some point its business would be undermined by the fact that the world is worried about climate change, and so it might as well get ahead of this curve.

DAVIES: And then there was this other scenario that it's, you know, think tank came up with called Scramble. Well, what the Scramble predict for the world?

FUNK: Well, I think the description of it was to say that events would outpace actions in Scramble. That we basically wouldn't do anything about climate change, we wouldn't do anything about the coming energy shortage, that we would sort of just let things happen and we would have a bunch of band-aids. We would scramble for coal when we needed coal and we would scramble to find more oil. And we wouldn't really sort of at a governmental level - or even especially international level - have some sort of way to get to where we need to go in terms of the energy system.

DAVIES: And so if that's the world we're heading into, the company sees its business model differently too, right?

FUNK: Yeah. I think that means being part of this scramble. Also, sort of trying to gobble up the world's oil, also trying to kind of go ahead and do what they're doing.

DAVIES: And so when you looked at what the company is up to and talked to some of its executives, what was your sense of which they see coming true?

FUNK: Well, I asked, Jeremy Bentham is the head of their Scenario team now. He's their sort of in-house futurist. And I asked him, is it the view that the Scramble scenario is the one that's come true so far? And he said, yes. Absolutely. That's what's been happening. You know, nothing really happened at the Copenhagen Climate Accords in 2009. They were expecting that the world would come up with a treaty and would start moving toward arresting climate change. There was a push around that same time to do a climate bill in Congress and that died on the vine. And so all these sort of top-level regulatory actions that they thought would push this - push this more blueprintsy(ph) kind of scenario didn't happen. And because of that it, yeah, it does look like a scramble. It doesn't look like any action is being taken at an international or a national level to arrest climate change. And because of that, you know, Shell thinks, well, we're not being regulated in the way we thought we were. This looks more like a scramble.

DAVIES: So go get the oil.

FUNK: Yeah.

DAVIES: McKenzie Funk's book is called "Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with journalist McKenzie Funk. His new book, "Windfall" is about new commercial opportunities that have been opened up by climate change. It's called "The Booming Business of Global Warming."

Greenland is particularly an interesting case. You traveled to Greenland. Tell us about what you saw there in terms of the effects of climate change and what its - how its future seems to be changing.

FUNK: I think Greenland is the most interesting case of all here because it's hard not to root for them. You know, it's a very massive country with a tiny population. It has about 57,000 people and it's beautiful. And then they were longtime, they've longtime been dependent on Denmark, which as colonists goes, been a benevolent country. And yet, Greenland wants to have its own independence. It wants to be in charge of what it does. And they think their path forward is to earn enough money from oil and gas and from mining that they don't have to get their annual subsidy from Denmark. And Denmark says, well, if you can pay your own way you're free to go, you're free to be free.

So I went there on a road show with most of the leading politicians in Greenland. In advance of a vote - they were going to have what they call self-governance, which was a degree of independence that they hope will lead to full independence. This involved getting in helicopters, flying from village to village and having meetings with all these citizens who were wondering about this upcoming vote and saying. OK, what's this mean for us? How much money are we going to get from minerals if we do this? Who is going to be in charge of defense? And all the politicians from the main four parties - including the premier - and the leaders of the other parties would sit there and answer questions. And three out of four were very much in favor of this self-governance and eventual independence.

Along the way, we spent a lot of time with citizens, you know, your average Greenlanders who by and large didn't seem too concerned with what was happening with climate change. And I don't mean that they were happy about not being able to hunt in the winter, probably because the ice was too brittle, but new fish stocks were moving in and they did seem to want independence. The vote wasn't even close. In some of the villages I went to, I think they voted 97 percent in favor of self-governance. And the country as a whole, it does now have self-governance, which means almost everything but defense is being handled by Greenland itself.

DAVIES: And did the citizens of Greenland that you spoke to, and did you see, I mean physical changes in the landscape from climate change? What's actually happening there?

FUNK: Yeah, absolutely. The most stark examples where it came from, one fisherman who told me about some new fish species that had freaked everyone out when it appeared five years ago and now it was the basis of their economy. It's because the waters had warmed and the species was moving, moving up. Another friend lived in a village that in wintertime they used to be able to travel to and from a larger city via taxi on the ice. It would get so frozen in the sound that they would have an ice road, it would go to and from and it was much cheaper. And some...

DAVIES: This was crossing a body of water on a taxi?


FUNK: Exactly. Well, which really isn't that scary when they're, you know, 20 feet thick of ice below you. But this, I think two winters ago, they had such a warm winter that there was no ice and they had to get to and from the village they had to take helicopters. It was still too dangerous to do boats because there would be little icebergs and that's obviously horrible. The seal hunters have a harder time because they're going out on the ice. If the ice is brittle, they can't hunt as they traditionally did.

But the other big example was one of the mines called the Black Angel. Black Angel has what was once the highest grade zinc in the world and may still be. It did run up in the '70s and then shut down because they thought they'd gotten all the good stuff. And maybe five years ago, some British geologists were out there walking around the defunct mine and they saw that a glacier had pulled back and they sampled some of the rocks below that glacier and they found a zinc deposit just as good as the first one.

Just as big. It was enough to open up the mine. And they now have a shipping season that's two months longer to and from that mine because the ice isn't there in the fjord as much. So a very clear case of climate change causing the ice to go away and that helping the local economy. And for Greenlanders who have been very well educated by Denmark and who are remarkably worldly, who have a very good Internet connection and have better fashion sense than I do, you know, these were all good things. They're excited to have their independence.

DAVIES: Yeah. Does anybody worry about, you know, having a zinc mine expand? I mean, that may not be the most pleasant neighbor.

FUNK: Yeah. And this is a big issue. They just had an election, in fact, and one of the big questions in the election was how much should be endanger our environment which we've depended on forever in order to fund this independence? And there was a big protest vote. A lot of people said, no, we can't just say yes to any oil company that comes.

And at the same time, the party that was voted back into power, the prime minister, she's pushing for allowing uranium mining. And that's because that's the way she sees forward to independence. But, you know, they are very aware of the dangers of particularly the zinc mine. That mine had left a bunch of tailings in the fjord before and they said any mine that comes in now, we need to have strong regulations to stop that.

They are very worried about the oil companies and about what could happen in a spill. Oil spills are extremely hard to clean up in ice. It's very remote. You know, you can't respond to a spill up there like you could in the Gulf of Mexico. And they're aware of that. But it's a small country and they need money, so I think there's an open question still.

DAVIES: We're speaking with McKenzie Funk. His book "Windfall" is about commercial interests that see possibilities for profit in global warming. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with journalist McKenzie Funk. He has a book about new commercial opportunities that are being exploited with climate change. It's called "Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming." You know, one country that's been dealing with rising seas for centuries is the Netherlands, and, you know, you write about some Dutch companies that see opportunities to export their water management technology around the world as the seas rise.

And you describe a visit to Rotterdam and this enormous storm surge barrier there. Can you just describe it?

FUNK: Sure. You've done well by calling it enormous. It's called the Maeslantkering or Maeslant Storm Surge Barrier and it's these two Eiffel Tower-sized gates. They swing open - or, rather, swing closed and close the Port of Rotterdam which is the most important port in all of Europe. It's where most of the oil and gas come in and most of everything leaves.

And they have a huge warning system. It's this computer warning system that says, OK, the tides are surging, we need to close the barrier. And that actually happened for the second time in history late in 2013, just a few months ago.

DAVIES: So we're talking about a huge metal gate that's as long as the Eiffel Tower is wide but it moves through the water on hinges so that in effect it kind of closes off the water, closes off the port.

FUNK: Yeah. And there's also something that comes up from the bed of the canal there, the passage there. And so it basically just swings closed from both sides and they meet in the middle, these two massive gates. And then this piece comes up from below and it closes it off the entire harbor. Water can't get in, water can't get out.

DAVIES: And the company that built this took a look at New York. What would it take to protect New York, right? Now, tell us what they came up with.

FUNK: They did. Well, a few companies have worked on these. The company that worked in New York was Aracdis, the Dutch company that made, I think, the most amazing presentation at one of these meetings I went to with a bunch of engineers. And it's basically the Maeslantkering, the Maeslant Barrier, modified for New York. And it would go across the narrows. That's the area below the barriers on a bridge. And it would do the same thing. It would swing closed.

Now, that gap across the narrows is actually larger than what they had to span in Rotterdam and, you know, the basic mechanism is the same, though. Storm comes, warning system warns, and the gates swing closed, and Manhattan is protected.

DAVIES: And how big would these gates be?

FUNK: I don't know the exact numbers but they're, again, we're talking Statue of Liberty or more. And that's just for the gates. I mean, if you've ever driven across the Verrazano Bridge you know that it's a massive span and especially if there's traffic it takes a long time to go across. And these are gates that have to swing across and close most of that gap.

DAVIES: And what would it cost, do we know?

FUNK: Estimates are pretty varied at the moment but in the order of $10 billion.

DAVIES: Right. Now, there's a downside. If you have something like, say, Superstorm Sandy or something worse and a storm surge coming, you close the gates, the gates work. The water doesn't disappear, right?

FUNK: Yeah. And I think that that was something that the engineers at Arcadis and in general in Holland they are not slow to point out. I think they're very aware of the fact that when water hits something like this, it spreads out. So if you build gates that block off the Verrazano, then those areas in Brooklyn and Staten Island on either side - on, basically, on the wrong side of that gate - they're going to get a bigger storm surge, I think about two feet or more.

It means that you're protecting Manhattan but you're flooding these generally poorer areas on the outside. I mean, it's sort of a metaphor for a lot of these things with climate change.

DAVIES: Right. But it's one thing to offer an idea to New York which would save Manhattan at the risk of flooding Staten Island. I mean, that would be politically problematic and they haven't put money into that. Are there places in the world where people have bought the technology and are installing it?

FUNK: There are storm surge barriers already in St. Petersburg, Russia. There's one helping protect London. There's - Singapore has something of the sort. There are sea walls outside of Shanghai, although not something quite like this. So - and then of course Venice. That one's quite well known, although that's more because Venice is sinking than because sea levels are rising.

But, yeah, these are being installed. Arcadis, this same company we've talked about, has done a lot of work in New Orleans, in fact, on levies and smaller storm surge barriers. And so this, you know, in recent storms it's worked quite well.

DAVIES: You know, your book describes, you know, private interests that see a chance to make money from the effects of climate change and sovereign states that appear to be positioned to profit. Do you see either the private interests or the governments deliberately influencing public policy to discourage efforts to halt global warming? Are we seeing people who will, you know, happily destroy the planet to make a buck?

FUNK: I have not seen that, no. I think it's an important point to say that the people I have talked to, I don't think they were necessarily bad people. Now, they were looking to make a buck but I don't think many of them were wanting, OK, let's let the planet burn so I can make this buck. It's more that they were sort of hopeless about the prospects. And I don't think there's any lobbying against sort of climate action.

But I wouldn't doubt that the fact that many of us are not going to be as bad off as, say, your average Bangladeshi slows action on climate change. There's - the charge levied at, say, Halliburton that it likes war. I always find that a bit dubious. I think that's the same for these companies. I don't think that they like climate change. I think they're looking to make money in it and I think if there was more of their bottom line at risk that maybe they'd be more pro-climate action. Maybe they'd be pushing harder to stop it.

But actively working against it, I never saw any evidence of that. No. That, for me, after years working on this book was the major takeaway, was this sort of imbalance, the idea of this unevenness of the effects. You know, some of us will get rich off climate change. Some of us will at least be able to pay for the technologies that can protect us.

You know, Manhattan versus Staten Island. That, on a global scale, is pretty important if you want to understand why are we not doing anything about climate change. Sure, there are skeptics but there's also the fact that we in the north and in the west are either going to be fine or even better off, in some rare cases with climate change, or we're going to be able to protect ourselves with these technologies and we can pay for them.

But you're not going to see a lot of the world being able to afford a giant $10 billion sea barrier. You're not going to see a lot of the world being able to afford desalination plants to get water if they're running dry. And you're not going to see all the world being able to buy up farmland if theirs goes fallow. And I think that explains a lot about climate inaction and really raises the moral stakes.

DAVIES: Well, McKenzie Funk, I want to thank you so much for spending some time with us.

FUNK: Well, thank you.

DAVIES: McKenzie Funk's new book is called "Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming." You can download podcasts of our show at Follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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