Orderly Abandonment

The world is on track for a four to eight foot rise in sea levels by the end of this century. (The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, pg. 59.) The highest point in the Miami city limits is about seven feet above sea level. The Mayor of Miami recently had huge pumps installed to push water out of downtown during days of high tides. But that won’t save the city in the long run. The land on which Miami is situated is resting on a bed of limestone– which is porous to water. Miami could never build a seawall high enough to keep the oceans out.

The average elevation of New Orleans is one to two feet below sea level. When Katrina hit the storm surge inundated the Ninth Ward to such a depth that most houses were covered to their rooftops. And these are only two of the coastal cities in the United States that are destined to become uninhabitable when the waters rise.

We all know that American political and business leaders are too selfish and cowardly to call for the prevention of climate catastrophe. Some have argued that snowfall is proof that the world’s climate isn’t getting hotter; others that the climate has changed many times in the past and that therefore it’s not a human problem to solve; others that even if the climate is warming and humans are responsible for some portion of it, global warming is a problem that humans cannot solve because it would cost too much.

These various arguments all have an element of truth, but they are all completely wrong in the broader context of the present scale of climate change. Yes, it does indeed continue to snow in many parts of the world today– but that’s an example of weather, not of climate. Yes, the climate has warmed dramatically many times in the past, and often due to massive increases of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gasses) being injected into the atmosphere. What’s different today is that the carbon that is being spewed into the atmosphere is for the first time being produced by processes that are under human control. Yes, the costs of addressing the changing climate are likely to be immense. But the costs of doing nothing will certainly be even more immense. The loss of massive regions of human habitation will inevitably result in the liquidation of trillions of dollars of real estate value. That will inevitably result in the impoverishment of millions of property owners all around the world. The vast majority of those property owners will become refugees who will be forced to flee to more habitable regions of the planet, thereby creating what is certain to be history’s largest and most violent mass migration.

The time to have saved Miami and New Orleans– and the many other low lying great cities of the world– would have been 40 years ago. There would have been ample time then to develop long term plans that could have minimized the effects of climate change. But we are well past that point now. We are now at a point where it is too late to save low lying cities like Miami, or sweltering regions of the world like sub-Saharan Africa. Our best option at this point is to plan for the orderly abandonment of the regions we know cannot survive rising sea levels and burning heat. Step one of such a plan would be to halt all new construction and refurbishment of existing structures in these regions– immediately. Step two would be to disallow the resale of any existing buildings that rising waters or excess heat have rendered unusable. And step three would be to sell off buildings for scrap as they become unusable. These steps at least offer the possibility of limiting the scope of financial ruin that will inevitably engulf those who own property in hazardous regions. Such a policy may seem cruel, but at least it would be more honest than to hope for a salvation that has virtually no likelihood of materializing.

Written 2020-02-02.

Copyright (c) 2020 David S. Moore. All rights reserved.

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