Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Climate: We All Need to Be Futurists Now

Image from New York Times interactive map showing flooding
(in light blue) projected from a 5 foot sea level rise - the area around
 Sacramento is vulnerable to very severe flooding from breached levees.

On a long drive from Berkeley to Los Angeles this past January, I tried to stretch my mind as broadly as possible about the future situation we face. As I left one coastal California metropolis to visit another coastal California metropolis, I spent about four hours traversing the state's Central Valley, and it was the perfect place to mediate on the interrelationships of climate, migration, economic development, political culture, and more. Those reflections jolted me to attention, and led me to write California and Climate Crisis: The End?

For the past six months or so, I have found my mind returning again and again to those issues. Each time I think I know the one most important thing that I want to share, I find that new questions overtake me.

Maybe the best thing to do is to start by sharing the questions . . . .

(1) Why aren't we talking about "retreat"?
A few months ago, I read the book Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change by Ashley Dawson. It put facts around my sense that we're kidding ourselves when all we talk about is holding the rising sea back; we need to be talking about retreat.

This has been a growing concern of mine since at least 2013, when I wrote NYC + H2O = Uh-oh! Now that I live in the Bay Area, and I have friends who are scientists here, I am hearing in real time from them that there are significant areas near where I live that are at risk.

(2) Can investors possibly be blind to the coastal inundation threat? I have been particularly mystified by the "it's all a hoax" posture on the political right. Frankly, it doesn't matter what people say on Fox or in Twitter feeds; what really matters is where smart money is going. (See The Feel-Good Folly of Fossil-Fuel Valuation.) So how can it be possible that investors aren't fleeing anything that is associated with the risk of sea level rise? Why aren't they pulling back behind a safe margin?

(3) Will poor people be left holding the bag? A simple explanation is that society at large (and particularly the investor class) is taking sea level rise in stride because it's really just a small segment of the population that will be hurt -- the poor. ("The poor will have to be satisfied with whatever relief the rest of us deign to provide them.")

(4) Will the 99% be left holding the bag?  Another explanation is that, no matter what costs have to be born as coastal inundation happens, the 1% can count on the government to foot the bill. There will be a bail-out. It will be another "too big to fail" situation.

(5) Are we really that feckless? Places like New Orleans and Miami have a strange utility for people in the rest of the country, who are able to say, "Well, perhaps something bad is coming, but anyway Miami will have to deal with it long before we have to, here . . . . "

(6) Is higher ground the answer? Living in Berkeley, where I can glance up to all the elegant houses perched on the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay, it's easy to think, "Well, certainly they are in a safe place!" But I wonder if we underestimate how devastating it will be to our overall community and economy when even just a few percent of the businesses, infrastructure, and housing close to the Bay is compromised. At what point does "their problem" become "our problem"?

(7) Do we underestimate the impact of concurrent disaster? I sense there is a tendency to say, "Sure, coastal inundation is terrifying -- but we do know how to respond. Look at all the instances of hurricane recovery that we've done!" I fear people have not begun to take seriously what it means to be trying to hold back the sea in many locations at once.

Take a look at the interactive page set up by the New York Times -- "What Could Disappear" -- that let's you simulate what's in store for cities/regions like Boston, Baltimore, Charleston, Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Long Island, Miami, Mobile, New Jersey, New Orleans, New York City, Northern California, Philadelphia, Portland(both ME and OR), Providence, San Diego, Savannah, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Virginia Beach/Norfolk, Washington, Wilmington  . . . all at the same time . . . !

(8) Do we face unimaginable levels of human migration? If different parts of the US are at odds with each other over immigration today, what is it going to look like in years to come when many more millions are displaced in our immediate vicinity and worldwide due to sea level rise?

(9) Is it possible it's all going to come down on us faster than we expect? When I began reading the California reports I referenced in my January post, I noticed that much bigger, faster levels of sea level rise and inundation were projected than anything you typically hear about. I realized the full story is not reaching us. This was partly explained in Extreme Cities, which ways that scientists have become conditioned to behave "conservatively," i.e. not emphasize the direst possibilities, because if they do, people will stop listening to them.

What happens if we open our ears to the scientists' full story? A story in the East Bay Express this spring provided an epiphany for me:

Scientists predict that by 2100, global sea levels will rise 2 to 8 feet. And so far, the previous lower-end predictions of climate change have turned out to be too conservative. Some scientists also warn that a rapid disintegration of Antarctica's ice sheets could cause sea levels to jump 4 to 10 feet by century's end.

John Radke, a UC Berkeley associate professor of City and Regional Planning, has been examining models of likely impacts from sea-level rise on the Bay Area and California. He said the real threat from higher seas in the region will come from powerful storm surges during periods of heavy rain and high tides. "The storms are going to be more frequent," he said. "And the storms are going to be stronger."

Storm surge events will flood coastal areas, inflicting costly damage on shoreline homes and infrastructure. Radke said that, in the coming decades, Bay Area transportation officials will probably have to abandon Interstate 880 through Oakland, because it won't be worth repairing after it washes away repeatedly during floods. "If enough catastrophes happen, we might wake up," he said.

(See "The East Bay's Future Climate Will Be Both Dry and Wet" by Robert Gammon, East Bay Express, February 14, 2018.)

To imprint this reality on your brain, I recommend the documentary Chasing Ice. If you still think we've got all the time in the world, you'll change your mind after watching footage of a glacier edge the size of lower Manhattan disintegrate over the course of an hour.

(10) Will the US actually fall far behind the rest of the world in responding to sea level rise? The Trump Administration withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords woke people up to something they may not have thought about before: other countries may be doing it better. I'm particularly curious about what happens in more centrally-planned economies, that may be better accustomed to long-term thinking and national infrastructure management.

About five years ago I begin thinking about the parallel situations of the US and China in dealing with the climate crisis. (See #chinaEARTHusa - Radical Change? or Planetocide?) I now wonder if China may do a much better job than the US, when all is said and done.

More to come on each of these questions . . . .

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