Imagined Possibilities & One Bad Storm

“Docility no longer emanates from priestly magic, it results from a mass of minor hypnoses: news, culture, town-planning, publicity, mechanisms of conditioning and suggestion in the service of any order, established or to come.”

—Raoul Vaneigem, “The Revolution of Everyday Life.” Oakland, California: PM Press, 2012.

I was reading an article in The Guardian on the problem of rising seas and coastal real estate in Florida, and it points to an interesting report by the Union of Concerned Scientists called Underwater.

“The declining value and increasingly unlivable condition of coastal homes will be damaging, even devastating, to individual homeowners. It will also have more widespread consequences, including for affected communities, lenders, investors, and taxpayers. Unlike housing market crashes of the past, where property values eventually rebounded in most markets, properties chronically inundated by rising seas will only go further underwater, raising the urgent need for more proactive long-term solutions.”

Union of Concerned Scientists, “Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate.” (Accessed February 18, 2019).

Much of the discussion on climate change is magical thinking. On one end, there are those that deny that it is happening at all. They say, “We had some of the coldest temperatures ever this year!” Pointing out that melting ice in a glass makes the glass colder and more likely to have condensate, just as melting ice caps will make some colder weather with more snow and rain, is not a convincing argument for them. Still, their beliefs do not change the fact that the glass will get warmer once the ice melts.

There are those that take comfort that this is a natural process. “We didn’t do it!” Even if you believe that to be true, it still doesn’t solve the housing problem created by a house made unlivable by repeated flooding.

On the other end, there are those that believe that we will come up with “pro-active long-term solutions,” such as the Union of Concerned Scientists. Presumably, from this perspective, some combination of policy and technology will solve the problem of climate change.

It’s not completely wrong. Given enough time, there may be a solution to climate change. But, the time needed is probably on the order of centuries and not something that can be solved in the lifetimes of people that are currently alive.

Between now and this future solution, the most likely situation is that there are going to be crises in the form of repeated flooding that will make homes unlivable. Floods will contaminate sources of fresh water and ruin crops. When sources of fresh water and crops fail at scale, then there will be food shortages and famine. Ultimately, this will lead to mass migrations and global war. Our current century is the transition, and for the coming century, this will be an ever-present reality.

I once had a friend of mine from West Bengal ask, “When did your family last experience famine?” West Bengal had a famine in 1943, and there have been food shortages in more recent times in rural West Bengal, particularly around the time of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. For her, famine was something in living memory. But, for me, these are problems outside of lived experience for anyone I have known. It’s a question I had never considered before.

I think it is difficult for people to think about the realities of climate change, global war and famine, when they have no experience with them. I’d guess that if you asked the average person whether famine could happen in the United States, most would be unable to imagine the possibility. Still, even here, there are some communities that have experienced food shortages in the past, and they have created cultural practices that attempt to address the possibility of it happening again.

Like famine, I think people cannot imagine climate change and how it might impact their lives. If anything, it probably seems like something that is outside our control. But, like with famine and long term food storage, we can recognize the risks and take some preventative steps.

Returning to the report by the Union of Concerned Scientists mentioned above, the worst case scenario in the next 15 years has these contours:

“With this high sea level rise scenario, we found that within the next 15 years roughly 147,000 existing homes and 7,000 commercial properties—currently worth $63 billion—are at risk of being inundated an average of 26 times per year, or more. About 280,000 people are estimated to live in these homes today; in this time frame many will need to either adapt to regular floods or relocate.”

Predicting the future, fifteen years in advance, is difficult, particularly when we do not have good information. As this report points out, people buying homes are also not given accurate assessments of the risk of flooding. As such, people with conservative risk profiles, which probably applies to anyone who owns or is considering buying a home they live in, will need to factor in the worst case scenario when considering the possibility of being able to live in, resell, or get insurance for their most valuable asset.

For individuals, the most immediate preventive measure is to make sure that you are not one of the people living on property at risk for flooding. Without any way to accurately measure the risk and given the stakes, the wise move is to avoid coastal properties altogether.

There are also network effects. For example, even if high ground is available, the viability of coastal communities may be undermined by flooded coastal homes. If your infrastructure is not compartmentalized and insulated, a breach in the coastal area may undermine the integrity of the entire system, such as salt water entering into fresh water aquifers.

There are also implications from migrations. After Katrina, many people migrated to close communities, like Baton Rouge, and the influx changed the nature of those communities. The majority of people fleeing Katrina went to Texas. While larger cities have more capacity, every city has limits on its ability to supply fresh water, electricity, sewage, trash and other services. On the scale of climate change, these limits will be tested. You may not be in a place immediately impacted by climate change, but migrations caused by climate change will bring the problem to your door as well.

Over half the U.S. population lives in a coastal area, and for many people, moving is not a choice. If you own a property in areas susceptible to flooding, you may not be able to sell your property. Or, you might not be able to uproot yourself from your community and move a significant distance away. This may be a financial and social expense you cannot afford. As Upton Sinclair noted:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary [or way of life] depends on his not understanding it.”

—Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked

Faced with a reality that cannot be changed, perhaps the most reasonable response is to disbelieve in that reality. If you cannot move, it’s probably best to keep hope in the possibility that climate change will not come to you.

And this is true not just for people in coastal areas threatened by flooding and connected networks. It’s true of everyone. Climate change will require a significant reduction in our standard of living in order to survive it. People will not embrace these kinds of changes until they have no other choice.

Even people that believe climate change is happening will continue to employ magical thinking and talk about “solutions” that involve imaginary policy initiatives we could take but won’t and technologies that will solve the problem of climate change, in the future. Technological solutions will continue to be described as if they are near term possibilities, but they will likely be realized much later, if at all.

In the meantime, we wait for the disruption. Like the developer in South Beach from The Guardian article who says, “I’m worried we’re one bad storm away from a rush for the exits,” we are waiting for the crisis that drives away those that can afford to escape. Then, we’ll see those Gallup poll numbers on climate change go up.

The time to prepare for a famine, or climate change, is before it happens. The problems of climate change aren’t going to go away, and there is no magic solution. The only thing we can do as make what individual preparations we can and reduce our exposure to the risks, many of which we will not be able to anticipate.