From sea to rising sea
Omar El Akkad in Oregon: Climate change is Americans' most pressing existential threat, and no community will be immune from the transformations to come. Yet many don't see the danger coming – and those that do have their work cut out for them
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In a country founded on the pioneer mythology of the people taming the land, it's difficult to imagine a future defined by the exact opposite.
In April of this year, I drove with a local environmental activist to the outskirt towns that border Miami. He wanted to show me a gated community near the Atlantic coast. We parked behind one of the easternmost villas. Quietly, he walked to the back of the home and pointed to the fence that marked the property line. Not far from the fence, the waterline rested – another metre or so and it would consume the fence, and perhaps the houses that lay behind it.
Just a few months earlier, oblivious to the seriousness of the problem, the activist who showed me this place had purchased one of these houses. The rising sea – and the community's unwillingness to deal with it – now threatened the place he called home.
Climate change still represents the most serious existential crisis in the United States. In California, an unprecedented four-year drought threatens the country's most important agricultural hub. In Louisiana, a century of levees and heavy industry is driving coastal land loss to the tune of a football field's worth of land every 45 minutes. And in places such as South Florida, residents and politicians are having a harder and harder time ignoring the possibility that, in a century or less, entire towns and cities may no longer be habitable.
By all these measures, climate change should have been the single most heavily covered story in the United States this year. But it wasn't.
Amidst a wide array of national crises, the prospect of environmental ruin often proves simply too abstract, the consequences too distant, the reality too easy to ignore.
JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Part of the problem is perspective. Even as it threatens the very existence of some of the country's most iconic cities – Miami and New Orleans, La., among them – climate change often seems to lack the immediate urgency of other social ills in the United States. Issues of violence and racial inequity provide no shortage of visceral moments – the killing of an unarmed African-American, the chaotic aftermath of a mass shooting. But beyond cracked lake beds and snowless mountain caps, climate change offers no such imagery.
Instead, the worst environmental crises will play out over decades – far too slow-burning in a political environment that rarely concerns itself with anything beyond the date of the next election.
That's why so few climate scientists studying places such as Miami are optimistic about the pace and adequacy of planning in these cities. Should sea levels rise two metres in the next hundred years – near the top end of current projections – much of South Florida's infrastructure will collapse. That, in turn, will spur a massive northward migration – an economic, cultural and human upheaval.
But there exists no short-term political or financial incentive to do anything about it. The lifespan of the average mortgage is 30 years, the lifespan of an average political career about the same. Imposing economic pain today – in the form of increased taxes, expensive research or more stringent environmental regulations, to say nothing of modifications to major infrastructure – in order to prepare for a crisis outside that 30-year time frame is no way to win an election.
Instead, whatever happens in many coastal regions will likely come as a series of shocks: the day the risk of rising water forces credit-rating firms to cut a city's or state's outlook, or the day insurance companies finally decide all those beautiful beachfront homes aren't worth the risk.
Optimists, nonetheless, will find at least some reason to rejoice. After all, 2015 marked a watershed moment in the global movement to fight climate change. As the year came to a close, 195 countries signed on to the Paris climate agreement. The historic document contains myriad pledges aimed at controlling carbon emissions and keeping the planet's average temperature in check. It is, in many ways, an audacious plan, one whose actual price tag is never definitively specified, but could run to $100-billion (U.S.) or more a year.
But it's what comes next that matters. In the world of environmental protection, it is often the case that the most well-covered agreements and photo-ops involve world leaders, but the most innovative and significant work is done on a much smaller scale – by individual states, cities and by local activists. And much of that work, at least in the United States, has been driven not by some grand, forward-looking vision, but by a growing sense of panic.
In the spring of this year, with virtually the entire state suffering from a prolonged drought, California imposed a sweeping order to cut urban water usage by 25 per cent. In the small town of South Miami, Fla., one of the most susceptible places to rising sea levels in the country, Mayor Philip Stoddard is one of the very few politicians willing to talk about what an orderly migration in the coming decades should look like.
It is precisely that issue – how to begin planning for the vastly complex prospect of permanent, long-term adaptions to climate change – that will mark the most important chapter of the country's climate-change story. Unlike the residents of so many of the world's barrier islands, the people living on the U.S. coastlands have far more resources to enable them to plan and to move. Already, in many corners of the country, signs of such mini-migration are evident. Some California almond farmers, plagued for years by drought, are starting to trickle northward into Oregon.
But the question remains: What happens when those who can't easily afford to move are forced into movement? What happens when the trickle turns into a flood?
A partial answer, at least, will be found in the inevitable one-off shocks that come between now and whenever the seas rise enough to force permanent relocation. There will be bigger hurricanes, wilder wildfires – and in the aftermath of each, there will be clues as to which parts of the country are still worth trying to save. In southern Louisiana, for example, the state is building several levees to brace for the next Katrina. But they are not building them at the current water's edge. Rather, the levees are being constructed further north, designed to protect the higher ground upstate. Whatever infrastructure already exists south of those levees is essentially, in the long-run, a sunk cost.
In the meantime, there's little reason to believe climate change will feature any more prominently in U.S. public discourse next year than it did in 2015. As the country heads into the thick of a deeply polarized presidential election – one in which many of the candidates reject the notion of human-driven climate change altogether – the national news agenda promises to be even more crowded. And while some candidates will undoubtedly present thorough environmental policies, few will see any upside to tackling the prospect that, in a few decades, some parts of this country may no longer be livable.
Near Miami, they're building a wall. It's about one-metre high, an ocean beach ahead of it and a string of expensive houses behind it. It's designed, at least in theory, to reduce damage to the nearby streets and infrastructure the next time a big hurricane comes through.
As a public-works project, it's wildly expensive – about $10-million a mile. But it represents at least, a single concrete solution to a single concrete problem; a wall to hold back a hurricane.
Anything more than that, anything that requires a fundamental rethinking of whether places such as South Florida can continue to support large-scale residential life in an era of warming seas and changing climate, is a far tougher sell.
Omar El Akkad reports from Portland, Ore.