Stay or Go, and How?

Climate change is happening in real time right now. Temperatures are rising. Storms are intensifying. Permafrost and glaciers are melting. All of these affect sea levels. The oceans absorb much of the planet’s heat, and warmer ocean waters expand onto land. Intense storms can throw sea water far inland, destroying buildings and infrastructure, shifting river flows, and contaminating freshwater supplies with both salt water and waste water. Melting permafrost releases enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, mostly in the form of methane which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so it supercharges atmospheric heating. And melting glaciers are moving water mass from land surfaces to the ocean, acting as giant taps that we can’t turn off.

I talked a bit about water stress earlier this week. Over 400 hundred million people are facing water stress. That is they are living in places where they will not have sufficient water to meet their needs by mid-century at the latest. Somewhere around 450 to 600 hundred million more people are living in places that will be threatened (or just obliterated) by sea level rise and increasingly strong weather systems along coastal regions. As recently as five years ago, science told us these things would happen by the end of the century. Now, science is saying it is happening — now. Around a billion people are living in places that will not support human existence within their lives. Around a billion people need to move.

Where do we put a billion people? Keep in mind two things. One: A billion people is a very conservative estimate that generally doesn’t include many wealthy urban areas that are assumed to be adaptable. Two: Many of the world’s largest urban areas are on seacoasts. So we can’t move more people into these cities because many of these cities need to be moved. 

This is but one of many disasters. But it’s a big one. And I don’t think it’s being discussed. At all.

So what do we do? We could try to engineer these threatened regions to accommodate human life. Yes, we could try, but there are many things we just can’t do. We can’t keep seawater out of groundwater, for example. We can’t reduce evaporation or transpiration from surface water and plants. We may not be able to build seawalls that can withstand increasingly frequent and strong storm surges. We do not have new freshwater sources to tap when existing aquifers dry up or become contaminated. These things we know we can’t fix or even moderate. There are many more variables — from fragile food and energy systems to flood control infrastructure — that will need to be redesigned and rebuilt if humans are to adapt to increasingly hostile conditions.

On the other hand, is it even possible to move a billion people? Yes, Indonesia is moving Jakarta; and yes, with 10.8 million people, that’s not an insubstantial task. But there is a place to put the new capital. What of China with dozens of coastal cities of 5 million or more people and very little near-inland territory that is not similarly densely populated? Shanghai alone has almost 27 million people who will need to move in a couple decades. Where do they go? Similarly, where do we put Tokyo, Mumbai or New York City? All are large cities surrounded by even larger densely populated metropolitan areas. So do we move city centers from the coast to some inland area, leap-frogging over associated metro regions? Or does the whole edifice shift inland? What of Miami? Nearly the entire state of Florida will be submerged well before 2100. And how do we move infrastructure? Water treatment, sewer lines, roads, schools and cultural centers, power and telecommunication grids. Finally, what happens to farmland when cities are on the move?

I do not have any answers. I doubt you have any answers either. But perhaps if we start discussing our vague ideas on the problem, the answers will coalesce. However, no answers will happen as long as the problems remain ignored. So we need to start talking about this.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021


Wednesday Discourse

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1 thought on “Stay or Go, and How?”

  1. It’s tricky, isn’t it? People need to start moving away from the coasts now but cities like New York can’t be moved wholesale, they will have to be dispersed somehow. So businesses and people will need to start relocating mostly to other existing cities. Pretty sure that’s not going to happen though until the large scale can’t come back from this flood and storm disasters begin happening. I mean the housing market in Miami is hot and people keep moving there, which is crazy! Some people will be forced to leave when they can no longer can get or afford flood insurance. Of course lots of money is going to be spent on walls and pumps and other mitigation that will only delay the inevitable.

    We can keep some places from disappearing off the map if we take drastic measures right now to cut emissions but that’s not happening either. Everyone has big goals but the oil is still flowing. The cognitive dissonance of governments, corporations, and most people is maddening. Right now it pretty much seems like the world is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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