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If We Fail

The effects of climate change are already upon us. Here's what the 2020s and 2030s will look like if we fail to change things.

The climate crisis is often imagined as a sudden, all-encompassing, simultaneous collapse in which agriculture fails, the seas flood in, disease spreads, and human civilization crumbles into Hobbesian war of all against all. But in reality, some crises will appear more immediately and others will take a long time to arrive, and if we act with speed and purpose some can still be avoided.

In the near term, perhaps starting in the 2020s or 2030s, the foremost problem will probably be a new climate-driven urban crisis of disinvestment, abandonment, and depopulation caused by rising sea levels and large inundating storms that will leave rotting urban infrastructure. As the water rises and the floods increase in severity and regularity, the once posh shoreline will be the new ghetto.

A new, climate-driven urban crisis could have major negative impacts on other parts of the global economy. The collapse of coastal real estate markets could trigger broader crises in financial markets while loss of the communication and transportation links provided by major cities could hurt the real economy. A climate-driven economic depression is not out of the question.

Here Comes the Ocean

Even if we drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions and stripped CO₂ from the atmosphere so as to stabilize temperature increases at no more than 2°C above the 1990 baseline, we are locked in for significantly higher sea levels. Melting Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, mountain glacier loss, and the expansion of ocean water volume due to its higher temperature are driving the sea level rise.

On the east coast of the US, the ocean is rising three to four times faster than the global averages, which are themselves rising at an accelerating rate. In 1993 the annual rate of sea level rise was 2.2 millimeters a year; in 2014 it had reached 3.3 millimeters a year. By 2100, global average sea levels could be 2 meters to 2.7 meters, that’s 6 to almost 9 feet, higher. Since 1900, sea levels on the East Coast have risen by about a foot, according to the federally funded National Climate Assessment.

This is usually invoked in threats that entire cities will be “underwater.” But in the meantime, the rising oceans are slowly but steadily reshaping property values, urban landscapes, and city dynamics.

Storms vs. Urban Infrastructure

The real threat is not so much the slow and steady increase of average sea levels but rather, the major inundations caused by large storm surges. These floods damage the infrastructure as a whole, not just its edges. During Hurricane Sandy the storm surge that hit lower Manhattan was 9.23 feet higher than a typical high tide.

When infrastructure gets damaged, even unharmed properties that depend on the damaged electrical, transportation, and water systems lose value.

A few inundations in quick succession could start a process of combined physical and socioeconomic decline. As the time and tremendous expense needed to repair water-damaged underground electric and telecoms lines, subways and rail lines, drinking water and wastewater treatment systems, and power stations becomes apparent, property owners will start panic selling.

When it becomes clear that sea walls were not constructed in time and vital infrastructure has started to collapse, property values will follow, possibly triggering broader financial panics

If properly planned for, one can imagine how such problems could be managed. But if the current denial continues until markets are caught unaware, there could be regional real estate panics and, flowing from those, major financial losses.

New York City’s Department of Finance recently estimated the total assessed value of the city’s property for fiscal year 2017 at more than $1 trillion. That is real money, enough to help trigger problems in financial markets more broadly.

Collapsed property values means a collapsed tax base, which means local government will be hard pressed to make costly infrastructure repairs. And it is the infrastructure as a whole that property values depend on.

Hurricane Katrina, which famously hit New Orleans in 2005 and was quickly followed up by Hurricane Rita, offers a hint of what to expect.

Professor Bernard Weinstein, at the University of North Texas, has estimated the cost of those combined storms as $250 billion in both direct and indirect damage. Weinstein found: 113 offshore oil and gas platforms destroyed, 457 oil and gas pipelines damaged, and almost as much oil spilled as during the Exxon Valdez disaster. Katrina destroyed almost half of New Orleans’s levies, wiped out most of the sugar crop, and wreaked havoc on the oyster industry. Insurance companies paid out $80 billion.

Most shockingly, Katrina killed 1,836 people across the Gulf, most of them senior citizens who were trapped in houses or abandoned in nursing homes.

We forget the magnitude of this damage in part because the real estate and entertainment industries in New Orleans embraced the rebuilding process with such gusto and denial. They were, after all, thrilled that the storm did its worst damage to poor black neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward.

Since Katrina, the Eastern Seaboard has been lucky. An unusually high percentage of hurricanes have been turning out to sea rather than making landfall. Ironically, recent research by James P. Kossin suggests this might be a short-term side effect of global warming. Just as a hotter sea surface temperature creates more hurricanes, a hotter land mass creates more vigorous vertical wind shear, which acts to block the arrival of hurricanes. That said, this natural protective pattern is not perfect, storms do make landfall, and the pattern of wind shear blocking hurricanes will likely change as other elements of the climate system are transformed.

Regardless, with a rapidly rising sea level, the near-future promises more metropolis-flooding mega storms.

Defensive Preparations

The New York City tristate area offers a glimpse into the possibilities and pathologies of planning for sea-level rise. After 2012, when Hurricane Sandy did $50 billion in economic damage, including destroying or damaging 650,000 homes, it was clear something needed to be done. Eventually Congress allocated about $60 billion in federal aid for recovery and resilience work in the impacted area. But the pace of disbursement has been painfully slow.

One example is repairing the L line’s Canarsie Tunnel, connecting northern Brooklyn to Manhattan. Flooded during Sandy, the tunnel is now badly corroded and is set for a $477 million, one-and-a-half-year closure for a vital overhaul. That’s just one short tunnel.

The city is now building a barrier around lower Manhattan, called the “Big U.” Designed to be covered with grass and serve as public open space, the wall will run from 42nd on the east side, along the shore, and up to 57th street on the west side. Construction will take years and cost billions.

At this rate and in this fashion, it is hard to imagine how the city’s entire 520-mile coastline could be secured. Worse yet, half preparations are, in some ways, as bad as no preparation. As the Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell said of New York City’s largely symbolic efforts thus far, “Barriers, dikes and levees make people feel safe, even when they are not.”

Meanwhile, in a clear subsidy to unsustainable gentrification, the city is also planning to build a $2.5 billion tramline along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront, where old industrial warehouses are giving way to luxury high-rises. Similar insanity is found in New Jersey, where several groups of coastal homeowners, many of whom have subsidized government-provided flood insurance, are suing to prevent construction of protective sand dunes.

Eventually, cities that did not build sea barriers soon enough and high enough will get hit. Inundated by storms coming in close succession, some cities will find themselves too broke to rebuild their infrastructure and a process of real and metaphoric rot will set in. As public services decline, so will property values, each feeding the other; the rotting and molding landscape will be the visual symptom of a political-economic spiral of a shrinking tax base, disinvestment, and abandonment.

Eventually, those who can will leave the coast. A study by University of Georgia demographer Mathew Hauer projects that 250,000 people in New Jersey will be forced to move by rising seas by 2100. In Florida, Hauer projects that 2.5 million people will have to leave their homes by that date.

Perhaps some of the ravaged coastal cities will become sources of scrap. High-quality housing stock in dying coastal cities might be worth disassembling by scavengers in search of bricks, copper pipe, slate tiles, windows, doors, and old-growth hardwood lumber to sell to inland construction markets. We’ve seen that pattern in the Rust Belt: for much of the 1990s St. Louis’s top export was old bricks bound for the booming Sunbelt where its rubble was repurposed as patios bought on credit.

What will happen in Dhaka, Lagos, Karachi, or Rio? All are megacities situated on flat terrain close to sea level in countries already in crisis, legendary for corruption and poor planning. One has to assume that as the future impacts of climate change become obvious, many more people will migrate inland or attempt to go abroad.

Infrastructural Choke Points

The geography of global capitalism relies disproportionally on coastal cities as seats of commerce, trade, research, transportation, and education. They are the nodes that link the world economy together.

Much industrial production and the global food system, for example, depends not only on what happens in factories and fields but also on a small number of infrastructure bottlenecks along international supply chains at key ports, airports, road and rail links, and politically sensitive maritime straits like the Panama and Suez canals.

A recent study by the British think tank Chatham House found that 55 percent of the global grain trade passes through one of fourteen “chokepoints,” all of which are vulnerable to extreme weather like local flooding, rising sea levels, and the associated political and military conflict.

Shut enough of the chokepoints and the global flow of food will be threatened. Chatham House found that about 20 percent of global wheat exports pass through the Turkish Straits. Similarly, more than 25 percent of global soybean exports pass through the Straits of Malacca, which run between Malaysia and Indonesian.

The world got a glimpse of how local flooding can impact global supply chains in 2011 when flooding in Thailand inundated much of Bangkok, including more than 1,000 industrial facilities that made everything from cars and cameras to hard drives. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction estimates the Thai floods reduced global industrial production by 2.5 percent. The world’s top three insurance companies paid out $5.3 billion in claims.

The Permanent Emergency

As coastal cities slide into ruin and those who can migrate inland do so, inequality and relative depravation will increase. Those left behind will be angry and have little stake in maintaining a social order that leaves them in a sacrifice zone. Who will be the last one out? If American history thus far offers answers, the poorest of the poor, undocumented climate refugees, might be the scavengers and squatters in the dead cities.

One can imagine left-wing social movements emerging in these zones, or entirely reactionary millenarian ones, or just widespread, apolitical criminality. Any and all of these will, in lieu of radical social change, be met with an increasingly repressive paramilitary state response — checkpoints, SWAT patrols, National Guard, racist and rightist vigilantism.

We saw the patterns previewed on the Gulf Coast after Katrina. When local governments offered help to New Orleans, most of it came as heavily armed police. This was in large part because after almost fifty years of federally subsidized law-and-order, most cities and counties have a surplus of repressive capacity, yet almost nothing in the way of disaster-oriented civil defense.

A permanent state of emergency in the moldering, coastal, muck zones could become the norm. Thus the rising waters of climate change threaten to erode not only beaches but also civil liberties.

Mass migration and a racist backlash to it are already hallmarks of the early climate crisis. By the 2030s and 2040s, far more people will likely be on the move. Already, right-wing demagogues from Arizona to Cote d’Ivoire, to Myanmar, to Paris have been raging against the outsiders. Too often the demagogues successfully ride the fear and rage to power, and once there, turn state repression against immigrants and other poor people.

Thus, as drought, neoliberalism, and militarism produce crises, warfare, and waves of refugees in the Global South, in the North they produce a reactive, opportunistic, authoritarian state hardening.

Solutions

The good news is we have all the technologies we need to save civilization from climate collapse: solar and wind electrical grids; electric vehicles; the ability to re-wild wetlands and build artificial barriers to break and block the power of the sea. And we very well can develop the political capabilities to win over a majority behind the policies that will preserve the health and security of that majority.

Just as importantly, we already have the technology to strip CO₂ from the atmosphere. That technology is fairly simple and has been in submarines for decades. The problem was always how to safely store the CO₂.

Now, scientists in Iceland have recently created a process that strips CO₂ from the atmosphere and turns it into rock. The process is called “enhanced weathering” because it mimics one of the natural processes by which CO₂ is washed out of the atmosphere and bound to rockworks by mixing carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide with water, and injecting it underground into Basalt rock formations. Within two years, the CO₂ in the water mixture “precipitates” into a white, chalky solid, a carbonate rock similar to limestone. Lucky for us, Basalt rock, the feedstock of this process, is one of the most common rock types on Earth.

Already, in Reykjavik, a geothermal power plant strips and stores 5,000 metric tons of CO₂ a year. That only equals the annual emissions of about 2,000 cars. But the point is we have the technical ability to strip atmospheric CO₂ and safely store it.

H owever, like proper defense of cities from the sea, there is no way the profit motive or market relations can bring this technology to scale. The world economy is producing about 40 billion metric tons of carbon emissions a year. At current prices, stripping out this much emissions would cost about 24 trillion dollars, a sum equal to 133 percent of the annual US GDP.

Free-market boosters for enhanced weathering technology push the idea of selling its artificially created limestone as building material. The economics don’t make any sense. Why buy expensive rock when cheaper natural rock is available?

Clearly the private sector and the profit motive cannot deploy enhanced weathering technology at the scale needed, nor push a rapid energy transition, nor build coastal protections at the scale and speed necessary. But none of these tasks is technically or economically impossible. The mechanism needed in each case is state action and the public sector.

One more bit of good news. A radical climate solution, counterintuitive perhaps, requires that we use more, not less, energy. But energy, in the form of solar energy, is the one economic input that is truly infinite.

Our mission as a species is not to retreat from, or to preserve, something called “nature,” but rather to become fully conscious environment makers. Extreme technology under public ownership will be central to a socialist project of civilizational rescue, or civilization will not last.